Longevity puts a different ending on the Romeo and Juliet story.
The script is familiar: Boy and girl fall desperately in love. Girl's parents block the marriage. At this point, nobody dies for love. It's the 1950s. Broken-hearted lovers go their separate ways for the next 30 years. In 1900, when life expectancy was less than 50, that would probably have been the end of the story.
But not today, when age 50 often heralds a new stage in the life cycle.
Jenifer and Stephen McDermott met in Steamboat Springs, Colo., in the summer of 1956, at a camp for theater and dance. Jenifer was 20, a junior in college, an aspiring actress. Stephen, five years older, was a conductor and composer.
He watched her audition for the starring role in "Ondine" by Jean Giraudoux, with her husky voice and Audrey Hepburn eyes (Hepburn had starred in the Broadway production). She got the part; he was impressed.
But it was later, when they found themselves together one evening on a mountaintop, that the sparks flew. Their love unfolded in "that whole artistic, creative context," explains Jenifer, both of them swept away by the aphrodisiac of sharing work and dreams. "We had our different areas. His was music. Mine was theater and dance," she recalls.
He wanted to marry her. But a visit to her parents stopped that. They were older parents, both in failing health. They wanted someone more suitable for their beloved only child. A lawyer or diplomat, perhaps? In time, this theater thing would pass, a nice hobby for a debutante -- but not a life.
Jenifer was a dutiful daughter. She could not -- would not -- go against her parents' wishes. She broke off the relationship and destroyed his letters. For never was a story of more woe/Than this of Jenifer and her Romeo.
Well, not in this century. Jenifer went on to marry and have three children, finally settling in Houston. The children grew up. Her parents died. She got involved with the theater. Her marriage broke up in 1980.
About five years later, she was visiting her daughter in Chicago and remembered that Stephen had come from Chicago. She knew he had become a professor of music. Well, why not? She contacted the college and tracked him down in Little Rock. "I wrote a careful letter -- thinking he might have a fat wife and five children," says Jenifer.
A month passed before she received his reply. "You have totally turned my world upside down. I never dreamed I would hear from you again," he wrote.
And so began a furious exchange of letters, as before, longhand on yellow legal paper. He had had other relationships but had never married. She wrote to him about her marriage, her children. Finally her daughter said: "Mom -- is writing all you're going to do?"
When he came to visit in Houston, they fell in love again. "It was like we were 20," she says. This time, when he asked her to marry him, she said yes.
The magnet of attraction to someone from your youth is potent. As Jenifer explains, when you are young, "you are your truest self." Then social pressures and the passage of time take hold and "you lose yourself for a while." Finally, in these later decades, "you discover who you really are."
The boy or girl next door knows how you began and can see how far you've gone. At a time when people review their lives, relationships begun in youth help validate the long journey. That bond of old is often the spark of new romance in late life; it can also prompt a renaissance in long marriages.
Instead of sorrow and Shakespeare's "glooming peace," there is gratitude and another chance to love.
In a letter, which he read aloud to Jenifer and her children on a Thanksgiving Day, Stephen listed why he was so thankful: That they had "found each other on the mountain" so long ago; that she had sought him out after 30 years. That "you and I found gently but intensely, swiftly and firmly, that our love for each other does exist as truly and deeply and strongly as it did 32 years ago on our mountain." And now, about to be married, "we lead each other into new and vast dimensions, spaces, terrains." He called her "a miracle in my life."
That was 17 years ago. Today Stephen, 74, and Jenifer, 69, live in Greenville, S.C. He enjoys music recitals. She's on the board of the local theater. The romantic glow has settled down. They went through that gasping, oh-dear-what-have-I-done period. "We did indeed have traits that we had to work through," says Jenifer.
Then they made a recommitment. In the end, the benefits outweighed the negatives. And on the wall hangs Stephen's framed Thanksgiving letter -- a testament to "love's goodness, purity, beauty, radiance, strength and endurance."
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