(CLOCKWISE, FROM TOP): Irene and Gene Stecca, photo by Leslie Barbaro; Jim Brown and Cheryl Wheeler, photo by Leslie Barbaro; Karen and Stan Bowen, provided by Karen Bowen
There are few things we can embrace as universal truths of the human condition: birth, death, and, that thing in between—aging. While many of us don’t look forward to it, there are cultural shifts afoot that hint that maybe it’s kind of hip: Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Nancy Pelosi are among the rock stars of a certain age; one of the hottest hair trends for millennial women is the cool, bluish gray you’ve seen on your grandmother.
It can’t be all that bad—and certainly not when it comes to love.
“I have noticed a trend in people who are finding each other at an older age,” says relationship therapist La’Shawn Waters of Rising Hope Therapy in Newark. “A lot of factors come into play; for example, technology, careers and also wisdom that we do not need to have life figured out at 25. Society is allowing us to take our time. These factors are showing a trend in the direction on clarifying one’s life goals and not necessarily following what our parents did.”
Of course, there are certain things to navigate, like the weight of emotional baggage one may have amassed.
“Individuals who are older have lived a lot of life, obviously,” she says. “Many have experienced trials that have them afraid to be vulnerable yet again, and risk repeated pain. The biggest struggle can be the willingness to let their guard down, be patient and not cut a relationship off due to minor setbacks … Divorce, separation and endings of long-term relationships can all leave a bad taste in the mouth.”
Her best advice? “Approach the situation with childlike curiosity,” she says.
You don’t have to tell these couples twice.
Irene and Gene Stecca met at a party for the recently widowed.//photo by Leslie Barbaro
Irene Busse Wells Stecca and Gene Stecca met in 1991 at an exclusive party, but not the kind anyone wants to be invited to.
The entry ticket? Your spouse’s death certificate. “You had to show it to prove you were actually a widow,” Irene says.
The event, sponsored by the Catholic organization Post Cana, was a Friday night staple at the Talleyville Fire Company. Irene and a girlfriend liked to get dolled up and go dancing. “They had a disc jockey and a bar and you could bring your own snacks and do the line dances all night,” Irene remembers.
Irene had lost her husband in November of 1989. Little did she know that the man she had her eyes on—“Oh, he was a very good dancer,” she says of now-husband Gene Stecca—had lost his wife the exact same month and year.
“The women outnumbered men at these things, but that’s just a fact of life,” Irene, 87, says with well-earned wisdom. “Gene and I hit it off. He danced with me the whole night.”
The fancy-footing was fun, but Irene wasn’t looking for anything. “I wasn’t lonely; I was busy. I had some family that lived with me,” she says. “I was content.”
They met again at what is now the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, the crux of the University of Delaware’s programming for adults 50 and older, where they both sang in the chorus.
“He’s a much better singer than I ever was,” says Irene.
They began dating, and within two years, were engaged. “It was St. Patrick’s Day, and we were at Bennigan’s,” Irene says. “Gene proposed with a five-and-dime-store ring. I still have it. I wore it until we had a real engagement ring.”
On their wedding day in 1995, Irene was 63 and Gene was 61. “Oh, I was a cougar,” Irene says, winking.
Irene and Gene don’t talk about what it would have been like had they met each other earlier. Neither one chose to leave their first marriages. There is a sort of nuanced intimacy there, Irene says, when both can acknowledge that the other was not the plan.
“The thought of being sad that we didn’t spend our whole lives together … it never crossed my mind, and I don’t think it crossed Gene’s, either,” Irene says. “I was happy. He was happy. We eventually were able to be happy together, but we don’t regret that we couldn’t do it sooner.”
Irene remembers being aflutter and excited on her wedding day; she had spent weeks fretting about what to wear before deciding on a short dress and Gene a natty suit. The St. Mary Magdalen’s nuptials spilled over into a reception with 100 guests, many of whom were members of their newly combined families.
“That was something that we talked a lot about—the children,” Irene says. “Both of us had kids, and it could have been very bad if they weren’t supportive. But when we were dating, we’d throw these combined family picnics at Bellevue Manor.”
While Irene always said she’d never remarry, she did tell her children one thing: if she ever did, it was for one reason only: someone knocked her socks off.
“I went to the kids and said, ‘I met someone. And he knocked my socks off.’”
