Loving Again

April 07, 1995|By ANN EGERTON

One of the great surprises of being ''a certain age,'' which is that nice French phrase for being closer in years to a crone than an ingenue, is that many of my contemporaries are still occupied with questions of love.

Others have noticed it too, at greater profit. It was pointed out in the New York Times Book Review that Robert James Waller, author of the unbelieveably successful ''The Bridges of Madison County'' and two other potboilers about love during the middle years, has hit on a new genre, ''Old Adult,'' and struck a hearty chord.

Fairy-tale and Hollywood romance propaganda (movie stars' off-screen multiple marriages notwithstanding) decreed until the mid 1960s that you fall in love as a young person, marry and live happily ever after. Divorces were unusual and one usually took the ''for better, for worse'' part of marriage vows more seriously than today and stayed put.

Now our lifespan is longer, and divorce is more common and less frowned upon; in addition to widows and widowers, there are more divorced people, thus, more single people, many of them past 50. Mid-life and late-in-life romance is more commonplace; our seasons are extended.

It's probably romantically incorrect to say, in these hard-edged times, that the most enviable and admirable marriage is the one that lasts a lifetime; its enduring intimacy enriches husband and wife and gives their children unbeatable nourishment and support.

But too many of us, now about half of those who marry, know that, despite the best intentions, first marriages often don't work out. It's too hard to follow the words of the stern poet who advised, ''Choose your love, then love your choice.''

So after extricating ourselves from one relationship, we may try again, ignoring such cynical maxims as ''Love's like the measles -- all the worse when it comes late in life.'' The high-energy ones and incurably optimistic among us may try again should that tie come unbound.

We, of course, change over the years. As Judith Viorst observes so succinctly, ''She has no muscle tone, he has no hair.'' But the hope is still there and the loneliness that one may have endured after a breakup or a spouse's death makes a late romance especially precious, its participants grateful for another chance. If the union is happy -- and second marriages often aren't -- there is gratitude and wonder at one's good luck, underscored by the awareness of its possible brevity as the end of life becomes more imminent.

The energy and effort that is put into the chase and new relationship can be astounding. One may have never expected to feel again that frisson of desire or that sustained bond of affection with a member of the opposite sex. Some of us can even identify with Pamela Harriman's ancestor Jane Digby (about her feelings about her fourth husband) during the Victorian era: ''Sixty-two years of age, and an impetuous romantic girl of 17 cannot exceed me in ardent passionate feelings.'' On the other hand, some of us, haunted by sorry track records, can analyze and expunge the delight and promise from an affair.

Our culture and marketing have been traditionally directed at the young, just lately at the elderly. From the standpoint of romance -- of lovers -- the most overlooked and ignored segment of society, until Robert Waller capitalized on them, is the often still healthy and vigorous, often wealthy group between 50 and 75, even older. They're loving again in greater numbers than ever before. They're America's happy and lusty secret.

Ann Egerton is a Baltimore writer.

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