Jake’s Engagement

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Jake noticed her the day after she moved in. She bore a remarkable resemblance to his wife—the white hair, the infectious smile, the round face (and other round parts)—so much so that it almost frightened him. A widower for about six months now, Jake watched Julia enter his world quietly, and life would not be the same.

He found ways to get acquainted—learning her habits for checking her mailbox, sitting behind her in the chapel service, showing up at the entrance to the coffee shop as she was leaving—and in a short while conversations came easily. Jake was always a man with a plan.

It wasn’t long before Jake thought to ask Julia on a date, but courting in the retirement home was tricky for at least two reasons. One was the claustrophobic culture of the home itself. The other was seeking the permission of his children, a role reversal he did not welcome and could not change at age 84.

The first challenge was extremely delicate. Jake knew you could cause a minor scandal in the retirement home with only a brief conversation on the elevator. Three sentences exchanged by a man and a woman between the first and fifth floor, eavesdropped on by other residents, would morph into passionate and racy flirting by the time the conversation was repeated in the coffee shop that evening. The briefest “hello” might become the stuff of a big-print romance novel.

The second challenge was even touchier. Jake’s children treated him like an adolescent now that he was single again. They asked questions as if he were helpless and clueless. They worried when they didn’t need to and meddled in things that weren’t their business. They thought they were raising him. He wondered where his raising of them went wrong.

So when Jake took the drastic and dramatic step of asking Julia to his room for their first date, he knew that scandal was just around the corner on both fronts. But he thought it worth the risk. It surely beat the loneliness that was suffocating him. The prospect of a date with Julia held the promise of excitement in a relatively dull world he refused to accept as normal.

Jake’s memory wasn’t as sharp as it was when he was the custodian at that big Chicago apartment building. In those days he kept mental lists of the habits and quirks of almost every resident, even those who treated him as a somewhat less-than-human personal servant. He remembered names and histories and stories, and the residents were always surprised that he recalled the smallest detail. As a Christian, he found the grace to turn the other cheek to their indifference, offer a smile, and repair their leaky toilet or drafty window as if they were the royalty they thought they were. He tried to make their world a better place. It was his way of witnessing.

His memory these days often drifted to the years of courtship with Clara, the girl from Highland, Indiana—his wife of 62 years and the mother of their eight children. He wondered if he had enough affection in him to court again, as much as the deep love he remembered with Clara. It came so easily at one point in life. He thought he’d give it a try, no matter the culture of the retirement home and without the prior approval of the family.

The stealth operation began. He asked Julia to his room by means of a carefully crafted and heavily sealed note. He didn’t trust the occasionally nosy postal workers of the retirement home’s mail service, so he left no return address on the envelope.

He cleaned his apartment. Three times. He walked to the convenience store and bought 12 cheap vanilla candles, but lit only eight of them. He didn’t want to overdo it. He wanted to offer a chilled bottle of wine, but the home had strict policies about alcohol ever since the infamous aerobics class. A spry gent was doing leg lifts while seated on a chair, and his flask slipped out of his back pocket, making a conspicuous “clink” on the linoleum floor. You can imagine the talk in the coffee shop that night.

So Jake settled for chilled apple juice and moist bran muffins by dim vanilla candlelight. Lawrence Welk’s Greatest Hits played softly on the stereo, the scratchy sounds of the old LP interrupting the romantic polka music from time to time.  

And later that night, it happened. Jake stretched his big hairy arms across the tiny table, enfolded Julia’s slender hands in his, and asked for them and more in marriage. “The sooner the better,” he said. “Why wait?”

Julia, with a smile that lit the room, said, “Why, indeed?” They began to plan the wedding there and then.

Now, as one of the few available males in the retirement home, Jake had made a seismic social faux pas in the minds of the other female residents, especially Julia’s former and now chillier friends. You just don’t take yourself out of circulation like that. Why dash everyone’s hopes so cavalierly?

And as a widower of less than a year, Jake’s children thought he had not given himself, and them, time enough to mourn the loss of Clara. They could overlook this juvenile infatuation with Julia, this feeble attempt at friendship and dating. But marriage was a very different thing. They felt that he should wait at least a full year before entertaining such disturbing thoughts.

So after talking with most of his disapproving children, Jake called his grandson, the one who’d spent many days walking the custodial rounds with him years before. Jake needed a listening ear, and his kids weren’t listening. He put the dilemma to his grandson with the clarity of a fine diamond, like the one Jake had just purchased for Julia on the installment plan. Ever the optimist.

“Alan,” Jake said after describing the romantic moment and the present situation, “if God didn’t think it was right for Adam to be alone, then why should it be for Jake? The kids all tell me I should wait. Well, it’s easy for them to say. I don’t know how much time I have left, and a year means something different to me than it does to them. They take me for some kind of Viagra fool, like that dopey Bob Dole. I’m just tired of being alone, and Julia is too. We’re too old to elope. What do you think?”

Alan thought about this wonderful saint, smiled deeply, took a deep breath, encouraged Jake to seek the Lord’s will as he always had, and follow his big and deep heart. He also offered to be the ring bearer if they needed a middle-aged one, and to run interference with the rest of the family on Jake’s behalf.

Well, Jake and Julia married and moved to a larger apartment in the retirement home. They remained the talk of the place, the subject of sanctified gossip over many meals and loud lobby conversations, even by retirement-home standards. They took turns waking each other up during the dry Wednesday chapel talks. They spent countless hours playing dominoes and Scrabble over apple juice and bran muffins, with one vanilla candle lit on the TV. On their first anniversary, they snuck a bottle of wine into their apartment, almost wishing they would be caught. And from time to time they would sneak a kiss on the elevator. When other residents were riding with them, it was a greater delight.

They were married for four years before Julia died. Jake never remarried. Mourning for the second time took a great deal out of him. And even though the fields were ripe for harvest, he didn’t think his kids, or the home, could handle the thought of another daring and death-defying courtship. When Jake died, pictures of both his wives were on display at the funeral home. Everyone commented on the remarkable resemblance.

About the Author

Dr. David Larson is director of development for Timothy Christian Schools, Elmhurst, Ill., and attends Hope Christian Reformed Church, Oak Forest, Ill. Dave’s grandfather remarried at approximately the age of Jake in the story. He proposed over bran muffins and called Dave for advice because of his childrens’ reactions to the news of his upcoming marriage.

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