Jake first noticed her the day after she moved in to the home. She bore a remarkable resemblance to his first and only wife—the white hair, the infectious smile, the pleasant round face and other round parts–so much so that it almost frightened him. He became a widower about six months before Julia entered his now smaller world, quietly yet abruptly, and his life would not be the same.
Dating in the retirement home was tricky because of its culture and assumptions. The home was loosely connected to several Lutheran churches in his suburb, and he found this branch of Lutheranism to be even stricter and more legalistic than the one he’d been raised in from the Reformed Christian branch of the tree. He tolerated the place enough to move in soon after Clara died, but it wasn’t the same as the apartment they’d shared for the last 30 years, and finding his way through this new chapter didn’t come easy for a man accustomed to life with Clara. It was life on his own among seemingly graceless people. He had always felt in charge of things, and suddenly now there were rules and customs bumping into his well-worn habits.
Jake soon discovered that he could cause a minor scandal simply by having a brief conversation with a female resident on the elevator. A three sentence dialogue about the weather between the first and fifth floor, overheard by other female residents, would morph into passionate and racy flirting by the time an account of the conversation was repeated in the coffee shop that evening. Even the briefest “hello” might become the stuff of a romance novel for the AARP crowd, big print and all. And that’s how it all began with Julia.
The retirement home was challenge enough. A second challenge was even pricklier. Jake’s children acted like he was an adolescent now that he was single again and learning life without Clara. They asked questions as if he were helpless and clueless. They worried when they didn’t need to and meddled in things that weren’t their business. It was as if they thought they were raising him. He wondered where his raising of them went wrong. Add Julia to the mix, telling them of his “dates” in the coffee shop, and they saw him as a starry-eyed, infatuated teenager.
When Jake, after three months of courting, took the drastic and dramatic step of asking Julia to his room with engagement on his heart, he knew that scandal was just around the corner. But it was worth the hazards he imagined might come his way.
Jake’s memory at 84 wasn’t as sharp as it had once been when he was the custodian at that big Chicago apartment building. He remembered names and histories and stories, and had kept lists in his head then of the habits and quirks of almost every resident, even those who treated him as a somewhat less than human personal servant. He had the grace as a Christian to turn the other cheek to their indifference, offer a smile, and repair their leaky toilet or drafty window as if they were the royalty they thought they were. He tried to make their world a better place, as if he were representing Jesus to them. Jake loved the idea of being Jesus’ hands and feet to others, as a pastor described it on a Moody radio program. And Jake had big hands and feet.
Yet his memory was still sharp enough that he often drifted back to the years of courtship with Clara, the girl from Highland, Indiana, his wife of 62 years and the mother of their eight children. They’d lived a rich life, never a dull moment and never enough money. Clara raised the kids with kindness and grace. Jake admired her instinct to forgive, and those occasions often occurred. He was the patriarch, but one with a gentle touch, not an iron fist, and humor as a ready assistant for most disciplinary situations. When cancer came to Clara not once but twice, time forever changed, and she was surrounded by children and grandchildren and greatgrandchildren in her final days. They had prayed for a long life together, and got it, but Jake felt it could have been longer.
Loneliness had taken its toll on Jake after Clara’s passing. Memories were still more like mourning rather than what he had hoped for, moments of gratitude and grace. Maybe that would come, but it hadn’t yet. And it wasn’t only Clara’s death: Jake noticed that he was spending more and more time at funeral homes, bringing condolences to the families of friends and members of the church he’d attended for over 60 years. He appreciated the work of the funeral directors who served as a glue to his faith community. They brought comfort and knew the delicate ins and outs of most families, which often surfaced at funerals of all places. (He tried to avoid conversation with one undertaker, however. When this pale, mealymouthed man talked to him, Jake felt that he always asked how he was feeling, hoping to hear that there was a terminal condition around the corner, and to Jake’s mind he was picturing measurements for his coffin.)
The circle of survivors was shrinking, and more friends had died than were still alive. Jake recently came across a picture of the Reformed Men’s’ Society when he was a young married man, with 55 grim-faced men posing for a church anniversary booklet. Jake was one of 12 still living. Loneliness was constricting, at times suffocating, and Julia was literally a breath of fresh air.
Jake wondered if he had enough affection in him to marry again, and even wondered if dating would feel like a betrayal of sorts to his life with Clara. But he also noticed a renewed spring in his step whenever he considered the possibility, and felt that the home’s food even started to taste good, which ran counter to every culinary instinct. So, he thought he’d give it a try with Julia, the mystery woman who had entered his life and enabled him to smile again.