Not that marriage was an easy decision—she had been a free spirit for so long. Now she found herself worrying about taking care of someone again, cleaning, doing laundry and fixing dinner. But in the end, “We were just in love,” Irene says with a shrug. “So why not?”
Now 87 and 84, they credit their happy marriage with doing things together—they play board games, share a love of musicals and movies and enjoy all the grandchildren.
“Right now, we are both members of the ‘Cane Brigade,’” Irene says, lamenting that they can’t drive to Manhattan to see a musical anymore like they used to. But look around their Cokesbury Village home in Hockessin, and it’s clear to see they’ve spent their second chapter pushing against the boundaries of age.
From their wedding day until almost into their 80s, they put more stamps on their passports than most do in a lifetime. They’ve bungee-jumped in New Zealand (“We were the stars of our tour group,” Irene says with pride), ziplined through Costa Rica, gaped at the sphinx in Egypt, rode elephants in Thailand, walked the Great Wall of China, posed before the Taj Majal and trekked through the misty Irish fog together. Their world adventures fill album after album—Irene admits she is just learning to use her new iPhone.
Their best advice to young couples is to approach their marriage the way she and Gene do theirs—like time is running out. “Make the most of everything,” Irene says. “What else is the point?”
Jim Brown and Cheryl Wheeler married in Las Vegas, with a live stream for absent guests.//photo by Leslie Barbaro
Anyone who lives in Bellefonte knows the social event of the year is the Edwards’ family Christmas party. Cheryl Wheeler never misses it. But in 2003, her father had just died, and all the Christmas huzzahs weren’t really on her holiday to-do list. She told her son, Jimmy, she wasn’t going. It was just too much. He cajoled her into going anyway.
“I walked in, and I just started crying,” Wheeler remembers. “You know how grief works—you see people you love, and you burst into tears.”
One guest there, Jim Brown, oversaw libations, but he didn’t want to serve Wheeler’s son because he didn’t know how old he was. “I told him it was OK, and we started talking,” she says. “I didn’t put too much stock into it.”
Wheeler, who’d been divorced five years prior and was “perfectly content being single,” left the party but couldn’t stop thinking about the affable guy, who folks called “Big Jim.”
A longtime volunteer at the Brandywine Hundred Fire Company, another Bellefonte social hub, Wheeler wondered if Big Jim would be at the fire house’s annual New Year’s Eve party.
“He showed up and sat at our table,” Cheryl says. “He had this fancy new blue shirt on. A friend at a table behind me called me over and said, ‘What’s the deal with this guy? He still has the tag hanging under his shirt arm.’ So, I went to him and said, ‘Jim. Your tag is showing.’”
Without missing a beat, Brown snapped the tag off and stuck it in his front pocket without even spilling his drink. And then, for Wheeler, the best part: “He just cracked up at himself,” she says. “That was it for me.”
Wheeler took stock of the situation—here’s this nice guy, she thought, who can laugh at himself, who danced with me all night, who politely walked me home, who is completely unpretentious. And yet …
“The reality is, I was 52. My kids were older. I owned my home. I didn’t really want the addition of a new person to care for,” she says.
Also divorced, Jim felt much the same—he wasn’t looking. But their pull on each other’s hearts was too much to ignore. “We were just so compatible,” Wheeler says. “And we had so much fun together. And there was this instant sense of trust.”
Then there were the things that they didn’t have in common, like that fact that only Wheeler had children.
“The truth of relationships like this, where you’ve both lived full lives already, is that there are certain things you have to be smart and realistic about,” she says. “It was not a conversation I looked forward to having, but he moved into my house, which I’ve owned for 34 years; I have grown children and now grandchildren, and I want them to be taken care of first. So, we did a prenup. Jim was so easy going about this conversation, but it was very tough for me.”
The two married in a glitzy little chapel in Las Vegas and had a live stream for guests who couldn’t attend.
Wheeler, now 64, and Jim, 63, say they’re not the same people they were in their previous marriages.
“When I think about who I was then—working full time, with young children, worried about finances, stressed out all the time … Jim and I don’t have that.”
The two find joy in the little things, like transitioning the home office into a play room for the grandkids or walking the Wilmington Riverfront on balmy summer evenings.
“We’re in our jammies by 7 p.m. on most nights, and it’s a good thing,” says Wheeler.
