My parents were blissfully married for 49 years. When my 77 year old father died suddenly in bed in San Francisco in 2005, my 72 year old mother Frances was right back out there looking for a suitor. “I’m not ready to close up shop,” she told me. I, too, was newly single at 44. My husband, who I had met when I was 16, had left me for his 22 year old secretary.
I was following the advice of a book called The New Rules, the Dating Do’s and Don’ts for the Digital Generation, whose main premise was play hard to get. I called to tell my mother all about it. “It’s so empowering,” I effused. “It really addresses loving yourself first.”
“Yes, darling,” she replied dismissively. I could hear her changing TV channels in the background. The Rules was not her thing. Frances didn’t do “hard to get.” She played by her own rules. She had become interested in a recent divorcé about her age, with suspiciously young children. I was not sure my mother would be his type. She was undeterred by my warnings. Not only did she ask him to several dinner parties, but upon hearing he was a walker, started walking herself on his favourite route. One day, a few months later, I answered the phone to a breathless Frances.
“Elena, you won’t believe what just happened.”
“What?” I asked, “Are you ok?”
“Yes, I’m fine. I was walking Louis in the Marina and who do I bump into?” The man with the very young children.
“Oh,” I said. Damn if her scheme didn’t work.
“We walked a bit and then he bent over to tie his shoelace. At least I thought he was tying his shoelace…Elena, he’s dead…” Her voice caught. “Dead! He dropped dead right in front of me.”
“Oh my God, what happened?”
“He had a massive heart attack. I had to call 911. They thought I was his next of kin and told me to get in the ambulance.”
“That’s awful. I’m so sorry.”
“I know. Can you believe this is happening to me?”
“What?” I asked, confused. I thought this was happening to that man who just died, leaving behind those poor children.
“I’ve had two men die on me, Elena. First your father, and now this. I don’t think I can take much more.”
I didn’t really know what to say, considering she didn’t know this man well at all. After the funeral, a grainy photo of him appeared on my mother’s bedside table, alongside the photo of my father. Guess she had fallen hard.
Losing two men in less than a year might shake the heartiest septuagenarian, but my mother came from sturdy California pioneer stock. Give up? Never. So, she started looking again. This time she targeted a successful Mexican architect she’d known over the years and for whom she’d always harboured a secret crush. My mother emailed him asking him to call if he ever passed through San Francisco. Low and behold, he called.
“Frances,” he said. “I would love to spend the weekend with you in Big Sur.”
And that’s how I found myself shopping for sexy underwear with my mother – for her! This was bad enough until she announced, “I’m thinking of dying my hair down there, if you know what I mean.”
“Oh God Mommy, that’s too much information!”
“Listen, you should be taking notes. Your Rules have you sitting at home, `loving yourself’.” She had a point. While her tactics would have given the authors of The Rules a coronary, my mother was out on dates, while I was scrolling Netflix. I had to admit, I admired her hutzpah. If a man she liked (or a potential new friend) declined a dinner invitation, she sent him five more. She had a few affairs and a long-term relationship with a nonagenarian who sang her old Broadway tunes. My mother never found her next soul mate, but she had fun looking.
In a rare reflective moment, my mother told me that she thought back to why she had always needed a man in her life. She knew she should be content in her role as a mother and grandmother fortified by the memories of her long, happy marriage. But she wasn’t. She loved to be in love at 75 as much as she did at 21. Feeling sexy was what kept her going. Giving up on men, for my mother, would have been like cutting off her oxygen, a nonstarter. So, she didn’t. Eventually at the age of 82, she began to exhibit signs of dementia. My sisters and I went on a mission to hire a nurse for her – male, Cary Grant-type, tall, strong chin, no white shoes, were our instructions to the agency. After a few “bad fits,” we finally met Mickey, who, while not exactly a Cary Grant twin, had a great sense of humour. For Frances, what clinched it, what made him perfect, he was a man.
And I threw out The Rules, following my mother’s rules instead. I went after a man who is now my second husband. My mother taught me to pursue what brings you joy – whether it’s a man or another interest – at any age. Never give up. “I’d rather die than not keep trying,” she once told me. While she wasn’t the perfect mother- who is? – she taught me to be brave and go after what I wanted in this one precious life of mine.
Thanks to Elena Bowes for this story. She is a freelance writer who is currently writing a memoir – working title Table for Two: Finding Mr. Wrong. Spoiler alert, she has found Mr. Right and he appears frequently as “Stretch” in her blog.
She has written for The AARP’s The Ethel, British House & Garden, Architectural Digest, Town & Country, Galerie Magazine and a host of others. She interviews authors monthly for 26, a UK site for writers, as well as interviewing authors for New York’s esteemed Cosmopolitan Club.
She splits her time between New York City and London, the latter where she lived for 30 years until following Stretch to the Big Apple. Her three adult children and adorable first grandchild live in London.