Book Review: 'As Time Goes By,' by Abigail Trafford

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By Bunny Crumpacker,
author of "The Sex Life of Food."
Wednesday, February 4, 2009


Boomerang Marriages, Serial Spouses, Throwback Couples, and Other Romantic Adventures in an Age of Longevity

By Abigail Trafford

Basic. 275 pp. $25.95

We are older than we used to be. It's not just the passage of time (try and stop it!); it's that we're living longer than those who have preceded us. In "As Time Goes By," Washington Post columnist Abigail Trafford tells us that "by 2010 more than 80 million Americans will be between the ages of 50 and 80." In 1990, newborns were expected to live to be 72.4 years old; in 2007, the expectation was 77.8, a gain of 5.4 years in less than a generation. The first of the baby boomers, born soon after World War II, became eligible for Social Security benefits last year, when they turned 62. The life-expectancy gain is definitely theirs to enjoy.

What are we doing with all this time? It's no longer considered old age -- that comes much later -- but simply the next stage of life. We may not be used to thinking of people in their 60s and 70s and -- heavens, not them too! -- 80s as having, or wanting, affairs or simply lovers, but many of those who have reached these golden years are discovering that love is still there for them, in all its accustomed diversity.

It's new for us to think about our grandparents -- or our parents or perhaps even our aging selves -- in terms of sex and desire. How fortunate, though, to have more time in which to use all that we've learned along the way about what we need and what we can give. We've made enough mistakes; now we have an opportunity to love with the benefit of all we know, all that we've experienced, all that was new and untried when we were younger. Trafford writes about the kinds of love and relationships that can fill the last years of life, in which we still have a need for intimacy, love and companionship.

She describes the different kinds of love that this gift of time has made possible. For example, there are those who separate or divorce at one point in life and reconnect with each other at another, entering into the boomerang marriages of her subtitle. "You go your separate ways. And then, perhaps years later, you come back together again and build a new relationship." For these couples, an end has come before the beginning; when they start over, they've changed, but the original spark strikes a new fire. Those who instead rehash old angers and resentments, Trafford says, are stuck. "The challenge when you rediscover each other is to start over as though you were both somebody new."

Serial spouses are different. Love can happen more than once. Each partner in an older couple may have been married before, perhaps more than once; one or both may have been divorced or widowed; and without marriage there may have been deep and meaningful partnerships along the way. The older "serial spouse," Trafford says, is likely to become the "New Normal," in these expanded years of living.

The "throwback couples" of Trafford's subtitle are probably the most romantic: the ones who married others but remember each other from high school or college or another part of life. Now illusion can become reality, despite the pitfalls of high expectations and the false reflections of memory. For those who negotiate its shoals, this kind of love is a joining of past and present. There are also, happily, those couples who are still together, who may have weathered great storms and losses, and found in that way a greater intimacy, respect and love. In the process of their marriage, they've each learned and matured, with the great good fortune of growing together rather than apart.

Trafford writes about all these commotions and consolations with compassion and tenderness. She provides an abundance of examples of couples of all sorts. Their narratives describe the paths they have taken, the curves and straight stretches, the dips and descents, perils and rewards. The stories told by many of her couples are encouraging and inspiring, as are her reassuring comments.

Unfortunately, there aren't many gay couples in the mix. Nor are there many couples who are dealing with the hazards of aging: debilitating physical illness, the sickness and death of close friends, and severely diminished income. Most of her couples are successful and well-to-do; that certainly helps in the struggle to survive the emotionally difficult aspects of aging and make the best of the good times that remain.

The book is amazingly optimistic. Surely some of this is because it has to have been written and gone to print before investments evaporated and real estate values dwindled. But the mood also amounts to a point of view: not rose-colored glasses but a strong, hopeful heart and an abiding belief in the power of love.

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