Local photographer seeks key to happy marriage, goes straight to source

"Baby, we found love right where we are."

Ed Sheeran croons from an iPhone as Tess and Ray Johnson dance just feet away. Actually, it's more swaying than dancing; that's as much as Tess's bad back will allow. Fifty-four years of shared footwork has gotten them where they are now -- also sharing a song and aches and pains. And memories.

Photographer Stephanie Jarstad is capturing this new one, her Canon clicking with every lean of their hips.

"Our younger generation faces a lack of confidence in marriage," the 28 year-old says between snaps. She wants to rediscover some hope. So she started a project called "To Grow Old With You."

"I really wanted to hear from seasoned couples, to find out what it takes to have a strong and lasting relationship."

The pictures capture some of the clues: Tess's hand on Ray's knee, laughter about a fight involving thrown eggs, smiles over Ray's 58-year career.

But it's between the pictures that Stephanie gets her greatest lesson. She asks questions about the keys to happiness and marriage and love. And sometimes Ray gives her long answers about something else completely: the 6 miles he had to bike to work; the supermarkets he wired as an electrician; the long string of children Tess baby-sat through the years.

Then Tess explains. In all their time together, the last four have been the toughest. "The hardest thing I've had to face is Ray's problem."

His problem is Alzheimer's. He remembers all the good years, but not the recent minutes.

Tess and Ray grew up in England during World War II, with bomb raids as childhood memories. They went through the long process of immigrating to the U.S. They raised their two children and more grandchildren. Ray finally left work behind after 58 long and honest years. Months later he was diagnosed. This isn't the retirement they planned. But it's the commitment they made.

"Sometimes I just have to cry," Tess says, "because if you don't, you'll explode. Cry so hard that my back aches from crying." Then she looks at Ray, and puts her hand on his knee again. "But then you pull your boot straps on and carry on, you know. What else can you do?"

Ray's gentle face breaks into another laugh. It's his sweet default when he can't hear or can't understand. It is both a symptom of what he's lost and a sign of what remains at his very core.

"He's still a good guy, he's still a loving guy," Tess says with another smile.


Stephanie has the real picture.

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