They’re neighbors, but the Cunninghams and the Balkams have never met. The elderly couples, who live in the same Rockville retirement community, have seen and heard of each other only in passing.
On Wednesday, both couples will celebrate a rare occasion: their 70th wedding anniversaries.
“Such a small world. And getting smaller all the time,” says Jeanne Cunningham, 88, who lives at Ingleside at King Farm with her husband, Keith, 89.
It was Colleen Prosise, a social worker at Ingleside, who noticed the shared wedding date. She was at a community meeting when Robert Balkam, 91, announced that he and his wife, Laurin, 89, were having a party to celebrate the anniversary of their wedding June 6, 1942. Jeanne Cunningham, who was at the same meeting, mentioned that she and Keith had wed on the same day.
As Prosise and other Ingleside staff members dug deeper, they found more similarities between the Cunningham and Balkam love stories.
Both couples met on blind dates, which were followed by short engagements. (The Cunninghams were engaged less than a year; the Balkams for less than a week.) Both marriages began with long separations because Keith Cunningham and Robert Balkam were deployed to Europe to fight in World War II.
It was a time long before e-mail, Facebook or Skype, and the newlywed couples went months at a time without any contact. Still, their love persisted, and both husbands returned to their wives safely.
“It is just such a heartwarming story,” Prosise says.
The elderly couples, unlike the younger staff members, shrug off the coincidences. “Many marriages started like that in the good old days,” Jeanne Cunningham says.
Looking back, the “good old days” weren’t always perfect. Between them, the Cunninghams and the Balkams have survived war, lost a child, compromised career dreams and endured age-related medical problems. But the couples also worked hard, raised children and stuck together.
And they have much to teach others about keeping a marriage intact for 70 years.
“In a marriage, you give a lot, and you take a lot. But you have to give more than you take,” Jeanne says. “You’re bound to have disagreements. You’re bound to have words. But you just keep smiling. We still say, ‘I love you,’ to each other every day. Every night, we fall asleep holding hands.”
Robert and Laurin Balkam say their biggest accomplishment has been preserving their love through tough times.
“No marriage has begun until the partners recognize their basic incompatibility,” says Robert Balkam, quoting the writer G.K. Chesterton.
“It’s what you do with that incompatibility that is the crux of the matter,” Robert says. “I was so insecure and Laurin was so strong. She saw something in me that I never could. And I’m a better man for knowing her.”
This week, the Cunninghams and the Balkams, who still have no plans to formally meet, will separately celebrate their anniversaries.
Keith and Jeanne will renew their vows on Wednesday at Ingleside in front of family, including their two children and three grandchildren. The bride will wear pink, the groom will wear a suit that Jeanne selected, and the star of the show will be a traditional wedding cake. “It will be the big wedding we never had before,” Jeanne says.
The Balkams will celebrate three days later with what Robert describes as a “dessert party” in Ingleside’s rooftop garden. Guests will include the Balkams’ eight children and 22 grandchildren.
“This is plain love,” Robert says. “That word, love, gets bandied about a lot. Real love, I’m afraid, is in short supply in the world.”
Find more wedding stories at washingtonpost.com/weddings.