It really was ridiculous, if not obscene and disgusting. There I was, seventy-six years old and in love. But no! Switch off. Ridiculous I may be, often, but obscene and disgusting? Perhaps rather than in my behavior some obscenity lies in the way modern trends have corrupted natural affection between the sexes. Perhaps what is disgusting is the universal assumption that love is the province of youth alone and that old people's love should be restricted to a few chaste, impromptu expressions of affection for their grandchildren.
Please understand. I am talking about true love, romantic love. As a nouveau veuf (a widower for the previous year), I was happily surprised to discover that age has nothing to do with love between people. At first I couldn't believe it. No one had told me oldsters can fall in love. Romantic literature says almost nothing about it. Instead it dishes up poems such as "The Aged Lover Renounces Love"
that imply romantic love among the elderly is not possible.1
Queen Elizabeth I, it is said, once asked William Shakespeare to write a play in which his humorous old character Sir John Falstaff falls in love. The result was the burlesque entitled The Merry Wives of Windsor, which has the rotund Falstaff appearing as a "comical gallant." He exhibits no symptoms of love whatsoever, but his dalliances with the wives cause him to seek refuge in a laundry basket. I'm here to tell you that's not the way it is.
The very idea of ageing love remains a popular joke in our own time. Two old flabs playing love-dovey? Such silliness! Bring on the gag writers.
Regardless of what conventional wisdom or ignorance has to say on the subject, in the year 1987 Miss Ruth Evelyn Love, a charming unmarried lady of a mere sixty-one summers, captured my heart. I fell head over heels in love, and at this time of writing, some years later, still wouldn't trade places with any human being on earth. I am sailing through my eighties under full canvas with a congenial mate on board, without having had to take recourse to ram glands, implants, transplants, injections, concoctions, porn flicks, rhinoceros horns, mandrakes or other aphrodisiacs. Talk to me about a younger self, about anti-ageing rejuvenation, about live-cell injections of fetal sheep extract. I'll talk to you about a bouquet of flowers, a whisper in the ear, a hand on the arm, a valentine, a love letter, a dinner out, a whiff of cologne. I'll talk about tennis and golf and boat rides and a trail that's easy to climb.
Love, I've discovered, is just as potent a factor in relations between men and women at seventy or eighty as it is at eighteen or twenty-five or forty. Regardless of how long one has been drawing Social Security, one can enjoy the thrills of attraction, fascination, affection, and all the rest of it.
Many a novel has built its theme around the "tragedy" of the ageing process. The gaunt old lover is described as so repulsive in his hoary antiquity that before the final page of the book, like Poe's Monsieur Ernest Valdemar, he seems to shrink and decompose into a "nearly liquid mass." Many a doleful singer has warbled about the "dear dead days beyond recall." The aged Negro slave is required to sing, "Gone are the days when my heart was young and gay." Sigmund Romberg, who should have known better, cranked out some bathos disguised as nostalgia with his song, "When I Grow Too Old to Dream." I have news for all of them: We are never too old to dream!
But the dirges never quit. "There's nothing left for me of days that used to be," except our memories, our scrapbooks, and Sloan's Liniment. It's so sad, this growing old, they say; the arteries harden, the bloom withers, and the love interest becomes a vapor. "For age, with stealing steps hath clawed me with his clutch."1
Bunk! Hogwash! Plenty of "geriatrics" will tell
you that heart-to-heart love is better when you are older than it ever was during the frantic mating dance of youth.
You may be thinking of some venerable person who is hardly a candidate for (to use an unpleasant contemporary expression) a "meaningful relationship." In many such cases such persons are struggling with their health; and it's true that during such struggles one does not easily fall in love. But that's equally true when we're young; good health is desirable for any human activity. Our Lord Jesus Christ had infinite compassion upon suffering humanity, an attribute He passed on to His church. We who bear His Name are called to follow His steps, but that is another subject. This discussion is aimed not at victims of failing health, but rather at the millions of older people who are vigorous and active.
Quite apart from physical problems, true love between older married couples can be impaired by cranky dispositions, selfishness, unpleasant conversational styles, carelessness in personal appearance, indifference toward others, a bitter spirit, ugly habits, poor taste, and lack of self-discipline. But again, such sins are not committed exclusively by seniors. It may be true that we tend to "get in a rut," but love can pry a senior out of his or her rut as quickly as it can pry anyone else.
One of the popular myths about old age is that people are supposed to become more religious as they get older. That's more of the same moonshine.
