Pretoria couple reunite 65 years after they first fell in love as teenagers

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Dirk van der Westhuizen and Estelle Pelser married in a restaurant in Pretoria. (PHOTO: Supplied)
Dirk van der Westhuizen and Estelle Pelser married in a restaurant in Pretoria. (PHOTO: Supplied)

It's the mid-1950s and in a small park in the Eastern Cape town of Aliwal North two teenagers have eyes only for each other, exchanging promises of everlasting love beneath a star-studded sky.

Dirk van der Westhuizen (16) and Estelle Pelser (15) can’t imagine life without one another and the future seems set in stone.

But life, as it often does, intervenes.

Barely a year later, Estelle and her parents move to Pretoria and the lovestruck teenagers vow not to let distance separate them, promising to write to each other.

And for a while they do. But as the months pass the flurry of letters slows to a trickle and two years later, Dirk finds out Estelle has met someone new.

For most people, that’s where the story might end – a bittersweet tale of young love cut short. Sometimes, however, love can be patient, lying dormant in the heart until the spark is rekindled.

In 2021, 65 years after they parted, Estelle (now 81) and Dirk (now 82) are newlyweds. They’re as in love as ever – in fact, it’s safe to say they look just like the loved-up teenagers they once were.

“We’ve picked up where we left off,” Estelle says.

“We’re trying to make up for lost time now,” adds Dirk, gazing lovingly at his new wife.

old couple
Estelle and Dirk as teenagers. (PHOTO: Supplied)

When Dirk spotted the new girl in the corridors of their high school in Aliwal North, he couldn’t keep his eyes off her.

He made some inquiries and found out her name was Estelle and before long he’d plucked up the courage to ask her to the movies one Saturday afternoon.

“I was no pauper – I was earning an astronomical 10 shillings [about R1] a week from my part-time job at the local dairy,” he tells us.

Saturday afternoon movies soon became a regular date and they’d spend it holding hands. It wasn’t long before they were “going steady”.

“He was my Superman, beautifully built with broad shoulders,” Estelle recalls.

“We were madly in love,” Dirk adds.

He laughs as he recalls an incident when he visited her at her parents’ house. As they sat on the lawn outside, staring into each other’s eyes and whispering sweet nothings, an ant made its way up the inside of his trousers into his briefs and started nibbling in a sensitive area.

“And I couldn’t scratch – I was too embarrassed,” Dirk recalls with a chuckle. “You don’t scratch down there in front of a lady.”

Although his eyes started watering, he calmly kept on chatting as if nothing was happening. “I thought to myself, ‘Go ahead, you bastard, chew at me all you want – I won’t move a muscle’.”

Their relationship progressed well – and then, 15 months after they met, the devastating news came that Estelle’s family was moving to Pretoria.

They parted ways promising to stay faithful to each other. Her parents didn’t own a telephone so they could only stay in touch by writing letters.

“That address has been engraved in my mind: 578 18th Avenue, Rietfontein, Pretoria,” Dirk says.

Gradually Estelle’s letters stopped. “But neither of us dumped the other; we never broke up. As far as I was concerned, we were still boyfriend and girlfriend,” he says.

After matriculating in 1957, Dirk got a job at the magistrate’s court in Aliwal North. The following year he was sent to Pretoria for a training course, which was when he decided to take the bus to 578 18th Avenue.

'He was my Superman, beautifully built with broad shoulders.'

Estelle’s mom, Sannie, opened the door, dumbstruck at the sight of him. Inside Estelle had company: a man with his arm draped around her shoulders. He introduced himself as Hendrik Wannenburg.

So this is the new man in her life, Dirk thought resentfully. “I immediately realised my chances were zero – the best guy had won. So I left.”

It was an awkward situation and she was terribly embarrassed, Estelle admits.

Dirk realised he had to move on and married Lulu van Vuuren in 1960. He became a magistrate and worked all over the country until his retirement at 60 in 1999 as head magistrate in Bela-Bela.

Sadly, he lost Lulu to Parkinson’s disease in 2018 and many lonely nights followed.

“It’s not easy, when you’ve been married for 58 years and slept next to another person for all that time, to suddenly be left in complete silence.

“And that yearning for the love of my youth just increased by the day. I realised I had to take the bull by the horns and try to contact Estelle, if only to find out if she was still alive.”

He remembered Estelle’s boyfriend’s surname – Wannenburg – and he’d heard of a car parts business called Wannenburg Spares in Pretoria.

In late 2019 he called the shop and asked if anyone there knew the Wannenburg family.

He was put through to Francois Wannenburg, who told Dirk that Estelle was his mom, and gave him her number.

When Dirk called, her heart stopped for a moment, Estelle tells us.

“I was totally flabbergasted. Here I was talking to my first love! I thought he’d died years ago,” she says, smiling.

Dirk asked her if she realised they had never really broken up. “I know,” she replied.

“She was being ever so formal and I got the impression I wouldn’t hear from her again,” Dirk admits.

Two months later she called Dirk with the news that her husband, Hendrik, had died. She rented out her family home and went to visit her sons who live overseas, one in Australia and the other in Canada.

Before leaving, she and Dirk agreed to have coffee and, on 17 January 2020, they met in the parking lot of a Pretoria restaurant.

“We walked and just held each other silently for a few minutes,” Dirk recalls. “What an experience to hold each other again after 65 years.”

They spent about four hours together and communicated daily on WhatsApp while she was visiting her family overseas.

When she returned home nine months later, Dirk went to fetch her to visit him in Bela-Bela – and they’ve been inseparable ever since.

old couple
When they met up again more than six decades later, the couple spent four hours together over a cup of coffee. (PHOTO: Supplied)
 Estelle was visiting Dirk in February this year when he embraced her in the kitchen and said, “I think we should get married.”

Her answer? “Yes, a thousand times, yes!”

They arranged their wedding day – 9 October in a Pretoria restaurant – to coincide with her son, Johan, and his family’s visit from Canada.

Estelle made her lavender wedding dress herself.

Dirk’s only son, Dirk Jnr, good-naturedly teased the couple about their age during his wedding toast. But after waiting 65 long years, the groom had the last word.

During his speech, Dirk said that he thought he’d handed down his last sentence when he retired as magistrate in 1999.

Then he looked at his bride, pretending to be a magistrate again, and said, “Estelle Anita van der Westhuizen, I’m out of my jurisdiction, but I hereby sentence you to life with me.”

And it’s a sentence they’re both delighted to serve.

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