Perspective: Engaged, at Your Age?

Pamela Hill NettletonArticles, Essays, Milwaukee WeddingsLeave a Comment

An older newlywed shares what it’s like to walk down the aisle when you’re in your 50s, 60s or beyond.

Saying “I do” is gutsy at any age, but when that age also qualifies you for an AARP card, it’s downright heroic.

Senior newlyweds understand what those vows really mean, having lived through the better and worse bits a time or two already. When a 25-year-old promises to hang in there in sickness and in health, he’s probably imagining heading to Costco for Nyquil when his partner gets a cold. But when a 55-year-old speaks those same words, he knows whereof he speaks. He’s hauled kiddos to the ER in the middle of the night, done laundry for 24 hours straight while the entire household had stomach flu, and held hands with his partner waiting for test results neither of them really wanted to hear. That’s a man who knows exactly what he’s promising.

Last year, I married a fellow who had just retired, and he’s not that much older than I am. Yes, I’m being coy, and no, you’re not going to get my age out of me, so let’s keep moving. He and I have been around several blocks, and yet had the audacity to fall in love. Isn’t life grand? I’ve also researched remarriage extensively, having written a book on the subject almost two decades ago, back when second weddings were rather startling. Therefore, I jumped into my wedding planning with confidence—and, I soon discovered, blind naiveté about how the rest of the world views grandparent newlyweds.

The florist thought I was the mother of the bride. The caterer thought I was the mother of the bride. Every dress shop clerk thought I was the mother of the bride.

When I flashed my new pink stone on my left hand, a colleague gushed, “What a beautiful cocktail ring!” I told her it was an engagement ring. “Engaged to do what?” she asked.

The other day, I told our cleaning lady that we were going out to dinner for our wedding anniversary (our first). She asked “How many years? Fifty?”

My husband and I are nice-looking though wrinkled humans who find ourselves living in a culture which stereotypes all lovers as being firm-skinned and capable of completing deep knee bends without yelping. Well, surprise!

“But do you kiss?” my eight-year-old grandson asked me, though he had clearly seen that happen a time or two. “I mean, like in the movies?” I assured him that Scarlett Johansson had nothing on me. “It’s kinda disturbing,” he admitted. I admitted to my fiancée that I was glad the kid wasn’t any older or any more precocious.

Getting married while simultaneously being old does present distinct problems they don’t cover on “Say Yes to the Dress.”

Many a senior citizen fiancée likely answers the question “Will you marry me?” with “But what will I wear?” If you wrap yourself like a frothy vanilla cupcake in yards of white tulle and a flowing veil, people will call you “Miss Havisham”—and then call you a psychiatrist. If you go strapless, sleeveless, and Barbie-bride clingy, people will mutter about Mae West in Myra Breckinridge. Well, people your age who get that reference, anyway.

At my first wedding, I wanted to wear a dress I felt pretty in. This time around, I needed a dress I wouldn’t trip over and break a hip in. A dress that could survive being crushed under climbing grandchildren with sticky fingers. A dress that didn’t look like a recycled mother-of-the-bride horror. A dress that said, “Hey, I know I’m not 17 and headed to prom, but it’s still my wedding, dammit!” Such a dress, by the way, is nearly impossible to find. There is a gaping business niche ready to be filled by some smart entrepreneur stocking flattering formal frocks with sleeves, a bit of forgiveness at the hips, and actual, you know, style. I decided to not wear white, but mostly because I look better in pink. Along with white symbolizing innocence and purity, white also evokes Ghandi’s humility, the suffrage movement, and iPhones. So if white’s your color, honey, then you go ahead and rock it.

At my first wedding, my father gave me away. This time around, most men I knew who were old enough to qualify as being vaguely parental were either no longer living or no longer able to navigate without a cane. I never liked the odd symbolism of having a son “give away” his mother, and that whole “giving away” business seems wrong at my age, anyway. Having lived past the half-century mark, being handed from one person to another begins to resemble being re-gifted as used goods, like a sweater from Aunt Esther that just didn’t fit right. But then again, when the bride is over 60, a walk alone on heels down a long aisle presents real hazards. I decided to take my groom’s arm and we walked in together, and that suited us just fine.

There are lots of first wedding expectations that may not necessarily translate into marriage redux.

It just seemed silly to wear and then toss a garter, particularly since we women have all stopped wearing stockings. What would we pretend that garter was holding up? Where would we find single men in a guest list of people our age?

And just forget about tossing my bouquet—are you serious? That gorgeous thing cost half the price of my dress! I took it right home and made a centerpiece out of it that perfumed the dining room for a week.

We also decided against sitting quietly, holding hands and trying to look pious, while a 30-something minister offered us marital advice from the pulpit. Not when we had 70 years of combined experience and could have told him how to do it. So instead, we asked my groom’s dear friend, Kelcie, to be our celebrant. He loved being married by someone who had known him for decades, and I loved that she remembered Woodstock.

A wise wedding guest clued me in to rethinking my impulse to not register for gifts. Although a gift registry seems, at first blush, unnecessary for people who have decades of collected geegaws and three bedrooms of furniture no one has used since the last bird flew the nest 20 years ago, blush again. No one knows who got the blender in your divorce, or whether his doctor still lets him drink caffeine, and your toaster is probably 40 years old, anyway.

Even given the dichotomy between the expectations of a first wedding of a youthful couple and those present in a late-in-life wedding of people whose children can’t imagine them dating, there is a place where those expectations do meet.

With little regard for age—with no recognition of it at all, actually—the human heart just takes a leap of faith sometimes, and charges right into love and life with vigor and vibrant, outrageous delight. Apparently, love is possible throughout life, in never-ending permutations and opportunities, during every decade you spend on the plant. Imagine that.

The fact that our cultural assumptions and our social etiquette hasn’t quite caught up with our personal reality about fierce passion not only existing but thriving at an advanced age doesn’t tone down that fierceness one whit. Which is, when even eight- year-old think about it, not so disturbing after all.

Pamela Hill Nettleton is a writer and a media studies and journalism professor, and lives in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Her book, Getting Married When It’s Not Your First Time, has been featured in the Washington Post, in the New York Times, and in “Dear Abby,” and she writes for U.S. Catholic, Redbook, Sports Illustrated for Kids, as well as other online & print magazines.

This was first published in Milwaukee Weddings magazine, Jan 2020
Image credit: Kim Salt

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