The devotional sentiment is a constant in any serious believer, regardless of age. If older people seem to have more zeal, or interest, than younger ones, it is simply that they have more time on their hands and want to put it to good use. In the same way love is a plant that never dies as long as it is watered.
We read in the press about "safe sex," "partners," and "condoms," and it makes me wonder what has happened to true love. Where is the lover who kisses the envelope that bears a note from his or her beloved? Who sings love ballads in the shower? Who lies in bed dreaming of eyes and hair? Who starts writing poetry for the first time? Who holds hands at the symphony? Who drives for miles checking out restaurants so that Darling will have a delectable meal? Who telephones long distance every ten minutes until the beloved walks in the door? Who has one's hair cut the way Sweetheart wants it cut? Who dawdles away at the perfume counter, telegraphs flowers halfway to nowhere, shoots up rolls of film on one alluring subject, and waits hours for the beloved to walk by and thinks nothing of the wait?
True love between a man and a woman is what gives zest to all of life something the ascetics, dissolutes, and offbeats will never know. A mother of five children, married to the same man for eighteen years, told me that her "heart still turns over" when he walks through the door.
What has happened to this feeling in the populace as a whole? Where has it gone? Who stole
it away? Where is the call of heart to heart, the devotion of lover to lover, the bond so strong the most awesome weapon could not sever it? What a tragedy if the twentieth century were to go down in history as the era that enthroned lust, put an end to romance and reduced a dearly beloved to a "significant other."
I've been told that romance actually began in the eleventh century A.D. with the troubadours of Provence in France, but I don't believe it. True love relationships have always existed between men and women. Charming romances are found in ancient literature, even in the Bible stories of Isaac and Rebekah and Boaz and Ruth.
But to speak candidly, the church hasn't quite known what to do with romance, particularly that segment of the church that appears to think sex is first cousin to sin and celibacy is a synonym for holiness. Theologians in the past have taught that God instituted marriage "for the propagation of the race and the alleviation of concupiscence." They considered romantic love between a man and a woman an inferior motive for marriage or for anything else. Why? Chiefly because of the high position it accorded to women as principal personages. When romantic man and romantic woman face each other, it is as equals. This was unacceptable. Accordingly romance was denigrated as mere froth, a subtle manifestation of the flesh, an unwelcome intrusion into the realm of the spiritual.
When romance boldly reared its head, as it does in the Song of Songs, which is Solomon's, it
forced the ancient church to come to terms with it, as it had forced the rabbis at an even earlier date. Rather than face the embarrassment of pure and genuine sensuality in the context of Holy Scripture, the church chose to allegorize the book into something "spiritual."2 Thus the comely young Shulammite girl who called herself the "rose of Sharon" became the church itself. I say let's stay with the Song of Songs as it was written. I say allegories are dandy, but the real thing is better. A kiss on warm lips is worth a hundred kisses blown to the wind or planted on a chunk of cold statuary.
Don't misunderstand me. My love for the Lord Jesus Christ is very real, and it's going to last forever. I talk with Him every hour; for me He is the way, the truth, and the life. My love for my wife, Ruth, is just as real, but it is on a different level. My love for her is music, fragrance, nectar, visions of loveliness, sweet words, an arm about the waist, hugs, and more hugs. Such joys only deepen my love for Jesus, for I am well aware of the source of what has come to me.
It is true that romance is easily carried to extremes until it becomes impractical, but I contend that is not true love. To say I would "gather every star out of the blue," or "make a string of pearls out of the dew," all for my lover, doesn't pull much weight if I'm not willing to carry out the trash. True love is not only forever; it is for this day, as we think of little ways to help and please the beloved. It is there when things go right and when things go wrong.
Our marriage was sealed on August 29, 1987, and to drop into the language of the day, it has been a winner from the start. I had a prescient feeling that we were an unusual combination, but the end result has been such that I can't believe it. Ruth is a quiet, modest, conservative, devout, gracious, intelligent, circumspect person of Canadian birth and Irish background, who chooses the path of propriety in all things. She writes with a clear hand, keeps good accounts, cooks, entertains, sews, dresses appropriately and attractively, keeps a neat house, shops, drives safely, and generally has her life together. She went to business college, has worked all her life, and reads the Bible daily.
I knew most of that when I married her. What I didn't know was how much fun she is.
