Advanced Love: Bill and Eva Kobus-Webb
Interview by Judith Boyd
Several weeks ago when checking my Instagram feed I came across an image that nearly took my breath away. Taken by Advanced Style founder, Ari Seth Cohen, the picture showed two hands intertwined, like branches of wisteria. The hands belonged to Bill, 74, and Eva, 68, an interracial couple who have been married for 42 years. Bill is African American and Eva is from Germany and I couldn’t help but be taken in by the style, dignity and warmth they projected from the photo.
In 2010, towards the end of my husband Nelson’s life, I launched my own blog, Style Crone, celebrating style and ageing. Like Bill, Nelson was African American and if he were alive today, we’d have been together for 39 years. The photo of Bill and Eva together brought on a torrent of tears, and left me feeling an unexpected sense of loss, for the life I’d lived – and loved – with Nelson. When Ari asked me to interview Bill and Eva for his Advanced Love project, it felt like true synchronicity – an unexpected gift that allowed me to meet this extraordinary couple.
Collaborating with Bill and Eva, as we explored the lifeline of their devoted relationship, allowed me another opportunity to focus on all that my relationship with Nelson gave to me. It has been healing and revealing to speak with this extraordinary couple, who project dignity, warmth, generosity and style. So much of their relationship, which is the most intimate form of integration, mirrors the experience that I had with Nelson.
JUDITH: I’m thrilled and honored to meet the two of you and get to know you and the story of your Advanced Love through this interview. How did you meet and what attracted you to one another?
BILL: Eva and I were introduced by a co-worker in 1969 at a Wall Street company in Manhattan and began meeting for lunch. I was 27 and Eva 21. Our meeting was probably fate, but of course her personality and sense of style attracted me to her.
EVA: He was tall, dark and handsome and I noticed that he respected and supported women. No male chauvinist here. I watched him treat all people with high regard, no matter their status. He advocated for the promotion of a woman who was criticized for her assertive behavior. This manner of conducting oneself would have been deemed as acceptable for a man, but not for a woman. We married in 1974, and we recently celebrated our 42nd wedding anniversary. Bill is now 74 and I’m 68. We have both retired from that very same company where we met 47 years ago.
JUDITH: Over the years, how have you supported and honored each other’s dreams or endeavors?
BILL: Eva has been supportive of researching my family history and has done all of the leg work for many years. I’d first shown her several family Bibles in 1974, and this has been an ongoing project for her. This has culminated in finding a grave site commemorating my great grandfather (a Civil War veteran). In 2006 she located my third great grandfather, a slave owned by Thomas Jefferson from 1785-1806. I am now a member of the Advisory Committee for African American Affairs at Monticello. I encouraged Eva to trust her decision to go back to school while working full time. She graduated with honors in 2004. We visited her birthplace, Berlin, Germany, this past Spring.
EVA: It’s easy to support Bill in his endeavors and interests because they are basically the same as mine. We are both big history buffs and avid readers. I recently read the book,The Candy Bombers, by Andrei Cherny, which took place in Germany between 1948 and 1950. I was a Berlin airlift baby. As I was reading this book, I discussed it with Bill, and realized for the first time the difficulties that my parents went through during that time.
JUDITH: What part does style and creativity play in your relationship?
EVA: Style and creativity have always played a part in our relationship. It became an outlet for us as a couple because our work environment was very conservative. I love to wear hats to complete an outfit. Bill has always been a stylish individual. As a matter of fact, he makes me work harder on how I look. I moved from Germany to New Jersey at the age of five. As a teenager, I took the bus to Greenwich Village, inhaling the fashion of that time. I loved hanging out in St. Marks, Fillmore East and the Electric Circus. It was a very exciting time for style, music and social change.
BILL: We both enjoy the arts, music (especially jazz), design, photography, fashion, museums and travel. We have extended our love of art to self expression. I was interested in fashion from an early age and style is part of my DNA. I appreciate Eva’s style and “looking good.” I grew up in West Virginia. As a teenager I ordered clothing from The Village Squire in NYC. I recently celebrated 50 years of living in NYC and would not like to live in any other place in the world.
EVA: I was influenced by the women in Paris during our European trip in 1976. Over the years I’ve had curly hair, straight hair, loved high platform shoes and at one time I shaved my eyebrows.
BILL: I like to push the envelope. I’ve sported a goatee, a beard, and a Fu Manchu mustache. In 2009 I participated in a beard contest in Brooklyn. I was one of the few men over 35 years of age.
JUDITH: How do you manage conflict and solve problems?
EVA: You must make a commitment to work on problems and be able to compromise. There have been issues which have turned us upside down, but our relationship has always been more important than the problem that we were focusing upon.
BILL: We respect each other’s opinions and one person must not dominate. Because we believe in the strength of our relationship, we trust that we will always find a solution to any disagreement. If a problem comes up, we discuss and resolve the issue.
JUDITH: How have you overcome challenges associated with being an interracial couple in our society?
BILL: In the early years of our relationship, certainly, negative vibes and resistance came from both family and friends. But over these many years they have become a non-issue. However, in 2016, “Middle American” conservative attitudes give one pause for thought.
