GOLDSBORO — When Robert Gerald asked his wife to marry, she took his hand with these humble words of warning:
"I can't cook, but I make good gravy."
After 80 years, it still doesn't matter.
Robert and Virginia Gerald celebrate an incredible eight decades together on April 12 - nearly all of them at 212 Gerald Street, a house they've inhabited for so long, and populated with so many offspring, that the city named the road after them.
"She was a pretty little girl," said the 97-year-old groom, his mind walking the long path back to 1933. "Had long hair down her back."
As far as anyone could tell us, the pair has been married longer than any couple still living in North Carolina. They speak of a world few of us can recognize.
Robert walked to school each day, 10 miles from Princeton to Selma.
Later, for high school in Goldsboro, he rode his bicycle - never learning to drive a car until he'd reached his 60s.
When he first saw Virginia, Robert asked her mother for permission to visit.
Mother allowed their courtship on Wednesday and Sunday evenings, provided he arrive no earlier than 7:30 p.m. and leave by 9 p.m.
Their dates consisted of walking up and down the street.
"She was a little shy," Robert recalled, adding quickly, "That didn't last long."
Robert was 17 when he proposed; Virginia only 15. Within a year, they had a son. Then a daughter. Then two more sons. Then eight more daughters.
Eleven children in all.
"That was the crying-est one," Robert said, pointing to his 73-year-old daughter, Annette.
"That's because I was smartest," Annette shot back.
Robert worked for a local doctor, cleaning his office, fetching his mail, tending his flowers. He designed his own house, where three of his children would be born.
Later, he ran a dry-cleaning business and worked in a hospital.
Virginia stayed home, taking care of house and babies. When they had grown, she cleaned at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base.
But she never grew tired of Robert's company. "You better not," she joked at age 95. "All those children ..."
In their house, you had to go to church. You had to finish high school. Drop out of either one and you'd be looking for someplace else to sleep.
If you were a boyfriend to one of the Gerald girls, you got shown the door at 9 p.m. If you were standing on the front porch, getting ready to ring the bell, the door shut and locked in your face. When his daughters married, he told his sons-in-law he hoped they'd stay together. But if they had to separate, he'd better get his child back looking exactly as he gave her away.
Robert still dresses sharply at age 97: gray slacks, white collared shirt and a cardigan. He walks with a pair of canes. He keeps a Bible in every room of the house. The cover has nearly worn off the copy nearest to his easy chair.
Virginia is in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease, but old memories still come easily to her. "I feel all right," she said.
The couple allowed me to visit their Goldsboro home on Friday, where I met two daughters, a son-in-law and grandchild. Every inch of wall space in the living room - other than the light switches - is covered in family portraits. When I ask about grandchildren, a friendly debate arises over the true number: Is it 36 or 40?
Robert indicates milestones in his life by pointing. He motions across the street to the barbecue pit he dug for the first family reunion back in the 1940s. He points down the block to the garden, where he tended vegetables, supplementing Virginia's gravy.
He bows his head a little at the inevitable request for advice. "Love one another till death do you part," he said. "Remember that God is in charge. Be humble and have patience. Behind every cloud, the sun will rise again in your life."
It still works after 80 years.