American Essence

Alabama Couple Married for Five Decades Share Their Secret to Everlasting Love

BY Karim Shamsi-Basha TIMEMarch 15, 2022 PRINT

The letters’ edges are beginning to fray, and decades of time have cast a yellow tint on the fragile notebook paper. The date, 1971, is inscribed on the upper right-hand corner. The handwriting is eager, longing; and the sentences are sweet and amorous: “It’s difficult for me to explain how I felt when your plane took off,” and “I love you Karen and at times it so fills me with warmth.” Sweet love prose is sprinkled throughout the letters Greg and Karen Jeane exchanged while they were apart. She had kept them in a cherished box for 50 years.

They say best friends make the best lovers, but we all know there are no absolutes when it comes to love. Love is fluid. Love is always in motion—mysterious, demanding, ubiquitous, and hard to find at the same time. In his famous book, “The Prophet,” 19th-century poet Khalil Gibran said this about love:

When love beckons to you, follow him,
Though his ways are hard and steep.
And when his wings enfold you yield to him,
Though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you.
And when he speaks to you believe in him,
Though his voice may shatter your dreams as the north wind lays waste the garden.

Karen and Greg Jeane’s love blossomed from their close friendship while attending the University of Georgia. They went to lunch and swimming and other activities with others and as friends. Karen had been dating someone else. But when she returned home for the summer, something happened that drastically changed the course of her life.

“I never thought of Greg other than a friend, and I kept on saying, ‘my friend Greg,’ and, ‘my friend Greg.’ My mother said, ‘I wish you would stop referring to him as “my friend.” He’s obviously more than that.’”

The Dawn of Love

Her mother’s statement felt like a glass of cold water on Karen’s face. She realized at that moment that she loved Greg. She loved her best friend.

“He came back to Atlanta that summer. We had our first date, and he kissed me. It was magical,” Karen blushed while gazing at Greg. He peered right back at her. Then, they squeezed hands and nodded. The nod was subtle but all-knowing.

Greg added, “And it continued to be magical to this day. After we had six dates that summer, I asked Karen to marry me, and she accepted. Then I got my Ph.D., and we moved to Auburn [in Alabama], where I taught geography.”

Karen and Greg wrote love letters to each other while apart. One summer, Greg went to Europe for six weeks. The letters continued. They were married upon his return in 1971, and their love became profound and immeasurable.

Could Tragedy Bring Lovers Closer?

Karen became pregnant with their first baby, and the happy couple beamed. The American dream was happening. Karen had a baby shower, bought a crib, and prepared all that went with a tiny bundle of love. But while Greg was out of town, Karen’s water broke, when she was six months pregnant. “We rushed to the hospital, and they delivered baby Allison, but she only lived for a few minutes. It was heart-wrenching and devastating. I thought it was my fault. When Greg returned, he was so kind and comforting, and he gently convinced me that I was not responsible. The tragedy of losing baby Allison will always make me sad, but it also reminds me of the kind man I married.”

Greg squeezed Karen’s hand again, the hand he held the entire time of the interview. They looked at each other, and something mysterious transpired in the light air between them, something bigger than any tragedy.

The Magic of Ardent Love

Still holding Karen’s hand, Greg peered into the distance like he just saw a ship’s sail after being stranded on an island. “The past 50 years have been more than I can ever describe. I can’t even imagine not being married to Karen. It’s a powerful statement, but I really couldn’t. We have been through a lot together.”

Karen grinned, adding, “I love what Greg says about our marriage: Our stuff will always be in the same wagon. It’s the truth: our worlds rhyme. I knew early on that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with Greg. Life flows easily in between us, and we enjoy it, this life.”

Greg and Karen sang in the choir of Independent Presbyterian Church in Birmingham for 18 years, and they still attend concerts and musical events. They read, take walks, and enjoy life with all of its surprises.

Karen summed up her 50 years of love with Greg: “The early romance will always be there, but what becomes equally important is the knowing, the respect, the trust, the mutual enjoyment, the sharing of everything, and the delight in serving each other.” Karen added, “I have absolutely loved being married to this wonderful man. Truly, the secret of our lasting marriage is the fact that I married my best friend.”

Greg peered lovingly at Karen, then down at their love letters scattered on the kitchen table. The 50-year-old papers with eager handwriting are tinted yellow, their edges frayed. Both reached for a letter and their hands touched. They smiled at each other, leaned over the table, and kissed.

This article was originally published in American Essence magazine.

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