“It’s Never Too Late” is a series that tells the stories of people who decide to pursue their dreams on their own terms.
In 2015, nine months after her husband died, Phyllis Raphael, now 86, ran into Stan Leff, now 89, while exiting Citarella, a grocery store on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
“Stan remembered me from a party on Fire Island in 1974. He said I was on a deck serving hors d’oeuvres. But I didn’t remember him,” said Ms. Raphael, a Brooklyn-born writer. “We’d known each other peripherally and seen each other at parties but never spoke to each other until that day.”
By then each had been married twice. Both were widowed. Mr. Leff’s second wife had died a decade earlier, Ms. Raphael’s second husband of 24 years had died of amyloidosis, a rare disease.
“We started talking. A few nights later he called and asked me out,” she said. “He had gotten my number from a mutual friend of ours who thought our getting together was a good idea and encouraged him to call.”
That call turned into a get-together. Then came a date. A second and third followed. So did a relationship. Then a love affair.
Six years later the couple are still deeply committed to each other. Ms. Raphael said they spend some weeknights and weekends together; Mr. Leff sleeps over at her apartment in a stately prewar building on the Upper West Side. A retired bookseller, he lives four blocks away. At the moment, they have no plans to marry. (The following interview with Ms. Raphael has been edited and condensed.)
What was life like after your husband passed away?
I was going to a support group at New York Hospital that was filled with grief, which suited me at the time. I would go to dinner parties, there were always five single women and two men. I didn’t think I’d ever go on Match.com. I was going to throw myself on the mercy of my three kids and my friends. Stan changed everything.
How did the relationship start?
We saw Amy Schumer’s movie “Trainwreck” for our first get-together. I found him very attractive. I liked sitting next to him in the movie. We went to the Lime Leaf for dinner, which is no longer in business. I offered to pay my share; he offered to pay the bill. That established something. We started seeing each other shortly after that.
We went to plays, movies, dinners, and took walks in Riverside Park. I couldn’t understand what we were doing. That November we were watching a movie at my home and I thought the time has come. I put my head on his shoulder. That opened the door. He said to me: ‘Winter is coming. It’s getting cold. I’m not going to want to go home at night.’ I understood what that meant. We became lovers that night.
Did you ever think you’d be in another relationship?
I never dreamed there would be someone else. I knew I would be lonely, but I wasn’t looking for a relationship. When I began seeing Stan, I didn’t think it would evolve to more than widowed neighborhood friends. Once it was happening, I was so surprised. I thought that part of my life was over, but it wasn’t. At my age you think, ‘OK, if this is what life is going to hand me I’m going to take it.’ So I started seeing him seriously.
A few years ago I submitted a piece to Tiny Love Stories about our relationship. I originally wrote it as an exercise, which is what I do when I’m trying to write and can’t get started. I wanted to write something, and Stan was important in my life. He still is.
How is this relationship different than what you had with your second husband?
This is a different kind of love. I loved my husband. We had a very good marriage. I grew to understand him better as time passed, but I don’t believe we were soul mates. Sometimes Stan comes closer. There’s sex, affection and longing for one another. We care deeply about each other. My kids love him and that means a lot. He’s devoted to his children. I couldn’t love someone who wasn’t. This relationship works for both of us. I’m crazy about him. Not the way I used to be with my husband, but differently. When he walks in the door I’m really happy to see him. It’s not euphoric. You can catch your breath, but we would suffer without each other.
What makes this relationship work?
We are two people who have a really good time together. We grew up in the same era. We laugh at the same jokes. We both love show tunes. We remember the same things. He’s my companion, but so much more. Stan’s at the top of my emergency list. I trust him. He makes me feel safe. He’s kind, reliable. We are good physically. I’ve not figured out what love actually is, but this comes pretty close.
What are your future plans?
Stan fits this time in my life. He calls me his girlfriend. I call him my boyfriend. We are more than friends; we are more than lovers. I don’t want to get married. I don’t want to mess with what we have. What we have is really good.
What suggestions can you offer people who feel stuck?
Do something new that you normally wouldn’t do, or something you hadn’t planned on doing, or something you’re passionate about. Take an acting class or a cooking class, or go to a museum. These things let you connect to other people you might not have met ordinarily. It can make your life more lively. Pick up the phone. Send an email. Think of something you want to do and then ask someone if they want to do it with you. Don’t be afraid to let things happen.
Any words of wisdom to share?
Not to expect. I didn’t expect this to happen, or to be with someone for six years. I thought he must have other women in his life, but he didn’t. When I was married I had expectations. I have none of that here. You never know what’s around the corner. That thinking has made me happier.
Life is a gift; it expires. When you get to my age you begin looking back on your life. I feel there are opportunities I’ve missed, but I’ve explored a lot. We all have an expiration date. It’s better to use the gift while you’ve got it.
We’re looking for people who decide that it’s never too late to switch gears, change their life and pursue dreams. Should we talk to you or someone you know? Share your story here.
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