When I moved to a retirement home in my 80s, I found true love
My first wedding was a gorgeous affair. It was 1953, and my childhood sweetheart, Victor, had finally proposed after more than a decade of courtship. We married in a large Baptist church, and I wore an ivory silk dress with lace embroidery, and a pillbox hat. At 32, I thought I was an old bride.
For 42 years, our life was full. We bought a little bungalow in Etobicoke, with a small herb garden and a pond out back, and raised two boys, Christopher and Timothy. Vic worked as an accountant, and when the kids were older, I was ordained as a Baptist minister and took a job as a hospital chaplain. In 1995, at age 76, Vic died after a long and painful bout of emphysema. The loss was devastating, but I was grateful we’d had so many decades together. After Vic’s death, I lived by myself for 10 years. As I entered my 80s, the loneliness started to get to me. I craved friendship and excitement and noise. A cousin of mine lived at the Grenadier, a retirement home near High Park, and I decided to join her. I had my own suite with a bathroom and kitchenette. It took some time to get used to being around people all the time, but I came to love the movie nights and ice cream socials. The place was like summer camp for grown-ups.
One night in June 2008, about three years after I moved to the Grenadier, I was eating with a few other ladies when a man sat down next to me. I thought to myself, “Oooh, what do we have here?” He wore a flannel shirt and khaki zip-up vest, as if he were going on a fishing trip instead of sitting down to dinner. His large eyes were the clearest blue, but I could tell by the way he stared into the middle distance that he was blind. We quickly fell into easy conversation.
His name was Ken, and he was 84, three years younger than me. I found him fascinating. While I’d been raised in the bustling city, he grew up in a farming village of 100 people in Manitoba. He joined the Canadian Air Force during World War II, where he was stationed in the U.K. Later, he became a professor of mechanical engineering in Regina. We laughed when we realized that we’d been living parallel lives: we were both devout Baptists, we were both married in 1953, and we both had two sons who were the exact same age. At the end of the night, he told us it had been a pleasure to dine with such a charming group of women—though one of us, he said with a wink in my direction, had been more charming than the rest.
Ken and I are avid book lovers, but he’d been unable to read since an optic nerve infection had taken his sight a few months earlier. By chance, we discovered we were both interested in the work of Norman Doidge, a U of T professor who studies neuroplasticity. The next night at dinner, I brought down my copy of Doidge’s The Brain That Changes Itself. After the meal, I turned to Ken and coyly asked, “Do you want to hear a chapter?” We sat by a window in the lounge and read together. Soon it became our nightly ritual. We’d plow through books about science, politics, economics. After a month or so, Ken invited me to continue our reading sessions in his suite. He’s an old-fashioned gentleman—he left the door open because he didn’t want to put me in a compromising position.
We became inseparable. We took strolls in the garden where I tended flowers. He came to the Bible discussion groups I led. At every social event, he’d have two mugs of coffee—one for me, one for him. While I had made plenty of friends at the retirement home, Ken was the first person I’d felt close to since Vic died. We laughed and challenged each other. We also sat in comfortable silence, just enjoying each other’s presence. Many people never find that once in their lives, let alone twice. One evening, he walked me to the door. I put my hand on his face and stroked his cheek. I felt butterflies that hadn’t been there in 60 years. Finally, he leaned down and kissed me.
We soon started thinking about marriage. There’s no point wasting time when you’re as old as we are. One day, I blurted out, “You know, you’re going to have to ask me properly.” And he did—he even bought me a ring. When we told our kids we were getting hitched, they were shocked, but when they got used to the idea, they were delighted for us.
We were engaged in November, and by the following May, we were married. The staff at the Grenadier set up an aisle in the lounge, with light pouring in from the picture windows. My sons walked me down the aisle; Ken’s kids escorted him. As we met at the altar, he gave me six white roses and six red—one for every month we’d known each other. It was the first wedding ever held at the Grenadier. All 150 residents came to watch the ceremony.
After the wedding, we were giddy newlyweds: we honeymooned in Ottawa, and toured Parliament Hill and the Rideau Canal. When we returned, Ken moved in with me and turned his old suite into an office. We’ve been married for eight years now; I’m 96 and he’s 93. I love having someone who’ll talk to me, who’ll hold my hand, who’ll cuddle up with me at night. People tell us how lucky we are to have found companionship. “Well, that too,” Ken always says with a sly smile.
Linda Sparks is a retired Baptist minister.
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