An older newlywed shares what it’s like to walk down the aisle when you’re in your 50s, 60s or beyond.

Saying “I do” is gutsy at any age, but when that age also qualifies you for an AARP card, it’s downright heroic.

Senior newlyweds understand what those vows really mean, having lived through the better and worse bits a time or two already. When 25-year-olds promise to hang in there in sickness and in health, they’re probably imagining heading to the drugstore for NyQuil when their partner gets a cold. But when 55-year-olds speak those same words, they know whereof they speak. They’ve hauled kiddos to the ER in the middle of the night, done laundry for 24 hours straight while the entire household had stomach flu and held hands with their partner while waiting for test results neither of them really wanted to hear. They know exactly what they’re promising.

Last year, I married a fellow who had just retired, and he’s not that much older than me. (Yes, I’m being coy, and no, you’re not going to get my age out of me, so let’s keep moving.) He and I have been around several blocks, and yet we had the audacity to fall in love. Isn’t life grand? I’ve also researched remarriage extensively, having written a book on the subject almost two decades ago, back when second weddings were rather startling. Therefore, I jumped into my wedding planning with confidence – and, I soon discovered, blind naiveté about how the rest of the world views grandparents who also happen to be newlyweds.

The florist thought I was the mother of the bride. The caterer thought I was the mother of the bride. Every dress-shop clerk thought I was the mother of the bride.

When I flashed my new pink stone on my left hand, a colleague gushed, “What a beautiful cocktail ring!”

The other day, I told our cleaning lady that we were going out to dinner for our wedding anniversary. “How many years?” she asked. “Fifty?”

My husband and I are nice-looking (though wrinkled) humans who find ourselves in a culture that stereotypes all lovers as being firm-skinned and capable of completing deep knee bends without yelping.

“Do you kiss?” my 8-year-old grandson once asked me, though he had clearly seen that happen a time or two. “I mean, like in the movies?” I assured him that Scarlett Johansson had nothing on me. “It’s kinda disturbing,” he admitted. I told my fiancé that I was glad the kid wasn’t any older or any more precocious.

Getting married while being old presents distinct problems that aren’t covered on “Say Yes to the Dress.”

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Many a senior citizen fiancée likely answers the question “Will you marry me?” with “But what will I wear?” If you wrap yourself like a frothy vanilla cupcake in yards of white tulle and a flowing veil, people will call you Miss Havisham – and then call you a psychiatrist. If you go strapless, sleeveless and Barbie-bride clingy, people will compare you to Mae West in Myra Breckinridge. Well, people old enough to make that reference, anyway.

At my first wedding, I wanted to wear a dress I felt pretty in. This time around, I needed a dress I wouldn’t trip over and break a hip in. A dress that could survive being crushed under climbing grandchildren with sticky fingers. A dress that didn’t look like a recycled mother-of-the-bride horror. A dress that said, “Hey, I know I’m not 17 and headed to prom, but it’s still my wedding, dammit!” Such a dress is nearly impossible to find. There is a gaping business niche ready to be filled by some smart entrepreneur stocking flattering formal frocks with sleeves, a bit of forgiveness at the hips and actual, you know, style. I decided not to wear white, mostly because I look better in pink.

“There are lots of first wedding expectations that may not necessarily translate into marriage redux.”

At my first wedding, my father gave me away. This time around, most men old enough to qualify as being vaguely parental were either no longer living or no longer able to walk without a cane. I never liked the odd symbolism of having a son “give away” his mother, and that whole “giving away” business seems wrong at my age, anyway. Having lived past the half-century mark, being handed from one person to another begins to resemble being regifted as used goods, like a sweater from Aunt Esther that just didn’t fit right. But then again, when the bride is over 60, walking solo in heels down a long aisle presents real hazards. I decided to take my groom’s arm, and we walked in together.

There are lots of first-wedding expectations that may not necessarily translate into marriage redux. It seemed silly to wear and toss a garter, particularly since we women have generally stopped wearing stockings. What would we pretend that garter was holding up? Where would we find single men in a guest list of people our age?

And just forget about tossing my bouquet. Are you serious? That gorgeous thing cost half the price of my dress! I took it home and turned it into a centerpiece that perfumed the dining room for a week.

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We also decided against sitting quietly, holding hands and trying to look pious while a 30-something minister offered us marital advice from the pulpit. Not when we had 70 years of combined experience and could have told him how to do it. Instead, we asked my groom’s dear friend, Kelcie, to be our celebrant. My husband loved being married by someone who had known him for decades, and I loved that she remembered Woodstock.

A wise wedding guest clued me in to rethinking my impulse to not register for gifts. At first blush, a gift registry seems unnecessary for people who have decades of collected geegaws and three bedrooms’ worth of furniture no one has used since the last bird flew the nest 20 years ago. Well, blush again: Blenders break. The technology in coffeemakers advances. And your guests still want suggestions as to what to give you.

Even given the dichotomy between the expectations of a first wedding of a youthful couple and those present in a late-in-life wedding of people whose children can’t imagine them dating, there is a place where those expectations do meet.

With little regard for age – with no recognition of it at all, actually – the human heart just takes a leap of faith sometimes and charges right into love and life with vigor and vibrant, outrageous delight. Apparently, love is possible throughout life, in never-ending permutations and opportunities, during every decade you spend on the planet. Imagine that.

The fact that our cultural assumptions and our social etiquette haven’t quite caught up with our personal reality about fierce passion not only existing but thriving at an advanced age doesn’t tone down that fierceness one whit. Which is, even when 8-year-olds think about it, not so disturbing after all.

Pamela Hill Nettleton, a writer and a media studies and journalism professor, lives in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Her book, Getting Married When It’s Not Your First Time, has been featured in the Washington Post, in The New York Times and in “Dear Abby.” She writes for U.S. Catholic, Redbook, Sports Illustrated for Kids, as well as other online and print magazines.


 

 


This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s Milwaukee Weddings 2020 issue. 

Find the issue on newsstands or buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop.

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