December 10, 2018

As time goes by, centenarians savor life together

When Morrie and Betty Markoff talk about their marriage, they hold hands, laugh and finish each other’s sentences. They behave as affectionately as newlyweds.

Which clearly they are not. Morrie is 103; Betty is 100. They have been married for 78 years.

Many factors contributed to their long marriage, they said, but one of them played the biggest role.

“We’re just lucky,” Morrie said.

They met in 1938 at a mutual friend’s wedding party in the Bronx, N.Y. Morrie was seated between Betty and Rose, a pretty girl with long nails.

“Next to her, I thought I had no hope,” Betty said. “The competition was rough.”

Morrie, who at the time worked as a machinist in Philadelphia, was “adorable, tall, with dark,  curly hair.” 

After the party, he drove Betty home to College Point in Queens. Along the way, his car broke down, and he repaired it effortlessly, leaving a deep impression on his date.

“He fixed it quickly, with no complaints,” she said.

Her girlfriends didn’t believe the machinist was “marriage material” and a good match for Betty.

“They were wrong,” Morrie said, laughing.

Their courtship didn’t last long. Morrie moved to Los Angeles, where he had been offered a better-paying job. When he arrived in L.A., he purchased bus fare from New York to Los Angeles for $35 and asked Betty if she wanted to join him.

“I guess that was his marriage proposal,” she said.

About 10 months after their first date, Morrie went “shopping for a rabbi” in Los Angeles and found someone who charged only $25 to perform a wedding ceremony. At Woolworth’s, the couple purchased wedding bands made of fake gold for 10 cents.

When the rabbi wished for their marriage to be as pure as the gold in their rings, they glanced at each other and smiled. The next day, they headed to Tijuana for a two-day honeymoon.

Despite his training as a machinist, Morrie found a job selling vacuum cleaners. He later opened his own air conditioner and appliance company; Betty was a stay-at-home mom, raising their two children.

Throughout their long life together, the Markoffs said they never felt bored, always finding a new book to read or a new place to visit.

The couple’s passion for traveling took them to many places, including Europe and Latin America, with each trip well-documented, by Betty in her journals and by Morrie with his camera.

In the early 1950s, they traveled to Moscow and Leningrad (now called by its original name, St. Petersburg). As a member of the Communist Party USA, Morrie was curious to visit the Soviet Union. But after spending a month in Russia, he grew disillusioned with Soviet-style socialism.

“Someone told me that even a rabbi in our synagogue was a KGB agent,” he said.

Betty grew up in a middle-class family in Queens, where she moved with her family from Toronto when she was 10. Morrie grew up in East Harlem, where he became a shoeshine boy at the age of 8 to help his family.

Later, he discovered a passion for sculpting scrap metal. Many of his creations were inspired by people and places he had encountered decades earlier.

One of them was a sculpture of a shoeshine boy who polished the shoes of a man who had given him two nickels —  one for service, the other as tip. Another sculpture depicted chess players in Griffith Park, a scene he encountered many times during hiking trips.   

Those artworks were on display a few years ago, among Morrie’s paintings and photographs, at the Red Pipe Gallery in Chinatown at an exhibition commemorating his 100th birthday.

Today, the couple live in a one-bedroom condo with a panoramic view of the downtown Los Angeles skyline, as well as The Broad museum and Walt Disney Concert Hall. Besides photos of the couple’s two children, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, Morrie’s metal sculptures and photographs decorate the shelves, and Betty’s travel journals line up along the wall in their bedroom.

For their longevity, Betty credits good nutrition. Since her youth, she has cooked balanced meals that included protein, vegetables and salads. But Morrie believes there is more to it.

“Many people had a good diet and passed away,” he said. “We are just lucky.”

After nearly eight decades together, the Markoffs said their marriage wasn’t always a smooth ride.

“Don’t get deceived; we had our battles,” Betty said.

Relationships require work, she said, and the two always have strived to maintain patience and appreciation for each other.

“We always respected each other, no matter what,” Morrie said.

It’s important to agree to disagree, he said, and move on when facing a major quarrel.

Still, despite his deep feelings for Betty and a long life together, he prefers to avoid the word “love” because it’s possessive and not lasting.

“I prefer to use the term ‘caring,’ ” he said, “I would care about her even if we were divorced.”