Older people may have a harder time finding a life partner, but when they do, they often create more harmonious relationships than the young. The couples we talked to for this article share their personal experiences.
Shirley and John
Neither Shirley Rushing nor John Poteet was looking for a new relationship when circumstances brought them together, back in 1992. At the time, she was the chairwoman of Trinity University’s department of physical education, and he worked for the Cooper Institute in Dallas, the premier research and education organization devoted to healthy living practices. The two had known each other as colleagues for years, so in 1992 Shirley called John to ask if he could assist Trinity in the implementation of the Cooper fitness and wellness program at the school.
“Then I found out there was no money in the budget for a consulting fee, so I married him!” jokes Shirley. Actually, they did not marry until several years later, but John did come to San Antonio to help his then colleague without pay.
He was divorced, she a widow of eight years who had absolutely no plans to remarry. Her first marriage to Paul Rushing had been a happy one, and she didn’t want to settle “for anything less.” But life has a way of writing unexpected scripts for us. Through visits and friendly dinners, the pair soon discovered that the nature of their relationship was changing. “It was surprising to me that things developed as fast as they did,” confides Shirley as the three of us sit together in their sunroom on a pleasant November afternoon. “To me as well,” adds John. “I had had a personal and professional respect for Shirley for years. We would see each other at meetings almost every year. But after I came to help her committee at Trinity, a deeper mutual appreciation quickly grew into deep love”
For three years, until John retired, the pair maintained a long-distance San Antonio-Dallas relationship before they wed in a small ceremony in 1995, attended only by their respective children and his grandkids. He was 66, she 61. Life has been good ever since. The union is very different, however, from her first one, says Shirley. “In the first marriage, you are focused on having a family, buying a house, getting ahead in your career. All of that was behind us when we married,” she explains. “We had no pressures. It was almost too good to be true.”
They have the same basic values as practicing Christians — and members of the Covenant Presbyterian Church — and have both personal and common interests. Both are into fitness, and both love traveling. After she retired, Shirley taught dance on cruise ships for 10 years, and John always helped her. They continued cruising afterwards, eventually visiting just about every part of the globe, from Europe and South America to Australia and New Zealand. Another favorite pursuit, which also involves traveling, is taking part in the Road Scholar Program, which consists of week-long educational seminars “for mature adults,” as John puts it. Learning is combined with adventure and socializing with people who share your interests. But they also know how to create space for each other’s individuality within their bond. When he takes off on biking trips, for instance, she finds something else to focus on, often with his help.
“That’s important. We are not joined at the hip,” says John. ”There are no resentments or fights. In fact, I believe we have never raised our voices to one another. You mellow a lot with age; we accept each other’s imperfections and don’t sweat the small stuff.” Shirley, who has lost both a husband and a daughter, embraces the same view. Ordinary setbacks or displeasures are simply not worth becoming aggravated.
Since it’s not unusual for remarrying folks to end up with a second spouse who has a similar personality as the first one, I ask them if this was the case with them. Shirley takes that on. “There are similarities and some differences,” she says. “A spiritual foundation is the same; tenderness, patriotism and a caring for others are the same. The main difference is that my first husband was a workaholic. It consumed a great deal of his life. (He ran several businesses.) John is not interested in money. I do the paying of the bills. My first husband was very good with financial matters.”
John listens to her but then points out that he, too, was kind of a workaholic in his profession earlier in life even if his work did not include financial risks. They settle on defining Paul Rushing as a risk taker.
Now in their 80s, both Mr. and Mrs. Poteet are fit, healthy and, yes, optimistic. On this day, they are wearing the same Meals-on-Wheels uniforms because they just finished delivering the meals to home-bound elders. “We feel blessed to have each other and to be in good health,” says John, putting his arm around his wife’s shoulders.
Lilly and Daniel
Like the Poteets, Lilly Gardner and Daniel Kobialka had a long-distance relationship for a while and also connected with each other through a work-related situation. Like Shirley, Lilly was widowed, while Daniel was recovering from a difficult divorce. Unlike the Poteets, however, they had not known each other for years.
After her first husband succumbed to Alzheimer’s disease, Lilly felt a need to engage with new people, which led her to become an adviser/mentor with SCORE Mentoring, an organization that provides free mentoring assistance to small businesses. At some point, Daniel’s music recording business, LiSem Enterprises, was assigned to her. The two corresponded for months before meeting in person at a nonprofit conference in San Francisco where Daniel lived at the time. “We started courting, and one thing led to another, and I eventually decided to move to San Antonio to spend my days with Lilly,” says Daniel, now in his mid-70s. “It was not an easy decision to leave San Francisco because I had a full professional life there; I had children there. But I decided it was no longer good for me to stay there.”
Today they run LiSem together out of their comfortable residence in the Emerald Forest neighborhood, where Daniel, a violinist and composer, has built a state-of-the art recording studio. With her impressive background in business administration, Lilly is in charge of operations, marketing, financing and sales, while Daniel takes care of the artistic side of the enterprise. What they produce is beautiful instrumental music. They call it “spatial” or “mood” music that allows the listener to relax and maybe be transported into another, more spiritual state of mind. The recordings include both Daniel’s own compositions as well as works by famous classical composers, jazz artists, Cole Porter and others. Though you’ll recognize the pieces, the overall LiSem sound is more lush, more textured, deeper and more soulful than is usually the case, thanks to Daniel’s multi-layered mixing and mastering method of recording. While Daniel is the experienced musician with an outstanding résumé, including years with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, Lilly is also an accomplished amateur pianist and jazz connoisseur who is actually featured on some of the CDs.
