Iowa-- Mike Mansmith and Nancy Conner spotted each other across the retirement community's dining hall.
Both were widowed and both thought they were done with romantic entanglements. Mike, 77, figured nobody would want an old widower; Nancy, 73, thought she was committed to her freedom.
Just down the hall, Jack Bedford, 95, was taking his wife, Colleen, 91, for a spin. They had been married 72 years but the fun wasn't over. She sat on the small seat of his wheeled walker while he pushed as fast as he could, and they howled like youngsters.
New love was a possibility in old age, just as old love was made new, in the same place.
Romance and comfort
The idea dawned on him like the lyrics of an old love song. Mike Mansmith would make her a pecan pie.
He finally had the chance to talk to Nancy Conner last spring when she joined a group from Edgewater attending a women's basketball game in Ames.
The plush West Des Moines retirement community was not devoid of entertainment and romantic possibilities among the resort-like bars and restaurants, the exercise rooms and common areas, where residents can sip wine aside a chocolate sculpture made by a chef in a white hat. In fact, three other couples there had recently met and begun relationships.
Mike and Nancy found much in common. Love of flowers. Travels to the same places. The recent loss of longtime spouses. And enough differences. She had a gentle twang from her Oklahoma roots, having moved here to be near her daughter. He was a longtime area resident who had retired long ago from a career at AT&T.
Nancy ordered pecan pie during the group's post-game outing to Perkins but was disappointed they didn't have any. Few things in retirement are more heartbreaking than the thwarted desire of a chosen sweet.
Later, standing before her Edgewater apartment door, was this man and a pecan pie.
"It was just wonderful," she said. "In the olden days I made these, but not this good. Why? He didn't worry if it wasn't perfect."
Jack and Colleen Bedford have two rooms now, but they pray together every night. He fell down and broke his shoulder and had to move from their assisted living apartment into skilled nursing, where attendants could provide 24-hour care.
They can't sleep together and that bothers them after 72 years. One of their two children will call him and Jack will ask, "Where is mother?"
"You don't know how long you are going to live," Jack said. "Why waste it when you ought to be with your spouse?"
They still spend the days together. He suffered health problems before when he thought he was having a heart attack. Doctors realized it was sharp soreness from pushing his wife down the hall on the seat of his walker.
Memories are now a constant joy. Memories of dancing and travels, raising children, his work as vice president of a sheet metal company that provided such security.
"He was always kind and that put a smile on my soul," said Colleen.
"It takes time to remember something that changes your whole view of everything," Jack said. "We grew together. It isn't that I didn't love our kids, but my wife was number one. We danced through life. Now we help one another. After all, time is closing down."
New love and enduring faith
Mike and Nancy learned how to date again. "You don't go to bars. You don't go dancing. You don't go out back parking," he said, laughing.
They went to dinner, Iowa State ballgames and the theater. They compared lives. She had three children and he had two. Both were married for decades before enduring several years of caring for ill spouses before they died.
They soon realized everything was on the table. They could talk about anything with no long-buried resentments or tender subjects to avoid.
By summer, Mike was ready to ask her to meet his children and grandchildren on their yearly July 4 celebration at his lake house in Okoboji.
"I felt like I was being tested," Nancy said.
His children were happy to see her, happy he had someone to spend his time with. She admired how close he was to his family. It couldn't have gone better. That weekend it dawned on them that they were good together.
"It wasn't this explosion," Mike said. "Old people don't explode."
"You hold on and keep the faith," Colleen said of their 72-year marriage.
They kept the faith when money was short. "We stuck together," Jack said. "We were poor and didn't realize it, didn't care, because there was a strong tie between the two of us."
They kept the faith when he left for World War II, on a train with fellow Marines, when he heard a passenger say he'd be sorry for leaving her behind. They missed each other but made it.
"Only one time ..." Jack said.
It was the darkest time, one to endure. Frustration built during an argument. It was the only time he shook his fist at her, unintentionally grazing her nose. "You struck me!" she said.
