It’s been a rough year for men. As reports of sexual misconduct continue spewing forth, even my male friends have begun to wonder: Does every boardroom and broom closet in America harbor a cad?
Call me a romantic, but with Valentine’s Day nearly upon us it’s worth remembering that the answer is: No.
Last year two of my women friends unexpectedly, delightedly found men in their lives, after years of going it alone. Both have been stunned by their obsessive thoughts, the exhilaration when the phone rings.
In fact, late-life romances can so intensely mirror youthful ones that the differences often go underappreciated. A raft of books affirm this. Most fall into one of two categories: how-to’s and tales from the front.
Maggie Scarf, in her anecdotal study “September Songs — the Good News About Marriage in the Later Years” (Riverhead), notes that gerontologists now identify people ages 50 to 75 as a distinct cohort, “the young-old,” whose skills at reading their own emotions (and hence relating) have improved.
For the young-old not already paired up, advice on meeting potential partners abounds. Psychologist Judith Sills addresses “Getting Naked Again: Dating, Romance, Sex, and Love When You’ve Been Divorced, Widowed, Dumped, or Distracted” (Grand Central) primarily to straight women seeking to get back into “the game.” At times, she can seem like a throwback to Helen Gurley Brown, the late Cosmopolitan editor who used to rile feminists. Still, she has some worthwhile tips. For Sills, self-understanding comes first. After that, she brooks no excuses: too old; too fat; too tired; she will hear none of it. Get thee to the gym.
If, instead of a drill master, you’re an unattached person looking for a little inspiration, you could do worse than Jane Juska. (I am won over by any woman who resists harping on free weights and sneaks her own malted milk balls into the movies.)
A retired high school English teacher, Juska found her 15 minutes of fame after placing a personal ad in the New York Review of Books. It read, in its entirety: “Before I turn 67 — next March — I would like to have a lot of sex with a man I like. If you want to talk first, Trollope works for me.”
What happened next became the subject of “A Round-Heeled Woman: My Late-Life Adventures in Sex and Romance” (Villard). Juska’s memoir turned her into a minor celebrity, snagging her an appearance on Oprah.
She reports frankly on the damage done by her upbringing in the sexually-repressed 1950s (an unhappy early marriage, followed by single parenthood). Yet, though her belated quest for intimacy opens some wounds, her world expands well beyond her Bay-area home. It is doubtful she would have taken any of it back. Juska’s is a gather ye rosebuds while ye may story (moral: Ye may gather them longer than ye thought). She died last year at 84, leaving behind this funny, blunt, and affecting record.
The writer Kent Haruf took up a similar theme in “Our Souls at Night” (Knopf). In his spare, valedictory novel, 70-year-old Addie Moore approaches her neighbor Louis Waters and proposes they spend occasional nights sleeping together, not for sex but for comfort and conversation. Both have lived in the small town of Holt, Colo., for years, and both are widowed. With gorgeous understatement, Haruf restores the ordinary magic of being alive to these stranded souls and to our distracted selves in the process.
When later romances follow the loss of a spouse, new love may come stubbornly intertwined with mourning. In “Four Funerals and a Wedding: Resilience in a Time of Grief” (She Writes), Jill Smolowe addresses this phenomenon with clear-eyed insight. (Full disclosure: I have known this author for some time.)
In the course of telling her story (the loss of a beloved husband, closely followed by the deaths of her sister, mother, and mother-in-law), Smolowe guides the reader through the latest, frequently surprising research on grief. Her new love, with a caring man equally benumbed by loss, will gladden any reader who yearns for happy endings.
Eve Pell, arrives, eventually, at the same station but with different baggage. In “Love, Again: The Wisdom of Unexpected Romance” (Ballantine), she traces an unhappy romantic history to skewed family dynamics. (A relative of the late Senator Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island, she describes her tribe of East Coast WASPs as “God’s frozen people.”) At 67, the twice-divorced Pell falls hard for Sam Hirabayashi, a fellow competitive runner. He is a widower, 10 years older, and the son of Japanese immigrants.
Pell brings the happy news that people are not doomed to destructive relationship patterns. For proof, she offers the stories of 15 couples, straight and gay, who unexpectedly found later-life connections. These are winning reports that will warm any heart in a cold season — even, perhaps, a newly broken one.
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