Entering the relationship, Lilly says, she had the right attitude. “There are so many lonely older women who don’t know what to do with themselves,” she explains. “Life is a treasure, and you need to start fresh even after a loss or divorce or whatever; you have to find a way to grow. You have to fill the emptiness. That’s why after my husband died, I joined SCORE. I met Daniel, and we are growing together now… even though I told him that living with me wasn’t going to be easy!”
Because she tends to be “pushy and poke (her) nose into everything,” it was at first difficult for her to give him the space he needed to adjust to togetherness after he had been on his own for a while. As a musician, Daniel has a complicated schedule as the concertmaster for the Symphony of the Hills in Kerrville, a professor at both Schreiner University and the University of the Incarnate Word and as a composer/music producer. Learning to give him that space was essential to maintain harmony in the house. One of the reasons he divorced his second wife, he explains, was because he and she had different ideas about how he should spend his time. “I was not able to be creative; it was painful. There were fights, and the children saw all of that. My first love is my recording company, and Lilly understands that and is a big part of it. We have a lovely studio where I can compose, record and do all sorts of things that I need to do for myself.”
To understand each other better they even took the personality test Please Understand Me, which showed Lilly was “an inventor” who takes risks and starts new things — which she did plenty of in her career — while Daniel is the creative type. He gives her credit for the innovative business ideas she brings to the table, which are necessary to survive in the rapidly changing world of music sales. For her part, she admires his talent and his music. “He is unique,” she notes.
Despite living together as spouses for eight years now, they are not officially married. Remarriage would cause 82-year-old Lilly to lose the health care benefits that she is entitled to as a military widow and complicate the inheritance issue for their respective children. Early on, the pair took care of such documents as wills, insurance and other financial papers “to keep things separate and neat.” They did, however, have a commitment ceremony seven years ago. “We enjoy each other’s company without the noose of all that stuff,” says Daniel, who has gone through two “horrific divorces.”
Asked what they appreciate most about each other, Daniel goes first, pleased to share his thoughts: “I used to call her the grand lady. She lights up the room when she enters. I wanted to know what she was all about, and I still do. Today I am still fascinated by how she handles things.”
Then, as Lilly seems to be pondering what to say, he spurs her on with a quick “Be nice now!” After a moment, she explains that what she appreciates most is his gentle side: “He picks up on things other men don’t. He is observant and very caring.”
Maggie and Blair
Blair and Maggie Thompson’s story started with Match.com. Shortly after signing up to the dating site, Maggie spotted an attractive guy who looked familiar. Then she remembered where she had seen him. He had been the guide who gave her Bible study group a tour of the Alpha Home, a residential rehab treatment facility for women suffering from substance abuse and addiction. But she didn’t contact him right away. What gave her pause was the memory of his honest discussion of his own youthful encounter with drugs during that Alpha Home visit. Actually, she only refers to “some issues he revealed.” It’s Blair who volunteers the specific information, rather lightheartedly. After a friend assured her that Blair was “a great guy,” the two started dating and hit it off right away.
A former United Methodist minister, Blair left the church after his divorce from his first wife because he couldn’t risk being transferred away from San Antonio, where his young son lived. In fact, he even bought a house in the Stone Oak neighborhood to remain geographically close to his former wife so that they could effectively share custody of the boy. Today, Blair is the managing director of the Children’s Bereavement Center of San Antonio. Maggie, whose career took off after her divorce, is currently the executive director of the Paseo del Rio Association.
On their first date, in July 2009, they met at El Jarro restaurant and spent three hours talking “before we even ordered dinner,” recalls Blair. “She was totally ‘smutten’ by me. Do you know what ‘smutten’ means?” he jokes. To which Maggie promptly adds while laughing, “That’s part of his charm; he’s hilarious.” Following this auspicious beginning, the pair saw each other every day for several months, disregarding advice from Maggie’s adult children to cool it a bit. They were married in March of 2010, eight months after meeting. Maggie was 49, Blair 44.
Though “absolutely in love,” they admit that fusing two well-established lives and households was not easy. Maggie, who lived in Olmos Park, made a sacrifice by moving to Stone Oak to support Blair’s relationship with his son. Her house was leased and eventually sold, but she never got adjusted to living that far away from town and the long rush-hour drives. The issue was resolved when Maggie surprised her husband with an announcement that she had found the compromise house while he was recovering from cancer surgery in the hospital. The day he was released, she whisked him to see the new home in Castle Hills. “I was still too zonked to object,” jokes Blair. “I don’t remember signing the papers.”
While they are happy together, Maggie admits that divorce was painful, primarily because her children lost their family unit. Even though her son and daughter are now 28 and 25, respectively, she still feels sorry for them. “I had to work hard to give them the freedom to navigate the new complicated family situation,” she admits. It makes things easier that their now 14-year-old stepbrother, Luke, “worships” them.
One positive consequence of divorce is that you become more reflective and introspective, which leads you to realize that the troubles you had are not all due to the other person. A lot of it was of your own making, observes Blair. “So the person that I need to work on is myself. I am much less critical of Maggie than I was of my first wife; more tolerant about the small things.” In addition, respecting and accommodating your spouse’s needs goes a long a way toward creating harmony. For example, when Maggie’s daughter suffered serious injuries in a car accident recently, Blair had to learn to give Maggie privacy to cry and deal with her emotions. It didn’t come naturally to him because he wanted to help and comfort her, but he respected her needs.
What brought a new dimension to their union was, of course, Blair’s recent cancer diagnosis and treatment. “Something like that has an effect on a relationship,” says Maggie. “You look at your spouse differently. He becomes even more precious.”
To which Blair cannot resist quipping, “How much more precious?”
By JASMINA WELLINGHOFF
Photography by MARTIN WADDY