Stan and Karen Bowen share a love of history and NASCAR.//Photo provided by Karen Bowen
There is something to be said for taking things slow. Then there’s Karen and Stan Bowen.
Karen White Bowen of Dover, who spent almost 30 years working as a journalist at The Delaware State News and The Wilmington News Journal, found herself at 56 years old not only never married, but also, never really interested.
“By the time I was 50, my go-to line became, ‘All the good men are taken. And if they’re not, there’s a good reason,’” says Karen, who notes she was constantly asked, “Why aren’t you married?”
“Sure, I was attracted to men, but I just began to think, ‘God wants me to be single.’ And I was OK with it,” she says.
She filled her days with the minutia of being a homeowner. She taught herself how to quilt, attended NASCAR, and hit antique-style tea rooms with her girlfriends. With no children and no family in Delaware—where she moved from West Virginia for work—she happily did what she wanted and enjoyed her own company.
She did have another deep interest—the Civil War; specifically, a penchant for Stonewall Jackson. That interest sent her to Lexington, Virginia, in 1996 to attend a symposium on the war. It was there she met Stan Bowen.
“I thought he was just an interesting, attractive guy,” she says. “He was quiet, but there was something about him.”
The two made small talk; Karen was into Stan, but not bold enough to say anything. Plus, she barely knew him. “That first night of the symposium, he asked me if I wanted to ride with him and two of his friends to the dinner banquet that night. But I was a reporter—I’d read the police blotters,” she says. “I knew better to get in a car with three strange men.”
She drove herself, and when she got there, she noticed there was one empty chair, and it happened to be next to Stan. He had saved it for her. But she didn’t know that until 20 years later.
Karen continued to attend the same symposium, which was held every two years, with a twinge in her heart—as soon as she got to the registration table, the first thing she did was look to see if Stan was there.
Everything changed in 2016. “I walked into the first morning lecture, and I saw him there by the window, and my face lit up, and I’d say his did, too,” Karen says. The two spent the day together, and Stan invited her to ice cream later that night.
“I was in my hotel room giving myself a pep talk in the mirror: He may not know this is a date, but this is a date,” she says with a laugh. It was the first time in the two decades since they’d met that they did something together. Still, neither one said anything about how they felt.
“He went back to North Carolina, where he was from; and I came home to Dover,” she says.
Prior to leave Lexington, she gave her email address to Stan, requesting he send her photos from the event. She remembers settling in to watch NASCAR on TV when her email pinged with a message from him: “I’ve liked you since that first time in 1996, but I was too shy to say anything.”
She was floored. She wrote back, telling him she felt the same way. That led to their first-ever phone conversation: May 31, 2016.
“It was a seven-hour conversation,” Stan says. “I was surprised because I don’t particularly like to talk on the phone. I remember that the more we talked the more I didn’t want to hang up.” He laughs. “But then my phone died.”
That conversation led to a visit in June, a proposal in July, and a wedding on Jan. 1, 2017.
“We’re both big NASCAR fans, and when he’d come to Delaware, that’s something we’d do, so we kind of equated that with how we were feeling each other out during that short period of time,” Bowen says. “We were looking hard for red flags. We didn’t even get a caution flag. It was go, green, go.”
Karen, who relocated to North Carolina in late 2016, says the whole thing was very unlike her. “I’m someone practical; I avoid drama,” she says. “But there was no question that we were absolutely meant for each other.”
Do they lament the 20 years of wasted time? “Oh, we do,” she says. “We think about that often—how much time do we really have together? Why did it take us so long to know we were right for each other? But there’s also a joy in it, because I don’t think we’d have appreciated each other this way 20 years ago.”
Practical Karen did have a moment when she wondered, “Is this real?” She was in her car, and a cold panic gripped her. “I thought, ‘Is this really love?’” she remembers.
Then she found herself thinking about death. “This is going to sound morbid. I always thought, when I died in Delaware, I wanted my body to be sent home, to be buried on a mountain with my family,” she says. “And in that moment, I thought, ‘No. I think I’d like to be buried next to Stan.’ And I never debated what we had again.”
Karen misses her life in Delaware. ‘I can’t find a decent tea room anywhere down here,” she says. “But as much as I miss friends and my job, this was something meant to be. I don’t even know how else to describe it.”