I guard my dear mother’s privacy as if she were still alive, but I have decided to rescue this particular part of her story from her secret archives because there are so few narratives about romance in late life. My mother met the love of her life when she was in her mid-70s. Fred (as I will call him) was three years older. They fell in love. Their affair lasted years and years; they were deep into their 80s before it suddenly ended.
Who has told such a story about true love and sorrow in later life? There are the comic stories, because old people with passionate feelings can only be funny, right? But on the whole, literature is written as if there were no fierce romances over 30 and certainly no love tragedies over 75. This momentous literary failure impoverishes us all.
In the meantime, here is a real-life story about Betty M. at 76. I’m only sorry that there is so much I didn’t know or didn’t want to know. And some things my mother never told me and I don’t even dare to guess.
In some ways romance in later life is just like the first mysterious and tormenting passion you experienced in high school. For good or ill, it can break every normal habit.
The thing you probably want to know is that my mother was no wild beauty, although there are many such in their 70s and even older. They have the perfect bones, the air of women who have been admired all their lives. Betty’s features were pleasant enough—I loved her looks. But as a whole person she was intensely attractive in ways that many beauties are not. And I mean that in the literal sense. Once she was in her prime, in her 50s and after, she had grown to have the warmest smile and the most attentive eyes; people of both sexes wanted to get closer in and bask in that pleasantness and focused attention and enjoy her play of expressions and be liked by her.
In her 70s she was robust, with a healthy, rapid walk and an unfeigned alertness and eagerness to listen and to converse and ask questions. She could talk to anyone. She made everyone feel important. Meeting her in her 90s, her new internist said with enjoyment and a hint of wonder, “What a vivacious woman.” She was always perfectly dressed, with almost no makeup and one of those hairdos that frames a face without looking glued.
My mother had been married twice, the first time to my father, when she was 22, during the Depression. Marty died in 1974 of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. They had recently been estranged, but she took over his care in his final illness. Against my advice, she then married his older brother, Sam. She was only 60, a very good age for a woman but still not an age at which many can remarry. She had long admired Sam. Heaven help us, her father had admired him. He was the family lawyer even before he became her brother-in-law. She said to me after they eloped, as if it were a good-enough reason, “I couldn’t have married anyone I hadn’t known for 40 years.” But there’s knowing and knowing. My mother, shocked by her new husband’s jealous anger, left him barely six months later; but eventually she went back to him. That marriage was plagued with separations and ended in divorce in 1984, when she was 70.
When she met Fred, she had been living contentedly in Florida as a single woman for at least six years. Singleness didn’t bother her. She had a rich, optimistic temperament, dozens of friends, a useful, busy life and a good pension from teaching in the unionized, New York City public school system in the glory days under Al Shanker. She used to say gaily, before she met Fred, “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.”
Fred, a former journalist, was teaching at Florida International University. He was widowed, with a midlife son and daughter and grandchildren. Betty—as I will call her in this aspect of her life when being a mother to me was not her primary identity—met him while attending a class he was giving about current events and politics. She admired him and then loved him (the Sam pattern, again). Soon she brought him up to Massachusetts to meet us. My husband and I liked him, although we both tended to doubt that anyone could be good enough for my mother. Fred was little more than her height, small and well-made and with bright, amused eyes. I never saw him not smiling. He had a fund of conversation and information. If he didn’t listen as well as she did, well, who did?
Betty had always called me weekly. Now the calls came to be of the “then I said, then he said, so then I said” variety. For a long time I would hang up, laughing and shaking my head, and say to my husband, “The teenager was on the phone again.” At first we thought them very well matched. “My mother has finally found a man who is both well educated and kind,” I thought. What was not to like? There she was, joined to a same-age man, both of them capable of the passionate desiring and silliness that signaled true love.
Betty was smitten. She had to chase a little bit, a heady experience for a woman who all her life had only been pursued. Chasing teaches women how strong their desire is. Love is the only way I can account for a fact I had forgotten: when her only sister’s husband died in 1991, soon after Betty and Fred had met, she missed the funeral. She didn’t fly north. Her sister says flatly, still hurt, “She told me she couldn’t leave Fred.”