Eva’s family was against our relationship in the beginning, but Eva was willing to sacrifice everything for me. I applaud Eva for that. Her parents came to our wedding, even though they didn’t approve. When our daughter was born, they became very involved with her. They would pick her up and take care of her when she was sick so that we could both go to work. Their attitudes might not have changed, but because we were family, they dealt with it on a different level. It was clear that we were happy together and good for each other.
EVA: I’m usually the one that doesn’t see the stares and living in the middle of Manhattan helps. We have never had overt actions of discrimination directed towards us. It has been more subtle.
BILL: I had a friend whom I haven’t seen since our wedding in 1974. It was obvious that she didn’t approve of our relationship. At this point, my shoes and Eva’s hats are more interesting to our friends than the color of our skin. We’re always ready to present ourselves to the next audience.
JUDITH: What are the positive aspects of living as an interracial couple?
EVA: There are countless positive benefits of learning about each other’s culture. Embracing and exploring the beauty of differences has enhanced, deepened, influenced and enriched our relationship. We learn and explore with each other.
BILL: Our home is a refection of who we are. We have incorporated our cultures in the pieces that decorate our living space. Diversity provides a lifetime of education. We don’t have to be a cookie cutter of each other.
EVA: During the holidays we combine German Christmas decorations with the Kwanza Man and African statues. Bill’s great-grandparents’ furniture sit side-by-side the German pieces from my parents’ home.
JUDITH: How has parenting affected your relationship?
BILL: Both being a parent and having parents has had an impact on our relationship. The birth of our daughter in January of 1981 occurred in close proximity to the sudden death of my mother in June of that year. We moved my father, at the age of 87, to NYC into our one bedroom apartment. He lived with us until his death seven years later.
In the 1980’s and 1990’s, we were part of a bi-racial support group. We thought that it was necessary as a family to have a support system and for our daughter M’Lynda to have a sense of identity. It was helpful for all of us. Our daughter is now 35, married, and lives in New Jersey. We have one grandson, age 11.
EVA: As Bill said, in 1981 we were thrust from two to four quite suddenly. It wasn’t easy, but we managed. Bill was just as supportive when my mother was ill. You work it out. That is the key!
After our daughter left home, we regrouped and redefined our relationship, and enjoyed the extra space. Living in the same apartment building for over 40 years has contributed to our stability and pride of community.
BILL: After our daughter left to live on her own, we were happy and we celebrated. It was good for all of us and she needed to be independent. When she lived with us and she was out late, I couldn’t sleep until she walked in the door.
JUDITH: How do you navigate growth and change individually and as a couple?
BILL: I had not been outside the United States until I went with Eva to Germany and Paris in 1976. Also, Eva is more knowledgeable about jazz than I am, and she has exposed me to new music.
EVA: Change and growth are inevitable and must be encouraged for a couple to thrive. Sometimes we have had to drag each other along. I’m a non-practicing Catholic, but we felt it was important to expose our daughter to the black experience. So we all went to Bill’s church during the time that M’Lynda was growing up.
BILL: We believe in multigenerational groupings. We have many associates that are younger than we are, and we may not agree or understand where they are coming from, but we try to keep an open and curious mind. Intergenerational energy has been an integral part of our lives and opens us to new ideas. I enjoy the young Dandy Wellington and in Paris I saw an older man with a cane. He was ready!
JUDITH: So what is the secret to your “Advanced Love,” which has blossomed for 47 years?
EVA: We encourage each other, focus on our positive qualities, work together on common goals, and never forget to have fun! It’s difficult to answer this question, but we went into the relationship thinking of it as a commitment. Our disposable society throws relationships out like garbage. We followed the examples of our parents who were together through thick and thin. You go through life and all of a sudden it’s been 42 years. It becomes unconscious because you want it to work.
BILL: It’s a give and take combined with mutual respect. There’s a comfort zone where we accept each other’s quirks and we give each other space. We still have fun going out for a glass of “bubbly,” but also have our individual pursuits and retain our own identity. Eva goes to the gym and I have been singing in a church choir for 60 years!
During the first part of a relationship you’re starry-eyed. The glue to the relationship comes later. You can still have fun and look good when you’re doing it. It’s the small things that can drive you crazy. Like leaving the cap off the toothpaste or other annoyances of living together. That’s life.
EVA: If there’s a secret, I don’t know what it is. Every couple is different and what works for us may not work for others. We do continue to date and regularly dress up and step out for drinks or dinner. I’m the researcher and tech person in our relationship, and I’m always looking for new places to go. Then I ask Bill if he would like to check it out. Bill does the cooking and I clean up afterwords. It works for us.
BILL: There is no canned recipe or magical formula, but every day can be different, even after 42 years. When we do go out, we meet fascinating people, both younger and older than we are. We have had favorite restaurants that have closed over the years, but then we discover new destinations that are different, but still fun.
EVA: (with a hint of nostalgia in her voice) We look at our wedding picture and half of the people who attended are no longer here. Every day is a good day. We don’t take anything for granted.”
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