As I get older, I hear more frequently about people who fall in love again with boyfriends from the past. This strikes me as auspicious: You already know the person, and presumably you’ve attained more wisdom to make the relationship work.
Marta Vago, an executive coach in Santa Monica, California, was 62 when she received an e-mail from her first love, Stephen Manes, whom she’d started dating the summer she was 14, after meeting him at a piano master class in Vermont. She and Stephen were a couple for three years, parting when she was 17 and he was 21.
Forty-six years later, Stephen wrote to Marta saying that his wife of 43 years had died of cancer, he was coming to Los Angeles to rehearse with his chamber music trio, and could he take her out to lunch? Curious and amused, Marta suggested that he come to her house and she’d order in sushi: “I want to hear you play.”
Marta lives in a cottage filled with art and antiques. Her piano is in her bedroom, so after lunch, Stephen played a Beethoven sonata while she sat on the bed. “It was exactly how it had been when I would visit him at his apartment near Juilliard,” she says. “He would play, and I would sit on the bed. In some ways it felt as if no time had passed, and in some ways I was with a stranger.”
They’d been apart all their working lives. Stephen had pursued one calling—performing and teaching music—and he’d loved only two women: Marta and his wife. Marta had left music, earned a PhD in psychology, and lived with different men, sometimes marrying them and sometimes not.
In 2006, she’d been alone for five years when she traveled to Budapest and found the city alive with culture and vibrant people. “I thought, 'If I’m not married or engaged by my next birthday, I’m going to retire in Budapest,'“ she recalls. “That statement told me that I really wanted to be married, and if I wasn’t, I would make a big change in my life.”
She hired a matchmaker, who arranged a few dates that fizzled. The matchmaker told her: “My dear, you look too old. That’s not gonna fly.” Because Marta coached executives, she’d always worn her hair severely short and dressed in “scary-looking suits.” By the time Stephen’s e-mail arrived, she’d ditched the suits and let her hair grow out soft and curly. Five months after their reunion, she and Stephen were engaged.
While Marta’s teenage love had made the first move, Sally Grounds, 72, set things in motion at her 50th high school reunion. Sally had run with the most popular girls and football players at University High in Los Angeles. At the reunion, Sally, who’s 51, spotted a man who was 65, trim, strong, and tan as a surfer—Gene Grounds. He was a surfer, and also a banker, who had flown in from Hawaii.
Sally went up to him and asked, “Do you remember me?"
“Of course,” Gene said. He’d asked her out once, for grad night, and had been nervous she’d say no because he didn’t belong to her crowd. Sally remembers Gene as “kind of intellectual, and he wore braces.” But at the reunion, Gene, at 71, was a standout. “All the other men had potbellies,” Sally says.
In January of this year, Sally closed up her home in Palm Desert, California, and flew to Honolulu, carrying two suitcases. “I felt like a war bride,” she recalls. Gene was barefoot when he picked her up at the airport and placed a lei around her neck. They’d spent a few months getting to know each other, sailing on his trimaran and visiting each other’s homes; then he proposed.
Sally and Gene hadn’t been in love before, but they had much in common now: Both had lost their spouses to illness, and they shared a zest for adventure and hunger for spiritual fulfillment.
When she moved into Gene’s house, where his 39-year-old son and new wife (who happens to be my niece) live in an upstairs suite, Sally started to cry. She’d known the house was a bachelor pad, but now she had to learn to live in it. Gene and his son Daniel surf 10-foot waves and do long-distance swims between the islands. They had surfboards on the walls, and a boat in the garage, along with mountains of boxes filled with junk, Sally says. The paint was peeling, the bathrooms were moldy, and cockroaches were on parade. As Daniel put it, “We had a roof over our heads. A dead gecko in the closet? Whatever. My dad said he’d rather live with dirt than use chemical cleaning products.” Sally put on rubber gloves and went through the house with Clorox. Slowly, she’s been sorting and discarding boxes—"I had to fight for space,” she says—painting walls and, with Gene’s help, picking out fabrics to reupholster the furniture. “I gave up my perfect little house in the desert, my friends, my style of living,” she says. “But I would do anything to be with Gene. I’ve never loved anybody like this and never thought I could. I feel such a bond because we went to school together, and we can really communicate. You know how very few men can communicate? This one tells you everything.”
Sally’s lifelong passion has been dancing, and she’s always been afraid of the water. Now she’s learning to swim, and Gene is learning to dance. They pray together daily and attend church meetings. “Are we soul mates?” Sally asks. Gene answers: “Yes.”