A baby boomer's education about elder romance ... and finance
LOS ANGELES — For as long as I can remember, my mother has started her day reading The New York Times. Now she reads The Miami Herald. She was always up on the latest movies. We'd argue about the merits of Steve Martin versus Robin Williams. These days, she watches "Fear Factor." She used to wear Rodier and Eau de Calandre. Now she wears muumuus and goes braless because she lives in a house with a pool.
My mom didn't much like driving unless she had to. Now she drives because she needs to. At one time, bacon for breakfast was cooked on the stove, each piece done to a crisp perfection. Now, microwave bacon is a lot less mess for a woman who didn't trust a microwave oven until she moved ... to Florida.
Yes, microwaves, muumuus, and Mustangs have taken on whole new meaning since she fell in love and was lured south.
A year ago, Mom was living on her own, in Manhattan, where she'd lived pretty much her entire life. Looking great at 72, she streaked her hair stylishly gray, and worked out regularly at the gym across the street from her upper East Side apartment. She made regular visits to MOMA, the Met, Putumayo, Broadway, her Korean barber, book signings, and yes, the Starbucks on the corner, living a life many people dream about.
She's a writer - of published novels, stories, articles, book reviews, and most lately of memoirs chronicling her New York/Hollywood upbringing. She's a confirmed Democrat, full of opinions about the war in Iraq, Bill Clinton, and abortion. She's deaf in her left ear - so I'd talk to her right, about everything under the sun.
Living 3,000 miles away with three kids, I never get enough time to spend with her. But when I do, it's time well spent.
Last summer, while visiting a cousin upstate, Mom met a man a good deal older, and fell in love.
"This is serious," she told me.
"Serious? Who gets serious at 72?" I asked. "Aren't you too old for that?"
She chuckled, with a sly smile peering at me over her reading glasses: "Oh no, you're never too old, dearie."
"Serious" was enough apparently to compel Mom to fly down to see George in the Keys, defying Hurricanes Frances, Ivan, and Jeanne.
"Risk a hurricane for a guy?" I warned her that she was crazy. And clearly she was, giggling merrily that the hurricanes never touched their little paradise in the Keys. A month later, Mom called to tell me she was moving to Florida.
"Moving?!" I yelled. "You hardly know each other. Can't you just keep up the visits? Better yet, can't he move to New York?
"You're not the Florida type," I said, envisioning early-bird dinners, dinner theater, and nighttime "Jeopardy." "You're a New Yorker. You walk, you take the subway. The bus. You go to Bloomie's. You know where to get the best bagels. It's who you are."
But there was no talking her out of it. She was in love and had found a new home.
It wasn't just love that made Mom move. She badly needed a change of scenery. She'd been through more than her share of life's trials. In addition to raising four children, struggling through two divorces, and grieving the death of a longtime partner, she had lost my younger brother just after 9/11 when he was only 33 and still living with her. It was devastating, but in time, all of us got through it - including Mom, who lived on the same apartment.
"Don't you want to move?" we'd ask, thinking crosstown, not cross-continent.
"Where would I move?" she'd ask. Realistically, where else could she get such a great sublet? This was, after all, New York.
Then after a few months of knowing George, Mom called me with the news. They'd decided to get married. In a church.
"But you're an atheist. Why would you get married in a church?" I asked.
"Because ... churches are so peaceful."
A few weeks later, Mom called again. She and George wouldn't be getting married after all. If they did, George would lose his benefits from his late wife's health insurance. "Right," I said, recalling other senior couples who aren't married because their pension or health insurance benefits from a deceased spouse might end or be reduced by remarriage. It's easy to see that as Americans live longer, late-life remarriage may recast traditional assumptions about financial issues. One expert, John Migliaccio, president of the American Institute of Financial Gerontology, warns that remarriage should be examined carefully because financial aspects may be "irreversible" once marital status changes.
So, unnerved by the consequences, Mom and George decided to have a commitment ceremony at their home instead. And in May, I flew down to the Keys to witness my mother and George become committed. They talked about how they met and fell in love, exchanged rings, and kissed.
Mom's new life was suddenly not in Florida - it was right out of a '70s sitcom including a cast of characters with mullets and Dockers moving in and out of her house with the utmost of ease. And judging from the look on her face, she was there to stay.
When I tell my friends about Mom's big move, they say touché! To find love at 72! (Even if it meant sending 54 boxes of books 1,000 miles away.)
My mom - product of the '50s that she is - is simply happier when she is with a man she loves. And no amount of bagels or afternoons at MOMA could ever compete with that. It was that simple ... in Florida.
• Marion Siwek is a special education teacher.