Betty and Fred had political and intellectual interests in common. Encouraged by the fact that his letters were sometimes published in the Miami Herald, she started to write letters to the editor, and hers too appeared in print. It was a deep, talky friendship. Betty also conveyed, in the way a mother can with an attuned daughter, that the sexual relationship was better than in either of her marriages.
Despite all this, in terms of time and intensity, their relationship was primarily epistolary. Both were articulate and eloquent letter writers. Fred wrote, about being with her, “I am as close to heaven as I shall ever be.” But despite his public manner—the attentive eyes, the openness, the readiness to talk—he suffered from a mental condition that nobody understood. Betty sometimes called it mood swings or panic attacks. The main symptom was that Fred moved in with her numerous times and left again, often with only a few minutes’ notice. They wrote to each other because they were separated and he was courting her so that she’d let him come back. Assuming that it was more solitude he needed, my mother bought an apartment, in the same community, that he could live in whenever he vanished. He paid the rent. He bought her a car. But he never lived in the apartment.
The first two times they separated, only to fall helplessly together again, I thought, “Isn’t this cute?” From the viewpoint of my solid, long-lasting marriage, I regarded them as if they were adolescents starting out, testing each other out or testing out their identities. Yet at the same time, I was carelessly unconcerned about their separations because they were, after all, mature adults. Betty was so competent, such a thoughtful observer of life. If something were really wrong, she would intuit it and tell me. My excuse is, my attention wavered in and out. My own life took up a lot of time. And, I have to admit, I may have needed the octogenarian sweethearts to be amusing, to avoid heartbreak—to fit neatly into the genre of what love must be like in old age.
But after the fourth or fifth time he left—I was losing count—I started seeking information from knowledgeable friends. I was curious, not concerned. At a party at the home of a therapist, filled with other therapists, I described Fred as well as I could to a group of professional listeners. They were absorbed by the story, but the atmosphere they created in responding was light as popcorn. They were charmed; they thought it was cute. They thought the couple was cute. Coupling at 80, “so cute.” (If I never hear the word “cute” again about old people, that will be fine with me.) The hostess summed up: he had probably received inconsistent mothering. That made sense to me; who but my good mother could give encouraging and consistent, maternal-like love? But then why did he ever leave her? No one would ever know; he refused professional help. When he once agreed to see a psychiatrist, he refused to take the medication recommended.
In March of 1993 when Fred and Betty had been lovers for some time, he suddenly married a woman I will call Frances, but he hid it from Betty. Even after this unexpected relationship was revealed to her by a mutual friend, he continued to woo Betty and beg her to let him come back. He could never say why he had married, or why he returned to Frances after his idyllic interludes with Betty, who remained remarkably patient and forgiving in taking him back. All told, she must have let him return seven times.
Eighty has its privileges, its authority. Betty never felt the need to explain to her daughter why she was “carrying on” with a married man—as she certainly would have characterized it earlier in her life. It is inconceivable that she would have had an affair earlier, even with an unmarried man. But now she stepped away from the old cautions as easily as a woman walks out into a garden on a nice spring day, not as if stepping onto a swaying bridge over an abyss. Not because she was desperate, or mean about Frances. She was convinced that he could be happy only with her; and his letters weirdly confirm that he believed this too. The letters are passionate and up to a point self-analytic. In 1992 he had written, “Best I can figure out is that I must have a suicidal instinct in me.”
“I don’t think he means it,” she had said to me. “He may be flighty, but he’s so sane.”
“He’s trying to frighten you, Mum, so you’ll take him back.” I wanted to sound a little tough on him.
There are dozens of letters, mostly his pleadings. Hers come from a sweet-natured woman who hopes she can help the man she loves improve his mental state through her steadiness and find the happiness he sought with her. But they also are full of reproaches and pleas for explanations. Her letter from October 1992 reads, “Only ten days ago, you said you ‘adored’ me. You said I didn’t need home health care insurance because you would take care of me forever. Overnight your mood changed. Have you forgotten everything about our life together?”
