Maria Cecena said that when her husband José proposed to her, he knew he would have to overcome skepticism by her parents: She was 18. He was 31 — and her boss in a little jewelry shop run by her uncle in Baja, Mexico.
“I saw a lot of the looks he gave me,” she said, laughing and looking over at her husband of 58 years. She was 17 when they met.
“He would say, ‘I am going to marry you.’ I thought he was crazy — I had a boyfriend. I told him, ‘One of these days I will take you seriously!’”
After a year, she did. Jose gave her a 1-carat diamond engagement ring.
Digital Access For Only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
When her mother saw it, she told her daughter to take it off. “She said we need to put it up. She was afraid I’d lose it!”
Since 1975, the couple has owned Cecena’s Jewelry, which is now in the Green Mount Crossing Shopping Center in Shiloh.
They married in 1957. José came to the United States in September 1963 with the offer of a job with a jewelry business in Columbia, Mo.; Maria arrived the following January.
“We wanted a better life for ourselves and our family,” she said. They have been U.S. citizens since 1978.
An expert in silver and gold, José soon went to work in fine jewelry for the May Co. in St. Louis. They settled first in Washington Park, then Cahokia. Now, they live in Waterloo.
“And he always did watch repairs on the side,” said Maria, 76.
She spent her time raising their three children, daughter Marcy and sons Tony and Curtis. All are jewelers. Now there are eight grandchildren, three great-grandchildren and a fourth on the way. Tony, who has worked with his father and mother since he was 16, will eventually take over the business, his parents said. His son, Ryan Cecena, works there as well.
José, 89, nodded and smiled when Maria explained that after their youngest was in school, she wanted something to do with her free time.
“Why not open a little shop?” she asked her husband. “We had saved our money.”
So, they opened a business in Cahokia, then spent several decades with a store in Belleville before moving to Shiloh.
“She’s the main advisor,” said José with a grin.
Maria refers to her role as “the one who moves things around.”
José: “We respect each other.”
Working side by side has its challenges. And, there’s a limit to time spent together, Maria said.
José works in the back of the jewelry store while she is out front with customers.
“We try not to collide,” she said of arguing. “We clash very seldom.”
José: “We never fight.”
Maria: “We communicate. He’s quiet. He would never talk. I lost my cool. I told him, ‘You have to tell me things.’ Now he does.”
The end of the day is spent with a little time apart.
Maria: “He goes in the family room. I stay in the kitchen. We decompress.”
José likes to read. “I enjoy books. Not much television.”
Maria likes TV. “We don’t watch together.”
Over the decades, they’ve taken numerous cruises, have been to Europe seven times and now spend time close to home.
“We get together with the kids and go out to eat,” Maria said.
When they go back to Mexico, it’s to the sunny beaches of Cancun.
As for gift-giving, José has no shortage of ideas all around him.
“I have a lot of beautiful jewelry,” Maria said, smiling and flashing a 2-carat diamond ring. “I got this from him for our 45th anniversary.”
There are no big plans for Valentine’s Day, she said. “I know the kids will do something to surprise me.”
Quiet as he may be, José had the final words on making marriage and a business partnership work.
“Truth and honesty. That’s it.”