I Fell In Love With A Man More Than Twice My Age. I Wasn't Prepared For What Marrying Him Would Mean.

The author with Vern on their wedding day.
The author with Vern on their wedding day.

The author with Vern on their wedding day.

I was 24, working for the Ohio State Historic Preservation Office. He was 56, running a small chain of hardware stores. I met him when I showed a film to the Retail Merchants Association and the Chamber of Commerce. When he called and invited me to lunch the next day, I thought he might be offering me a job.

“I’m looking for a preservationist,” he said, chuckling.

“Sure,” I said. I was happy to talk with anyone about rehabilitating old structures.

I met Vern in his cramped 1950s-style office at the back of Fairley Hardware. He sat in the middle of a cloud of smoke, pinching the stub of a smoldering Pall Mall. In his khaki pants, blue wool cardigan and plaid Brooks Brothers shirt, he looked like the picture of 1950s middle-class America, complete with oak desk, leather briefcase and wool hat. I liked him immediately.

It sounds corny, but something about Vern was magnetic. His eyes sparkled and I found myself feeling lighter, happier, and more confident in his presence. By the time we finished lunch, I felt like skipping home. Six months later, the day Vern kissed me, I felt electricity down the back of my neck, all the way to my toes. I flipped head over heels. 

By then he was telling people, “She’s a preservationist and I need preserving.” Divorced with two grown daughters, he said he saw me as an opportunity to recover some of his youthful energy and spirit. We got married a year after that first kiss.

A friend’s parents warned me that Vern was about to ruin my life. Members of my own family were outraged. Not only were my parents shocked by my plans to marry Vern, but they made bad jokes about us. My father thought it was hilarious to say things like “I think your mother has the hots for Vern.” Then he’d jab her in the waist with his elbow and my mother would giggle.

My sister wanted to know if we planned to have children. I nodded, then told her we’d talked about it.

“I like Vern and everything, but seriously? You’re going to have kids? What if he dies?” She sounded genuinely concerned for my future.

I didn’t hesitate. “If we have five great years, it’s better than none.”

“I guess so,” she said, shrugging.

But I didn’t worry then about time, age, or the impact of Vern’s decades of chain-smoking. Or about the imbalance of power that sometimes erupted between us due to our ages. I liked that Vern was in charge; I’d been conditioned from the time I was a young girl to do what I was told, and was comfortable with the wise old master dynamic.

Though it did make me uncomfortable that he had an ex-wife and two grown daughters who knew him a whole lot better than I did, I felt less like an outsider once we started a family of our own. Family and friends I loved would eventually come around to respecting our decision to marry and I would recognize their original judgment as stemming from discomfort and fear.

Over time, though, reality set in. Although we enjoyed a beautiful marriage that in many ways was what I had imagined as a young woman, within five years of meeting Vern, I indeed became a widow and single parent with two children under the age of 5 to raise on my own.

Do I regret it? Not for a second. But there were other aspects of the relationship I wasn’t prepared for.

Like the culture gaps. When you have a partner the age of your parents, there can be a lack of commonality when it comes to generational identity. I’d grown up with flower power, free love and rock ‘n’ roll. Vern had grown up with the rise of Hitler, the Spanish Civil War and Perry Como. When he compared my car to Fibber Magee’s closet, my parents laughed. They remembered a radio show called ”Fibber Magee and Molly” that featured an overstuffed closet. Since the program had ended when I was 2, I had no idea what was so funny. 

Marrying someone a generation older or younger can create huge disparities in shared history, and in the beginning of our relationship, those disparities embarrassed me. Over time, I discovered that the differences in our experience of music, movies and popular culture provided great material for fun conversation with friends, but I had to first reach a willingness to relax and celebrate those differences with Vern.

Vern taught me about the native birds and historical sites of southern Ohio. In turn, I served as his emotional support and sidekick — fixing meals, taking care of the kids, and occasionally providing feedback related to issues at the store. We shared funny stories from our childhood, and talked about the differences in our parents’ approaches to parenting.

But with a 32-year age difference, there were times when I wanted Vern to be less old-fashioned and more energetic. I missed listening to my music, working out and attending events with people my age. There were times when it irritated me that he spent so much time with his nose in a book, marinating in his thoughts, and enjoying the silence.

If I had taken the time to talk with Vern about his reading, to ask him about the books he loved and why, I think it would have taken our relationship to a deeper level. He loved to sail and I never sailed with him, not even once. I spent way too much time complaining that things weren’t getting done, that I was doing all the work. Vern’s more acute realization of our limited time together meant that nothing for him needed to be rushed. 

Talking about sex in wide age gaps can be cringeworthy. What I can say is that age didn’t have an impact on libido for Vern and me. Our challenge was his health condition. There were times when his smoking and chronic bronchitis caused him to cough so hard that he could barely breathe. I was terrified that by initiating sex I would be contributing to his problems and adding unnecessary tension to the relationship. Or worse, that I would kill him off.

Also, the imbalance of power is real, and needs tending. Even though I was comfortable being told what to do and felt nurtured and taken care of in the beginning of our relationship, over time, as I gained confidence, I found myself less willing to go along with some of Vern’s demands. Under pressure, he would lecture me or slip into a parenting role, which felt patronizing. My reaction was to say, “Whatever,” and walk away.

Today, I would seek advice from a therapist. Learning to address the imbalance of power would’ve helped Vern to show more empathy. It also might’ve helped me to not take his teaching moments so personally. 

Over time, I realized it was not the sex, but the intimacy we shared, that made our relationship so special.

When Vern and I first married, his death in five short years was the last thing on my mind. He mentioned that someday I might have to serve as his caregiver, but I thought nothing of it. Of course, I would do whatever was necessary, but that would be far in the future.

As it turned out, the day came sooner than either of us imagined. From the first day of our marriage, Vern did what he could to make sure his papers were in order. He also took time to give me the history of his most treasured personal belongings. But before I was emotionally ready to accept his poor health, I found myself making his appointments, measuring his meds, advocating for him with his health care providers, and providing personal care at home.

Accepting that Vern might die was one of the most difficult things I dealt with in our marriage, but preparing for his death—especially in discussing our wishes for the children— gave me more support when it happened. Preparing for Vern’s death together, before he grew ill, helped me to feel a connection to him long into the future.

My insecurities about how Vern’s grown daughters perceived me created a lot of tension and stress that I avoided to some extent by keeping my distance. Today we rarely communicate. I wish I had taken the time to build better relationships with them. We shared a love for Vern and fond memories that could be a source of joy and connection.    

When I married Vern at 24, I believed I had my feet firmly planted on the ground. Today, I see our marriage differently. I believe we were both greater idealists than realists. I was immature, an imaginative kid, willing to risk the possibility of future heartache for my immediate enjoyment. Vern believed in me and did his best to reassure me that I would be able to handle things after he was gone. But I think he imagined that my life would be easier without him than it actually turned out to be.

Now, more than 35 years after his passing, I feel grateful that I adjusted my goals with Vern’s timeline in mind. We took the trips we always wanted, ate often at that special restaurant we loved, and visited those relatives we wanted to see one last time. Our time together was limited, but these are memories that I will always treasure.

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