Two years later, she wrote, “I wish you well, but I don’t envy your reminiscences.” She believed he must feel terribly guilty about his sudden departures. When she called me and read from his letters, his pleas had become repetitive and wearisomely familiar to her. His storms of feeling, his begging, his promises, engaged her in painful perplexities: Were their brief good times together worth the travail?
Every time he left, I encouraged her to be firm and rescue herself. I wanted her to give more weight to her needs than to his. My pressure had no effect.
By 1996, having decided that he was too ill and too intransigent, she wrote proposing that they not come together again but just talk on the phone or write. “I want you to remember, that when [her dear friend] Anne B… had a stroke, and couldn’t speak, I did not abandon her. I’m not giving up on you either, ever. The only way that you can discourage me, is if you tell me that you no longer love me.” She repeated this even after he said that he thought he was getting Alzheimer’s. Both she and I thought that this was another ploy to coerce her into taking him back. If so, it was adroit. She had nursed her first husband through a dreadful illness, and long after she divorced Sam, she offered to care for him when he contracted a heart condition.
Fred often expressed tender remorse for his behavior, but he also blamed her in ever harsher tones for her increasing reluctance to let him return. As she became more certain that she had to protect herself from the torments of desertion and deception, he became more insistent that her patience be limitless.
Fred committed suicide by jumping from the 24th floor of Betty’s building, two stories above her apartment. He did this right after a brief meeting with her during a period of separation. In that meeting, they sat on the couch together next to the window, below the roof edge from which he was going to leap an hour later. They held hands. She spoke lovingly, as always. But the miserable cycle had gone on for many long years. She refused to let him return to begin it again.
How my mother grieved is a matter I simply don’t know, close as we were. Of course she called to tell me what happened. She sounded dazed but calm. I was shocked. Shocked for her, for this loss. Shocked that she couldn’t go to the funeral. That bothered her: his adult children had seen them together and were grateful to her. After she had given him so much loyal companionship, the funeral rites insultingly turned her into “the mistress.” In months to come, she told me many times about their last conversation—how they sat on the couch, what he said, how sadly she said no. I was stunned that everyone had misread his character, his problems, so thoroughly. The professionals, us, my mother. She seemed not to blame herself; that was good. But I knew she always kept darker feelings to herself. She had a way of hiding sorrows and moving forward into a bright day. I had seen it many times.
A decade later, my mother at first hesitated when I suggested offering the lovers’ letters to the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe for its collection of documents about women’s lives. Her memory losses, perhaps blessedly, erased many details of their relationship, but she remembered enough. With her educator’s bent, her typical good will toward anonymous others, she asked, “Who would read them? How would they benefit from reading them?” We talked about Fred’s good qualities from time to time, and she liked me to read from his letters, pleas and all.
I read from some of them again at a time when she was 95 and legally blind. She was so much herself in wisdom that it was easy for me to forget that her memory losses were an embarrassment to her. Now she took a more positive view of telling their story by donating these documents. She believed readers would forget Fred’s troubles and his masochism (as in fact she had done) and use only his loving words to repeat to their own loved ones. “If these beautiful letters can help anybody, I’m happy to have them read,” she said. Commenting on the way the relationship ended, she added, “People have disappointments, but…”—she paused, considering—“you are still an enthusiastic liver of life.”
Once again, I closed my reading aloud with her favorite sentence, “I am as close to heaven as I shall ever be.” She rejoined with her delightful, warm laugh, “I’m still happy to be the one who heard those words spoken. And to know I didn’t make them up.”
© 2014 Margaret Morganroth Gullette
Margaret Morganroth Gullette is the author of Ending Ageism, or How Not to Shoot Old People (2018), which won both the MLA Prize for Independent Scholars and the APA’s Denmark Award for Contributions to Women and Aging. Gullette’s previous books—Agewise and Declining to Decline—also won awards, and many of her essays have been cited as “notable” in Best American Essays. She is a Resident Scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center, Brandeis University.