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September Spring

Online at 79, finding a connection

by Natasha Scully on April 9, 2014


If I listen careful carefully, I can still hear her voice. I can hear my grandmother singing “Aba Daba Honeymoon” with my poppy to me. She would sing “Aba daba daba daba daba daba dab means monk I love but you,” and he would sing “Baba daba dab in monkey talk means chimp I love you too.” No longer a little kid, and in a world of complex realities and relationships, I aspire to find the simple love my grandparents showed me.

Today, my poppy, 79-year-old Jerry Lieberman, sits at the same kitchen table without Jeannie, in silence in front of his small computer screen.

I see a grin on his face, a grin I have not seen since my grandmother passed away suddenly two years ago.

From the far side of the kitchen I watch the gentle strokes he once displayed upon my grandma’s hand now drift over a mouse-pad as he looks at a list of gray-haired widowed women. Clicking away, remodeling his profile. He decides to chat with gingerp30, a woman who strikes him to be intelligent and elegant; a woman whom he hopes may fill one of the empty chairs at the old kitchen table.

Whether I feel awkward or ecstatic is not yet clear to me, but on some level I know that his happiness brings me joy.

“Why do you like her?” I ask Poppy. “She wrote to me every day on her trip to Cambodia,” Poppy tells me. “She is very conversational and described things to me in such a way that I really responded.” He turns back to his keyboard and sends gingerp30 a message.

The last time romance entered my poppy’s life was 58 years ago. He was 20. It was 1956.

Poppy recalls the phone call from his sister Edith. “I just met with a woman who has asked me to remodel one of her fur coats for her eldest daughter. Anyway, I am stopping by their house tomorrow afternoon, and I would like if you could accompany me.” Jerry agreed.

As Jerry and Edith approached the customer’s front stoop, Edith turned to her younger brother abruptly: “I want you to meet this customer’s eldest daughter.” Jerry gawked at his matchmaker, swallowing his nerves as the door opened.

A young, lanky Jerry peered into the doorway and was immediately struck by the sight of a woman wrapped in a luxurious fur coat.

“I thought she was knockout beautiful,” he says, “even though the coat made her look like a gorilla because it had shoulder pads and it was quite out of style. That’s how I met her, that was the first day that began our 56 years of wedded bliss,” he remembers, sitting in a black rollaway chair, his once-trim belly now popping out of a red-knit sweater.

Poppy has been living alone since January 2012 in the house he shared with my grandma, who had survived a disabling stroke 13 years earlier. He is surrounded by memories and pictures. He points to a picture of my grandma on his computer desk. His voice deepens. “That one in particular was taken two weeks before she died.”

“She’s full of joy and life,” he says, before catching himself for using the present tense. “It’s very hard for me, very hard.”

Seated at the head of the old wooden table, which once held a family of five, Poppy taps his fingers in a robotic motion lost in thought. A sudden chime from a clock disrupts the nostalgic reverie. “I was feeling that the remainder of my life was pointless because I had been together with her for such a long time that I never even considered that she might die someday. It never even entered my consciousness.”

Poppy knew what love is and what it should feel like, but at his age he didn’t know how to find it again. “I certainly wouldn’t want to go to a bar and pick someone up because I’m not looking to have one-nighters,” he says. “I’m not looking to be a dinner date either.”

My uncle, Poppy’s son, recognized his father was lonely and set up a profile for him on Match.com. That was one year ago. Poppy now chuckles at the memory. “I thought it was a really nice thing that he had thought that way, for me. And I thought, ‘Hey, maybe that’s a good idea,’ so I signed up for real and I rearranged my biography.”

Match.com was not intimidating to Poppy. He had learned to navigate the computer looking for new innovative technologies, clinical trials, neurologists, occupational therapists, and speech pathologists for my grandma while she was sick.

Poppy paid the $29.99 sign-up fee at Match.com and began to search for a companion. To his surprise, there were more potential matches than he anticipated. The site is ranked the top online dating sites that appeal to older adults, according to ConsumerSearch’s 2013 dating-site review. Studies have shown that users 55 and up account for approximately 17 percent of all traffic to dating sites. And Match.com media-relations spokeswoman Caitlin O’Neil reports the amount of members 70 and older has more than doubled in the last five years.

Poppy found himself part of a growing market.

“I’m going to be 80, which is very hard for me to even image because I don’t feel old, but it is old,” Poppy said. “If you were to look at The New York Times and see an obituary of someone dying at 80, you would say, ‘Oh that’s the normal thing.’ Well I don’t plan to die at 80, but I would like to have someone that I can share my life with. I mean I have my children and their children, but I want to also have a life that belongs to me.”

Poppy dove in with the rest of Match.com’s senior members and waited for a response. He got one, then another . . .

Poppy admits finding love through Match.com’s arithmetic formula was quite foreign to him. It was nothing like the instantaneous connection he found 58 years ago with his soulmate, Jeannie. “They [Match.com] ask their members to do some crazy things . . . like if you like him, give him a wink,” Poppy says, pulling himself upright in his chair.

“I saw a number of women, conversed first on e-mail, then on the telephone, and finally we arranged to meet,” Poppy says. “One woman saw that I was an artist and she thought she was some kind of artist too. We met and she wanted to milk my brain, have me do projects, and I came very quickly to recognize this is not what I was particularly interested in, so to let her down gently.

So, Poppy remained patient.

As he searched for another hand to hold, gingerp30, 51 miles away, found herself after several glasses of wine doing the same. She had given herself three months. Sure that her three-month membership to match.com would be a waste of time, gingerp30 made a bet with her daughter that nothing would come of it.

Scanning through the list of men Match.com flagged for her, gingerp30 stumbled upon one sentence from a man’s profile: “I took care of my wife for 13 years.”

“This is a person with a soul,” she thought at the time. Nothing else on Poppy’s profile mattered.

Back at his kitchen table, Poppy’s computer chirps. He stops talking to his visitor and glances at his flashing computer screen. It’s a Skype message from gingerp30. “Her real name is Patricia,” Poppy says, pronouncing it slowly and with obvious joy. They have been talking and meeting now for three months.

“She doesn’t send me winks, just long beautiful letters,” he tells me.

Poppy clicks “accept” and a woman with large glasses and white hair comes into view. She is smiling and her voice is soft.

“Hello, I miss you,” says Patricia.

“I miss you,” says Poppy.

“I have to tell you what Sarah said to me today at lunch, you’ll get a kick out of it,” she says. “We were talking about you.”

“I hope nothing bad,” says Poppy.

“No, not at all,” says Patricia.

For me, I still do not know how I feel. Should I frown upon anyone who might sleep on my grandma’s side of the bed or should I welcome this new person into my life as family? In times such as these when I wish I could ask my grandma for her blessing. But I cannot, so instead, as painful as it is, I think back to the last minutes I spoke to her sleeping body in the hospital bed. I remember my promise to her: “It’s OK,” I whispered. You don’t have to suffer anymore, you can let go. I promise I will take care of Poppy. I promise we will be OK.” In that promise I have my answer. If Patricia brings happiness to Poppy, then I welcome her with open arms.