Australia’s Oldest Couple Celebrate Their 80th Anniversary
Ron And Esther hit a new milestone
“It doesn’t happen often but 103 year old Ron Collings and 102 year old Esther Collings are celebrating their 80th wedding anniversary”.
The Prime Minister’s address during question time entertains a rare moment of unity in Canberra.
But over a thousand kilometres west in the quiet coastal town of Goolwa, regional South Australia, Ron and Esther can hardly believe Australia’s most senior politicians are speaking of them.
“I thought it was quite good, I didn’t expect it, it was very special,” Ron says.
Holding a butter knife in his wrinkled weathered hands, Ron takes his time cutting through envelope after envelope, finding cards, well wishes and even more cards.
Sitting patiently beside him and sharing a gentle warm smile, is Esther. He calls her “Es”. She’s wearing a blue, white and purple printed blouse, the baby blue matches her eyes brilliantly, the white compliments her silvery wavy hair.
She looks towards me but words don’t leave her mouth as quickly as they used to.
“…anyone who matters has sent us congratulations,” she pauses.
“The Queen” pause “the Governor General” pause “ohh and the Prime Minister” pause, her smile making another appearance. But really, the letters she and Ron most treasure have all come from their six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
“They mean the world to us,” Ron says.
Earlier that morning, Esther walks alone down the wide and bright corridors of the nursing home in which they now both live. Avoiding the glare, Ron sits wearing sunglasses in his favourite bay window armchair waiting for her.
“My best friend in the world I suppose is my husband Ron, and we have our little habits.”
This one is morning tea. They sit in the sun-soaked alcove talking about what she sees outside, Ron recites what he’s read in the morning’s papers. There are long silences where they just smile and enjoy each other’s company, her hand on his. It’s adorable.
This happens every morning at 10am, without fail. The same window. The same armchairs. The same smiles. Although this routine is relatively new, since moving to this residential care facility a few years earlier, the happiness they share has been around significantly longer.
“The first time we met I was a teenager, about 16. Two girls came down the street dressed in blue, and one was Esther. She always looked lovely, but those days she had very dark hair, blue eyes… she wasn’t bad looking…” Ron says wryly.
Their first date was at the picture theatre where Ron worked selling chocolates.
“Saturday night was the big night back then, in those days they weren’t called movies or cinemas,” he points out, smiling.
Esther’s face lights up. “He put his arm around me and I was very surprised… yes I thought he was quite handsome”.
October the 19th, 1938 and Esther follows her two bridesmaids down the aisle of St Cuthburt’s in Prospect, SA, all three of them wearing dresses she designed and made herself. When the talented dressmaker vows to love and honour she means it. Ron does the same.
“Back then when people got married, they married for life, they didn’t give up so easy,” their son, also named Ron, tells me.
Ron Jr is the eldest of three, there’s also Steven and Elizabeth; who sadly passed away a few years ago. Today Steven and his wife Sheree have arrived just in time for a very special afternoon tea.
In the dining room of Sandpiper Lodge, walls have been decorated, hundreds of pink paper love hearts hung overhead and a slideshow showcasing the incredible life of Ron and Esther is playing on a large TV screen on the far wall. Over 70 people, some infirm, others able-bodied, old and young are downing lemon lime bitters like they are going out of fashion. Those who can stomach it are enjoying the wine, champagne and beers. I don’t see any Jagerbombs or Vodka Red Bulls but the cupcakes look pretty damn amazing, their daughter-in-law Lynne baked them just last night.
“Unfortunately Prince Harry & Meghan couldn’t be here today,” Ron Jr jokingly addresses the crowd.
After hearty laughs he continues to tell all about how proud he is of his parents but moments later something completely blows him away.
After a congratulatory video message from the Governor General, Sir Peter Cosgrove, is played on the telly and another from a few of the Sydney Swans, the usually very quiet Ron Senior stumbles to his feet (age not alcohol) and walks over to the podium inching the microphone closer towards him.
“What Esther and I did, we started on a journey, a long journey, now to today, which is exactly to the day 80 years ago when we were married.”
Ron Jr sits smiling besides the empty chair his dad just vacated. “He’s normally a bit introverted, he’s not used to public speaking, for him to stand up thank everyone and talk about his life… I was very impressed with that.”
The journey Ron Senior spoke of has seen them travel Australia and the world before settling in Goolwa to enjoy their final years together, albeit in separate rooms.
“Yes, it’s always nice to have your own space,” Esther admits - and after 80 years of marriage, she would know.
Perhaps this is the secret to a long marriage but Ron Senior disagrees.
“I don’t think there’s any secrets, it just happens,” he laughs.
But one thing that is clear is that Esther and Ron are two very different people “and in some ways surprisingly different” Ron Junior acknowledges.
“What do I love about her?” Ron Senior repeats my question and thinks for a moment. “Ohh well, we’ve always gotten along reasonably well together, and we didn’t interfere with one another too much, she believed in things (yoga, Indian mysticism) during life, and I believed in sport and that’s the way we went.
"She’s the only girl I’ve ever loved you see.”
But despite their differences, what draws them together is a bond like no other and also routine. After the fanfare of the past few days have died down it’s 4pm and from outside of Esther’s room you can see the two of them sitting down, chatting and bathing in the sun streaming through a large window overlooking the garden.
This is another of her habits.
“Every afternoon, my dad has a red wine, my mother has a tonic, I'm not sure if there’s gin in it or not? When he leaves her room, I noticed my father always puts his arm around my mother and says ‘Es, I’ll see you in the morning’.”
But at this age even just waking up is a blessing.
“Every day I wake up in the morning, I'm grateful to be alive and I'm always glad to see Esther a couple hours later.”
“I met a wonderful man, I fell in love and we’ve had 80 years together, I’m grateful for every day.”
As we say our goodbyes, Ron’s leathery hand firmly grips mine and for a minute he, smiles, talks and refuses to let go. Both he and Esther, along with their son and daughter-in-law have been incredibly welcoming and allowed me to witness just a few short days of such a long and incredible life, a life that is sadly nearing its end.
I’ll most likely never see Ron and Esther again but I feel I have made two inspiring new friends and if they make it to 81 years of marriage they can expect yet another card and letter in the mail, this time from me.