He asked her to his apartment by means of a carefully crafted and heavily sealed note, which he slipped under her door when he knew she’d be downstairs in the home’s beauty parlor for her weekly touch-up. He wasn’t sure he could trust the retirement home’s mail service with its occasionally nosy volunteer postal workers, so he circumvented the system. He cleaned the apartment, top to bottom. Three times. He went to the local Quick Mart and bought twelve cheap vanilla candles, but lit only eight of them. He didn’t want to overdo it. He thought of offering a chilled bottle of wine, but the home had passed strict policies about alcohol ever since the infamous aerobics class episode—one of the other male residents was doing leg lifts while seated in a chair, and his flask slipped out of his back pocket, making a conspicuous “clink” on the hard linoleum floor. You can imagine the talk in the coffee shop that night.
With wine out of the picture—even Mogen David—Jake settled for apple juice and bran muffins by vanilla candlelight, hoping the bran muffins would help move things along. The “Best of Lawrence Welk” played softly on the console Zenith stereo, the scratchy sounds of the old LP interrupting the romantic polka music from time to time.
And then it happened. Jake stretched his big hairy arms across the table, placed a ring in the center of the candles, enfolded Julia’s hands in his, and asked for them and more in marriage. The sooner the better, he said. “Why wait?” He offered a prayer on the spot to seal the deal, using the word “behooved” at least twice. He felt behooved of the Lord on this mission of elderly love.
As word leaked out the next day, he discovered he’d made a social faux pas in the minds of the other female resident, especially Julia’s former and now chillier friends. Males in the retirement home shouldn’t just take themselves out of circulation like that. Why dash hopes so cavalierly? Another male had bitten the dust.
And as a widower of less than a year, Jake’s children thought that he had not given himself, and them, enough time to mourn the loss of Clara. For some reason, a year seemed like a magic, sensible stretch. They could overlook this juvenile infatuation with Julia, this embarrassing attempt at friendship and dating. But marriage was a very different thing. They thought he should wait a bit longer before even entertaining such thoughts, and let him know their feelings without asking how he felt about the matter. They wanted him to be happy, of course, but didn’t want him to live with regrets.
So, after listening to his disapproving children, Jake flipped open his Jitterbug phone and called his grandson, the one who had walked his custodial rounds with him on many summer days years before, the one with whom he had a special bond and mutual respect, the grandchild who had actually taken the time to meet Julia. Jake needed a listening ear, and Jake’s children weren’t listening at all. If he was being ridiculous or impetuous, this grandson would say so. But Jake had a hunch his grandon might see what his children were missing. Ever the optimist, Jake put the dilemma to his grandson with the clarity of the fine diamond which Jake had purchased for Julia on the installment plan.
“Fred,” Jake said, after describing the romantic moment and the present situation, “if God didn’t think it was right for Adam to be alone, then why should it be for me, tell me that! My kids all tell me I should wait. Well, that’s easy for them to say. I don’t know how much time I have left, and a year means something different to me than it does to them. They take me for some kind of Viagra fool. I can hear it in their voices. I’m just tired of being alone, and Julia is too. We’re too old to elope, although I considered it. What do you think?”
Fred thought about this wonderful saint, smiled broadly, took a deep breath, and encouraged Jake to seek the Lord’s will as he always had, and follow his big, warm heart. He also offered to be the ring-bearer if they needed one, which tipped Fred’s hand and opinion.
Jake and Julia married and moved to a larger apartment in the retirement home. They remained the talk of the place, the subject of sanctified gossip over many meals and loud lobby conversations. They took turns waking each other up during the often dry and ponderous recycled sermons from guest preachers which served as chapel talks. They spent countless hours playing dominoes and Scrabble over apple juice and bran muffins, with one vanilla candle lit on the table, even in daylight. On their first anniversary, they snuck a bottle of Mogen David into their apartment, almost wishing they would be caught.
And from time to time they would kiss on the elevator. When other residents were riding with them, it was a greater delight.
They were married for four years before Julia died. Jake never remarried again. Mourning for the second time took a great deal out of him. And even though the fields were ripe for harvest, and there was a busload of suddenly sympathetic women from the home at the funeral, he didn’t think his kids, or the home, could handle the thought of yet another courtship.