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(Ninth in a series on long marriages.)
Zack Guess’ mother died when he was 19. His father died five years later. With his parents gone, he developed a close relationship with an older couple at his church and often visited them at their home.
One day, he noticed that the couple’s teenage daughter, Judy, was growing up. Zack fell in love and told her he planned to marry her. Startled, Judy at first avoided him, but over time her heart changed as she observed his passion for the Lord. They married in 1969, when Judy was 17 and Zack was 28. A few years later, Zack became a pastor at Grace Chapel Primitive Baptist Church in Memphis, Tenn.
The couple chose to let God decide how many children they would have. God ultimately gave them 12, though one died as a baby. They discovered that raising so many children while working in the ministry was no easy feat.
The family had a two-bedroom house: They put two sets of bunk beds in one room, two sets in the other, and one set on a closed-in front porch. Judy creatively kept everyone organized. Instead of always cleaning up after the kids, she confiscated things the children left on the floor. To get their shoe or pencils back, the child would have to wait until Saturday and do an extra chore. But Judy also made things fun: She had the children draw names to see who would be their “secret pal,” a sibling to secretly serve that week.
With such a big family, finances were often tight. Zack remembered one occasion when the family was squeezing into a station wagon and couldn’t afford a new van. Judy told the children they would eat only cornbread and milk for breakfast and save the money and pray for a new van. The Guesses said God always provided: In this instance, several people donated a used van to them.
Parenting was difficult, especially when the kids misbehaved. Once, two children ate the candy they were supposed to be selling. The kids denied it persistently, but Judy could see chocolate around one child’s mouth. Zack and Judy prayed that the children would choose to confess, and after a few days, they did.
In 1991, the Guesses struggled when their 11th baby died a month after her birth. Zack had recently preached on the resurrection, and Judy remembers her 4-year-old son insisting they buy baby food at the store. She explained that the baby was in heaven and wouldn’t need it, but her son said that when Jesus came back, the baby would be resurrected and need food. Judy bought the baby food.
The Guesses remember the pressure their baby’s death put on their marriage. “I’d read that when parents go through the death of a child, they are vulnerable to divorce,” said Judy. Instead of pulling away, the couple worked to stay close to each other.
As the children grew up and started their own families, having so many siblings has provided opportunities for mutual support. Judy said that when their oldest daughter Hannah became pregnant with twins, lost one in utero, and developed a terrible infection, a carload of family members drove 13 hours to Virginia to be with her for the weekend.
There are fun times, too, especially on birthdays and holidays. Thanksgiving traditions for the Guesses include games, singing together, and a family talent show. In 2019 they had 82 people attending, including a few friends. Every other Sunday, Judy has the whole family over for a meal. “We try to keep a lot of togetherness,” she said.
After 50 years of marriage, Zack is 78 and Judy is 67. Zack still pastors Grace Chapel Primitive Baptist Church in Memphis after 44 years. One of his sons, Isaac, serves as an associate pastor there. The couple is enjoying their children, most of whom live nearby, and their 35 grandchildren.