As a 10-year-old in 1937, William Aberbach wrote in his journal that he had four major life goals: Become a schoolteacher, live in Manhattan, travel the world and fall in love.
He couldn’t have known that it would take him 43 more years to accomplish the final item — and three decades beyond that to have the union legally recognized.
Aberbach was introduced to Gerson Frank by a mutual acquaintance in 1980. Both men had grown up in Brooklyn, served in World War II and established professional lives in Manhattan. Aberbach became a teacher and then an elementary school principal. Frank was an artist whose focus had shifted from painting to sculpture. Aberbach “likes the opera and the concerts and the ballet and museums,” the matchmaking friend told Frank. “He wears a jacket and a tie — immaculate. You’ll get along.”
The men, who were then in their mid-50s, met up for a day at the beach. “It was amazing,” says Aberbach. “For some reason, I grabbed his hand. And that was it. I guess we were both ready.”
They became an instant duo. From the start, Aberbach asked Frank for one thing: “Gerson, you’ve got to promise me 20 years,” he said. Every morning, Aberbach arrived at school and immediately called Frank to wake him in Greenwich Village. At night, they would take in cultural events and dine with friends. Aberbach bought a bronze Indian chief head that Frank had created and donated it to the Smithsonian, which quickly requested another.
“When he starts a sentence, I finish it, and vice versa,” says Frank. “We knew from the moment we met that we clicked that way, which was quite surprising, but happy.”
And when doctors found a lung tumor in Aberbach in 1982, Frank brought him ice cream each of his 40 days in the hospital and nursed him at home for three months. “I took care of him. Feeding him,” recalls Frank. “That was devotion.”
But the next year, when Manhattan’s real estate prices made it too difficult to maintain a studio there, Frank accepted an invitation from his mother and sister to move to a suburb of Fort Lauderdale. Aberbach visited most weekends, and when he retired in 1985, he joined Frank in Florida.
Soon, the pair were fixtures in the community, volunteering at the library and serving as ushers at a local theater. They bought a home together and set off on adventures, traveling to Africa, Europe, China and India.
In 2000, Frank developed a cough and began having pains in his shoulder. What doctors first thought was muscle strain turned out to be non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Two days later, Aberbach got the results from a prostate screening. He, too, had cancer. They accompanied each other to chemotherapy sessions and appointments with specialists. But there was never a sense of panic, Aberbach says, because “we had each other.” Within the year, each was declared cancer-free.
As time ticked by, the pair watched other couples get together and eventually grow apart. But Frank and Aberbach, who do everything together, say they never tire of each other. When they made it to their 20th anniversary, Aberbach asked Frank for at least 10 more years.
“It’s comforting,” Aberbach, now 84, says of their 32 years together. “It’s been marvelous. It really has been.”
“We laugh a great deal,” adds Frank, 89. “We enjoy each other’s company. I respect him. He respects me. And we compromise.”
In many ways, Aberbach and Frank are very different. Frank likes to be in constant motion and always needs a new project. Aberbach is content to sit for hours with a newspaper. And while Aberbach likes to keep the peace in public, Frank never shies away from speaking up.
But the few conflicts that arise “pass over so quickly,” says Frank. “We don’t dwell on it continually, saying, ‘Why did you do that?’ You can’t do that.”
Now that it’s been more than 30 years, Aberbach has requested they make it to 40. This decade, too, he suspects, will go by in a flash. “He’s here, I’m here and this is our life,” he says. “Period.”
When New York legalized same-sex marriage last year, the couple began to talk about returning to their home town to marry. But a former art student of Frank’s invited them to visit Washington, a city he’d never seen before. They accepted and, knowing same-sex marriage was legal in the District, quickly formed a plan to tie the knot during their trip.
They flew to Washington, visited the World War II Memorial, saw Frank’s sculptures in a Smithsonian archive and applied for a marriage license. “It’s a symbol,” Aberbach says. “An important symbol— that we mean it.”
On April 2, Frank and Aberbach clasped hands beneath a gilded statue in a park near Judiciary Square. Both men wore cardigans for the occasion, which was attended by three friends and a small crowd of passing office workers. In Frank’s ear was a hearing aide. Aberbach donned glasses that grew darker in the sunlight but didn’t mask the tears welling in his eyes.
“Wherever you go, I will go,” he said.
“Whatever you face, I will face,” Frank responded.
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