'You feel like a teenager sometimes'
When James Hamill's wife of 55 years died in 2005, a neighbor at Riderwood retirement community in Silver Spring, offered a warning: "You're gonna find the women are all after you."
They'll want to know three things, he recalls her saying: "Are you married? Do you drive? Do you drive at night? If you say yes to the right questions, you'll be pursued."
And sure enough, Hamill had his share of admirers. But it turned out the lady he liked most required some significant chasing of her own.
He met Marie Mathis at a square-dancing class in October 2008. "See, she's coming around the ring one way and I'm coming the other. We joined hands and go past," he says. "And she's always smiling."
"I smile at everybody," she explains.
"But I didn't know that," he responds. "I just knew you smiled at me."
She smiled at him week after week. And even though Hamill, now 83, had a regular dance partner at the time, he never missed the chance to take a spin with Mathis, 77.
She found Hamill charming, but the mother of eight, who lost her husband in 2003, wasn't looking for a boyfriend. She'd come to Riderwood that year and quickly joined a tennis league, bridge club and singles group to make friends. But what delighted her most was being on her own -- with no one to cook, clean or care for but herself.
Their encounters doubled to twice a week when Mathis began attending Mass at the center's chapel. "She had lots of credentials with me then," says Hamill, who regularly served as an usher. "She was a Catholic. And she was a good-looking woman."
In late spring 2009, he worked up the nerve to ask Mathis if she'd join him for an after-dinner drive.
With some hesitation, she accepted. "I was trying to make it so it wasn't a date," Mathis says. "I didn't want to get involved with anybody until I knew them. I figure a lot of people talk -- you're in a small community."
As they headed to Brighton Dam in Brookeville, anxiety bounced between them.