"That sealed it right there," Jack said. "I never raised my fist to her again."
Semper fidelis, he remembered from his Marine days. It means "always faithful." His son Barry said he's never seen a man love a woman like his father loves his mother.
Fights and vows
They were at dinner when Mike and Nancy had their first fight. Everything had clicked before then, and he had made up his mind. They should get married.
They had traveled Iowa, and he proudly showed her the sites, such as the Amana Colonies. They never ran out of things to say on the drive, never even turned on the radio. They took their meals together and even some days other Edgewater residents joked that they wore the same color clothes.
But she was unsure about marriage. He pushed. She stormed back to her apartment.
"It's not that I didn't like being with him anymore," Nancy said. "We just needed our space. I thought of the things we had done and asked how it would be different if we were married."
Mike knocked on her door again, this time without a pie.
Jack didn't get down on his knee but he had a ring. He was studying engineering in college but people told him he was a natural at sales, and this just might be his biggest sales job. He asked Colleen, the woman he met in his hometown who had also moved to Des Moines to work as a secretary, if she would like to marry.
"The diamond in the middle represents my love for you," Jack said. "And the diamonds on the side represent how I will guard and protect you."
It was a rainy Saturday night in the garden when they married before another couple and a preacher that Jack paid $15 from the $21 left in his bank account. It was May 11, 1940, and they were so young.
"Is that all there is to getting married, stand up and say your vows?" Jack asked the preacher. "Now what do we do?"
"You're on your own," the preacher said.
They took the couple out to eat for $5 and had $1 left.
There was no 100-cent honeymoon. Jack just said he knew that he had to believe from here on out that this women was the most wonderful person in the world. That would make more happiness than money.
Mike and Nancy looked out the car window to the fall landscape of northeast Iowa. They had known each other for only six months and the night when Mike knocked on her apartment door was important.
They had hashed it all out. What was to gain against all the legal entanglements, their children's possible concerns and cramming all their stuff together in one space? They decided not to marry. Together they were better, unmarried but just as committed.
"You take what you got," said Mike, as the leaves turned to another season, another period of their lives.
In the morning they were awakened at their country bed and breakfast by a mooing cow. They thought it would be a rooster and laughed at their unexpected pleasure.
It dawned on Mike that they would never marry, that this moment was a forever, and that was OK.
"We get this time now. We don't have to be 21," he said.
They are not girlfriend and boyfriend and they laugh as the children stammer while calling them "significant others."
"It is different," Nancy said. "People out here always say, 'I used to run so fast.' Most of us have our little ailments. Lord, we're in our 70s so we have a lot of them."
Mike has a bad hip and Nancy broke her leg a while back, and a few weeks ago they both fell down coming out of church. He was at her bedside and now helps her with his bad rotator cuff.
Whatever this relationship is called, Mike and Nancy would call that love.
There was no way to know in 1939 that when Jack looked out to the street dance in New Sharon, Ia., he would be dancing with this woman for seven decades. He just knew "this little black-haired woman, my god, she could dance."
("I had brown hair," Colleen would say 74 years later.)
There was no way she could know that dashing man without a nickel would dazzle her, then disappear.
Colleen's father had told her she needed to earn her own money, so in high school she worked at the grocery in New Sharon. The owners had urged her to join them at that dance, and now she stood there wondering where the man had gone who had a "potent combination" of good looks and excellent dance moves.
One after another, other men asked her to dance.
"I had four, five good buddies with me and I said, 'Look, would you mind asking that girl to dance and tell me what you think?' They reported back. They put her on the 'OK' list and that was it. We got locked together."
There was no way to tell that seven decades later in a retirement home, the woman would say that the man had made her life full and fun, that the man would say he had always stayed really in love with the woman and everything was built around that. No way to tell that they would dance at Des Moines halls through the 1940s and '50s, and clear through 2000.
On that night in 1939 under the stars, they just moved to the music and looked in each other's eyes, unaware that one day, if they were lucky and faithful and loving, Jack could say, "We danced through life."
Source: Des Moines Registar