LOS ANGELES – If you think you have all the time in the world to love, by all means bring home roses once a year.
Jerri Kane and Raymond Sternberg lack that luxury. They celebrate their happiness each month.
Last April 8 was the day they moved in together. In the outside world, their boxy bedroom and small bathroom would be called a studio apartment. In Eisenberg Village at the Los Angeles Jewish Home in Reseda, it’s room 224.
Jerri points to the number and says two plus two plus four adds up to their lucky number: 8.
She’s 88, by the way. The guy she’s shacked up with? He’s 93.
Who needs to tie the knot? They know what they have, and what they’ve lost.
Jerri and Ray lived long lives before they met each other. She wed three times, he just once – a marriage that lasted 71 years.
Alzheimer’s ripped away the lovely girl who was just 19 when she married him, in terrible slow motion, day by day, thought by thought. When Ray speaks of Shirley, who died last January, his voice quivers and his eyes well with tears.
But if first love is special, so is last love.
Jerri and Ray are giddy with it.
They smooch in public. They wiggle their eyebrows at each other. Risque lines crackle between them.
One day he’s wearing a bandage on his arm. She bats her eyelashes and says, “He told me to be gentle. I forgot.”
He puckers up. She grips him close with her pink fingernails. “My gentle giant,” she coos.
To be with them is to be three’s a crowd.
How did it start?
Picture a crowded dining room – the sort you might find on an ocean liner or in a grand hotel. Only here it’s a white-haired crowd, with many more women than men. People sit at assigned tables, sipping from cans of low-sodium V8.
Jerri had been at Table 33 for years by the time Ray showed up at Table 35.
Gingerly, in their sensible shoes, they began to cross the wide aisle between them, back and forth, back and forth.
He saw a blond beauty, always coiffed and well-dressed. She saw a looker too: tall, dark and handsome. She also noticed he had clean fingernails, which pleased her.
One day, Ray asked Jerri if she’d like to be companions and she said yes.
“I think we fell in like, and from falling in like, it grew to love. And at our age that’s simply spectacular,” Jerri says.
Ray says his son Donald helped open his heart again. Speaking of it, he tears up.
Well into his mother’s mental diminishment, Donald sat Ray down for a talk, the way a father might a son.
He assured his father that he had honored his marriage vows. He said it was time for him to take care of himself. He also asked Ray to fulfill one last parental duty: to “teach me how to live the end of your life.”
For Donald it has been a beautiful, bittersweet lesson.
“I used to see my dad all the time, but I don’t see him all that much anymore,” the 63-year-old says. “He has this whole other life now. It makes him happy, and he’s consumed with it.”
In their little room, Jerri and Ray have side-by-side recliners. She curls up in hers with romance novels. He likes to read suspense. When her arthritis doesn’t interfere, she crochets while watching TV. He puts on his headphones and listens to big bands. They laugh a lot.
They don’t have much wall space. They share as best they can. Jerri took all her individual photos out of their frames and turned them into one big collage of her life. Here she is as a bare-kneed child, here as a freshly bloomed young woman. Here is her daughter, Eileen, who looks just like her, except that her hair is long and dark.
Above his chair, Ray has a large photo of his three children – Donald, Lauren and Judith – as well as a black-and-white of himself as a young man in the Army, and his World War II medals (a Purple Heart and a Silver Star) in a frame, behind glass.
Photos of Shirley stay in his closet, he says. It’s easier that way.
What he and Jerri share is in the moment and simple, he says – free of concerns about earning a living, about raising a family, about anything, really, beyond making each other happy.
When they moved in together, they pushed two twin beds into one bed. They spend a lot of time in that bed.
He used to wear his hair close-cropped. She had him grow it out, wavy and lush.
Ray still drives a car. He takes it for a spin several times a week to play cards at a nearby senior center. Jerri does her own thing too. She leads tours of the home.
At dinner they maintain their separate tables for a bit of independence, though before going to his, he pushes in her chair for her.
And on the 8th of every month, they ditch the dining hall for an off-campus early bird special.
This month it was at IHOP, where they got the two by two by two – pairs of everything, pancakes to eggs.
At the Jewish Home, they don’t celebrate saints. So Valentine’s Day is Sweethearts’ Day.
For Jerri and Ray, it’s the same as every other day. They wake up to the sound of the rooster in the nursery next door. They look out at the sun in the trees. They kiss and they laugh and they celebrate every moment they get to spend together.