We have sailed in a catamaran off the coast of Maui. We have hiked up Conicle Peak in the South Island of New Zealand. We have strolled along the Cape Cod beaches at Provincetown. We have camped on the floor of Yosemite Valley, floated down the Merced River, and watched climbers on El Capitan. We have passed out tracts and talked with people about the Lord on the streets of Hamilton, Scotland, and Mazatlan, Mexico. We have lunched on the Queen Mary and gaped at the size of Charles Lindbergh's little plane in the Smithsonian Air Museum. We have joined in giving away shoes, shirts, and suits to the homeless who came to our church looking for help. We have cuddled koala bears in Australia, viewed the British Columbia Coastal
Range atop Whistler Mountain, and feasted on tostadas in Tijuana.
In all this time it has been a marriage free from argument; the first angry word to each other has yet to be spoken. And yet we are just ordinary people who spend hours every day working at different things, who read the papers and watch the news and react to life much the way you do. In fact, I have tried to understand what it is that has made this marriage into a long, extended honeymoon.
The answer, of course, is Jesus. We keep very close to Him. We love to work for Him. Coming from somewhat different church backgrounds, we find we have the same basic beliefs about life and death, Heaven and Hell. In addition we spend a great deal of our waking moments building up each other, and we tread softly around the other person's weaknesses. Over and over again we emphasize our love for each other. We also use a good many straight-out words of commendation not flattery that is secretly calculated to bend the other's will, but compliments drawn from personal opinion based on observable facts. For example, I tell her a dozen times a day that she is looking good. All I do is verbalize it, and she seems to like to hear it. We dwell on the things we like about each other. In addition we pray for each other and thank God for each other. I never get tired of hearing Ruth tell our Lord how much I mean to her.
Ruth has saved me from making hundreds of
small mistakes. Some of them (those I made on the freeway) could have cost my life. But it is not just mutual aid that makes our marriage so special. It is the Holy Spirit. He does more than control us; He overwhelms us with His love. He pours it in and tops it off. What we do for this marriage is principally to react enthusiastically and gratefully to what He is doing for it.
Neither of us has had an easy life. We have known struggle, sorrow, and disappointment. The tragedies of life still affect us deeply, particularly when they touch our friends and loved ones. But when one has health and is in good spirits, and there's food in the fridge and peace in the family and the neighborhood, one can sometimes lay aside the sorrows of the planet for the moment, and count it all joy, and put arms around one's spouse, and praise the Lord.
Ruth and I are seldom apart, but once we were, and I was invited to dine out with friends. I chose to wear a blue necktie she had given me. It seems far-fetched, but I felt as if I were a dashing, brave knight of old, entering a tournament wearing the colors of his lady on his sleeve. And why not? "There never was knight like the young Lochinvar."3 Never was, that is, until this old boy made the scene in Ruth's blue tie at Anthony's fish grotto.
Away with all this nonsense about love dying out, about the "seven-year itch" and the "mid-life crisis." Away with all the phony marriage counseling that encourages infidelity as a way to resolve a marital impasse. "Is your marriage
going stale? Try an extra-marital affair. Rent an X-rated movie. Go bisexual." That is the actual advice being peddled in scores of serious counseling books. But I can refer you to thousands of couples who just squeeze each other's hands and laugh at such blots on the excutcheon of marriage.
When reciprocated, true love never dies; but it can be betrayed by lust or suffocated either by pride or sarcasm or just plain meanness. And that's true no matter how old you are. Statistics coming to light about physical spouse abuse are not just alarming, they are terrifying; but many of us know from childhood that harsh words spoken in the home can be fully as disastrous in their lasting effect.
What this world needs in the 1990s are role models of older men and women who will speak out clearly and convincingly about the success factors in their marriages and all their other relationships. Many people don't believe that goodness, kindness, and love work anymore. What works, they believe, is a cocked fist.
I like what Artemus Ward wrote well over a century ago in a humorous but noble tribute to George Washington. "George," he said, "never slopt over."4 That's a great word for our time. When we can keep our marriages from slopping over, they're the most satisfying and rewarding relationships going. God is love, and it's His love and faithfulness that make the world go 'round.
What a wonderful thing it is to discover that we are never too old to love! And it would be even
more wonderful if the church of Jesus Christ were actively to foster real, old-fashioned romance not to get people to attend its services, and certainly not to encourage promiscuity; but just to bring true love back into a world that has almost forgotten what it is.
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1. Thomas, Lord Vaux, The Aged Lover Renounceth Love, quoted in William Shakespeare, Hamlet, act 5, scene 1.
2. See Henry H. Halley, Halley's Bible Handbook, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986), 278.
3. Lochinvar in the hero of a ballad in Sir Walter Scott's narrative poem "Marmion," published in 1808.
4. Artemus Ward, "G. Washington, Patrit."
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