Well, what is a soul mate? Not someone who’s identical to you, I’ve found, but a partner with whom you share values and a commitment to bring out the highest good in each other. As Ellen Burstyn puts it, “There’s a coupling of two people’s development into one path—so his development is as important to me as my own.”
Two of the women I met prayed for such a partner. Verlean Holland, 65, who lives in the Bronx, New York, lay down on her bed one night and said out loud: “Lord, I am sooo lonely. Please send me someone who will love me just for me, and I will love him for himself.” She prayed for a husband who shared her faith and “could go to church with me. That’s what I wanted most.”
The answer to her prayers was right under her nose. Verlean had been alone for 13 years, but she was always busy with her work for the board of education, her church, and her grandchildren. But in 2003, because of budget cuts, she lost her job testing vision and hearing in special ed children. That’s when she began to feel lonely.
Around the same time, a man in her extended circle, Rodney Holland, called “Pop” by friends and family, lost his son in a car crash. Pop had befriended Verlean’s youngest son, Tyrone, when her second oldest son was killed in a shooting. Pop, a retired postal worker, came to Verlean’s house on Thanksgiving and New Year’s, but she paid him no attention. “He was a friend of my baby’s,” she explains. Her friends teased her: “That man likes you.” Verlean would say, “No, he don’t.”
On New Year’s Eve 2003, Verlean, her son, and Pop went to church and then a party. Verlean couldn’t stand the loud rap music, so Pop escorted her home. Then he started calling and taking her to the movies. After a few weeks, he said, “We’re too old to be dating. I want a wife, not a girlfriend.”
Did you accept right away? I ask.
“Oh, yes, I wasn’t going to let him get away,” Verlean says. “Looking back, it was like a cake that had to be baked up. The man knew me, and I knew who he was. I liked his gentleness, and he treated me with high respect.”
At their church wedding, all their offspring and siblings walked down the aisle. Pop moved into Verlean’s apartment, “and that was the worst part,” she says. “That first year was haaaard. I’m used to doing things my way. I’m used to cleaning and picking up; he doesn’t clean and pick up. He likes to watch TV; I don’t,” she says. “Then I realized: I love him a lot, and he loves me a lot. Let me accept him the way he is—that’s what I asked for. Stop screaming about little things and just adapt.”
They set up a day room for Pop with his TV, “and I have my own room where I can pray and listen to gospel music,” Verlean says. She’s grateful to have someone “to grow old with. I escort him to the doctor and he escorts me. And we go to church together. I like to dress up, but at first he was casual. I told him, ‘A man needs to be in a suit on Sunday.’”
Donna Zerner, who lives in Boulder, Colorado, also prayed for a spiritual partner. In 2003 when I met Donna, an editor in her 40s, she said she’d never been in love and didn’t think it was possible. She had dated men but never felt she could be all she was or give herself completely to the relationship. She thought she might be “perpetually single” because she felt flawed. She also suspected that what other people call “being in love” was an illusion and that eventually they’d get their hearts broken. Despite these thoughts, she was still trying to find a “beautiful, healthy relationship.”
On New Year’s Eve 2005, Donna and I made a list of the qualities we desired in a mate. “Jewish” was at the top of her list. She’s a leader in the Jewish Renewal community and founded the Kosher Hams, a Jewish comedy improv troupe that performs at services and conferences. She had dated only men who were Jewish and couldn’t imagine sharing life with someone who wasn’t.
Not long after drawing up the list, Donna went to a multifaith conference. She found a chair beside David Frenette, who she thought was the “cutest guy in the room.” During the three-day conference, they sat together, talked, and went for a walk. David invited her to a movie, and “by the second date, we realized something amazing was going on,” Donna says. They seemed a perfect match: They made each other laugh, they liked the same books and films, they both craved solitude, neither drank alcohol, and both are gluten intolerant. It was perfect, except...David wasn’t Jewish. He was a Christian spiritual counselor who’d lived like a monk for 12 years. It was his intense spiritual devotion that made their union possible.
“He was much more interested in and open to Judaism than any of the Jewish guys I’d dated,” Donna says. She brought him to Jewish Renewal services, which he loved. “And I became interested in his path of contemplative Christianity,” she says. They found they could meet “in that place beyond religion. For both of us, religion is a path to God, and our commitment to God goes beyond any organized structure. That’s what really bonds us.”
Unlike the other couples, Donna and David haven’t had any conflict. “Not even a moment of irritation,” Donna says.
That defies credulity, for me. Neither had been married or had children. What are the odds they could connect in their 40s and not have a single argument?
“No one will believe it,” Donna says. “I don’t believe it. It’s like grace.” They haven’t lived together and don’t wish to marry yet, but this past August, they invited their friends to a “commitzvah” ceremony to celebrate their interdependence. “We wanted to publicly express our gratitude for this relationship and set intentions for our future,” Donna says. “We both know this is it—we’re done looking.”