by Carole Duff

(Adapted from Wisdom Builds Her House: A Memoir of Finding Grace in the Third Stage of Life)

At age fifty, after twelve years of single-parenting, my nest emptied, and I moved with our family’s deaf old cat from Texas to Baltimore for career advancement and proximity to my aging widowed mother. My new job was challenging, so I signed up for graduate classes at Goucher College to acquire new skills. Yet I promised myself I would balance my time with a social life, even though the popular wisdom said women over fifty had a better chance of getting hit by a truck than finding a mate. But I didn’t really think I was looking for a mate.

One morning at breakfast, following my God time walk, I turned to the obituary section of The Baltimore Sun—not my usual routine. There was a long write-up about a professor at Goucher. Never married, she was known for traveling with her two cats.

A cat lady? I wondered. Is that what I’m supposed to be?

Days later, it began to snow, and my Saturday graduate class was cancelled. It kept snowing. I read books and shoveled a path to my neighbor’s house to feed her cats while she and her family were away for the weekend. It kept snowing. Schools closed and almost everything shut down, including local, state, and federal governments. And still it snowed. Somehow The Baltimore Sun arrived every morning. I read the newspaper cover-to-cover including the personal ads—also not my usual routine.

Maybe I’m not supposed to be a cat lady.

I signed up for a free trial for an online dating site advertised in the newspaper and submitted my profile then poked around the site. Only one profile caught my attention: “…attending Shakespeare Theater…writing Dad’s World War II stories… planning a mountain house…” I sent him an email.

A few dates into our courtship, Keith told me his side of our story. He’d cancelled his subscription six months before and retracted the letter he’d posted to an entirely different site—not the one where I found him. Still without a partner, he prayed: “Lord, I’m not doing very well. I’m not making good choices. If you send me someone, I promise I’ll follow-up on the next lead you send to me.”

When my email arrived that afternoon, his finger went for the delete key, because his online dating experience had been a great disappointment. Then he laughed and remembered his promise, “…the next lead you send to me.” He opened my email and responded—a bit put out, he later confessed to me.

We emailed one another throughout the storm—the Presidents’ Day Blizzard of 2003. Both of us wondered if that was planned, too. When he told me about his daughter’s suicide and his son’s struggle to recover from the loss, I offered to help. We set a date to meet for dinner at the Rusty Scupper overlooking the Inner Harbor in Baltimore.

Before our first date, I tried on eight outfits. I hadn’t dated in years and had never been good at it. Am I still attractive? Are my teeth white enough? Ugh, adolescence revisited. Crossing the restaurant parking lot that Sunday evening, I scolded myself so I wouldn’t cut and run. My heart pounded as the hostess showed me to Keith’s table. He stood and took my nervous hand in his. Such beautiful hands, I noticed, strong yet beautifully shaped.

Over a sumptuous meal of oysters, salad, and grilled salmon, we talked about our families, missions and values, finances and health—spiritual, intellectual, physical. We also spoke of our successes, and otherwise. Honest and direct. No party-faces.

“I’m not proud of my failures,” he said, “and I’ve had many—and learned a lot from them.” I sat still and listened carefully. “I’ve been married three times. It would be easy to blame my kids, but I couldn’t leave them. My second and third wives were good women with no children of their own. They wore themselves out trying to help me with mine.”

“I can understand that,” I said, remembering my own parenting struggles.

Then he said something I’d never heard from anyone before. “After my third divorce, I looked in the mirror and had one of those serious talks. I had to raise the bar for myself in order to be worthy of a worthy partner.”

I’m worthy, I thought, and the staying type. My skin tingled. Oh yeah, I was flipping out—and wondering why the ladies in the casserole brigade at church hadn’t snapped him up. Later, he told me that he was similarly wondering why I was available.

“Dessert?” he asked. “We could share—you said you liked to do that.”

As the waitress poured coffee, he reached across the table for my hand. “I’d like to pick up the tab. Would you mind?”

I stirred cream into my coffee and savored the rich flavor. After four years with one child in college and now another, money was tight. And after going it alone for all those years, his offer sounded like a change I could get used to.

“Thank you so much, Keith, that would be lovely.”

After dinner, he walked me to my car, turned, and said, “So, are we having a second date?”

I hesitated. “I know you’re looking for a partner, but I just moved here and don’t really know what I’m looking for.” As I scanned his face, my entire being said without saying: Kiss me. Kiss me so I know your scent. Kiss me so I know your taste. Kiss me so I know you’re the one.

He leaned into my unspoken invitation. Instead of a truck, we got hit by a blessing.

We became engaged a month later and, after marriage, built the mountain house where we live today. Together we attend Shakespeare plays, and both of us write. This June, we’ll celebrate our fifteenth wedding anniversary.

Carole Duff is a veteran teacher, flutist, and writer of narrative nonfiction. She posts weekly to her long-standing blog Notes from Vanaprastha, has written for The Perennial Gen, Streetlight Magazine’s Blog, and Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog. She is working on a book titled Wisdom Builds Her House: A Memoir About Finding Grace in the Third Stage of Life. Carole lives in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains with her husband Keith Kenny, also a writer, and three overly-friendly dogs. You can find her website here, and her Twitter feed here.

Cover photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash