I Met My First Love When I Was 50

Love is not longing to change somebody; it’s letting your relationship with them change you.

Woman with her first love Leandro Crespi | Unsplash, ManuKro, Olivier Verriest | Canva

Everybody says you’ll know “real love” when you feel it.

Everybody lies.

I’m convinced plenty of people walk the Earth with no clue what love feels like. They’ve mistaken things like infatuation, lust, familiarity, or a need to rescue or be rescued for romantic love. But romantic love is none of those things. I know, because I met my first love the year I turned 50.



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Before I left my 23-year marriage and moved 2,000 miles away from the only home I’d ever known to live in the Pacific Northwest, I did some research. My chosen hometown had to have a choir I could join.

Now, I’m at the season’s first Peace Choir rehearsal. My heart flutters like a terrified bird in the cage of my chest. I’ve grown bolder lately, pushing myself beyond my comfort zone, but it still isn’t easy to venture out and meet new people. I take a seat next to a woman who introduces herself as Dena. We learn that we’re not only both transplants, but we moved to town on the same day, her in a house downtown and me in a crappy three-bedroom apartment I shared with my two college-age kids. It’s a huge step down from the four-bedroom Victorian I’d had in Wisconsin, but I couldn’t be happier.


Dena and I chat about our shared love of gardening as we wait for the rehearsal to begin. I’m distracted, looking around as all these strangers enter the room. A Black man saunters through the door  —  the only person of color in the room. He’s dressed in jeans and a vintage-looking Orange Crush t-shirt, yet he somehow looks elegant.

I’ve never been a big believer in the new age notion of “feeling a person’s energy,” but I’m doing it now. Something about this man makes me lighter, and happier because he exudes contentment. He hums to himself as he strolls by. He is completely at ease, secluded in his happy place, and yet also, miraculously, fully present in the world. It will take me a year to learn that his name is John.

The Peace Choir is full of warm, kind, progressive people. In Washington, I’ve found them in abundance. And I’ve also found myself.

We’re a few months into my second season with the Peace Choir, and although I’ve made a habit of noticing John, we still haven’t spoken except for one brief moment over the summer when I spotted him at the pride parade.


“Peace Choir!” I’d said in greeting.

“Yeah!” he answered. “How’s your summer?”

“Good, good. You?”

“Same. Nice weather for Pride.”

Then he excused himself, heading off to meet a friend for lunch.

Now, I’m at the first performance of the choir season, and I’m practically scared to death because I have a solo. I’m singing the opening to Shakira’s “Try Everything,” from the movie Zootopia. The song is simple, but it speaks to me. I’ve risked a lot to move away from the security and safety of my family back in my home state. I’d gathered everything I could fit into my 1998 Toyota Sienna and started a life in a notoriously expensive part of the country with just $2,800 and a bunch of determination.


I won’t give up, no I won’t give in
Until I reach the end
And then I’ll start again
No, I won’t leave
I want to try everything
I want to try even though I could fail

I’m in the back row of our large choir. I’ve grown increasingly freaked out as we move through the program. Each song brings us closer to my solo. We’re just one song away in the lineup — I’m next. I’m desperate to stay focused on the current song when I hear a baritone voice behind me. Huh? There are no baritones anywhere near the alto section.

In my periphery, I see John. Then I remember — he’s a narrator. That explains why he’s sidled up behind me to the edge of the choir. It will make it easier for him to quickly take the mic and introduce my song when the time comes. He has an amazing voice. Concentrate. Be present. Sing the song we’re singing. The song ends. My hands sweat, my heart flutters. I can’t breathe, which doesn’t bode well for a vocalist. Breathe!

Then, a deep voice in my ear murmurs, “Get ‘em, kid!”


After the performance, John approaches me.

“You’ve got a great voice!” he enthuses.

“Thank you,” I say. “My voice cracked a bit at the end. Nerves.”

“Didn’t notice.” He slips into his jacket and pulls on a beanie. (Over the coming years, I’ll crochet him many beanies. He’ll lose all but one.) “Who’s your favorite musician?”

“Billy Joel,” I say, without hesitation.

“Favorite song?”

“Changes weekly. But right now, it’s ‘New York State of Mind’.”

“Good one! So, why Billy Joel?”

“I’m a piano player. He’s my inspiration.”

“Well, you were inspiring tonight,” John says. Then he opens his arms. “I need to give you a hug!”


I step in, and … how can I describe that hug?

When I stepped into John’s embrace, lingering traces of performance anxiety slid away. The adrenaline and cortisol tide flowed out; oxytocin and dopamine rolled in. Like John Denver sang in “Rocky Mountain High” when I was just a kid, I was coming home to a place I’d never been before.

The choir season rolls on. I get better at singing my solo with every performance. I’m beginning to feel confident. I love this community; they‘ve become my musical tribe.

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I’ve also begun talking to John at rehearsals.

He’s generous with hugs for everyone, not just me — John’s a hugger. But he often caresses my shoulder when we’re talking, something he doesn’t seem to do with other people. I’ve never been good at recognizing signs of interest from the other sex. Is this flirting?


Again, I step outside my comfort zone and ask John if he wants to come to my house for dinner. He graciously accepts. When the night of our dinner arrives, he phones and tells me he’s standing outside my apartment but no one’s answering. I go to the door and look. No one’s there. We quickly discern that John has gone to the right building and unit number but the wrong apartment complex. When he finally arrives, he’s dressed in black slacks and a sports coat, clutching a bouquet of purple tulips.

I imagine this man at the wrong door, confused about why no one’s answering. My heart floods with a fierce need to make sure anyone who encounters John sees what I see, a beautiful human with warm, happy energy you want to bathe in.

I’d thought I was in love with my ex-husband. It took over 20 years for me to realize I was addicted to the idea of being married. I’d been spoonfed the notion that any woman worth anything should be paired up. I needed a partner, no matter how dysfunctional our relationship was. And I needed a project.

I believed I could help my abusive husband turn his life around. He’d been damaged by a father who was an even worse monster than he’d become. And hurt people … hurt people. All I had to do was catch my husband in every lie, call out every infidelity, and make him suffer the consequences whenever he dared to shove me, back me into a corner, or pin me and prevent me from leaving during a fight.


It wasn’t love; it was obsession. It was codependence. When I accepted that my husband was who he was and that nothing I could do would change him, I realized our relationship had become unacceptable. I freed myself and planned my exit strategy — moving to the Pacific Northwest.

I’d spent half my life certain I’d discovered what love was and believed I’d had it with my husband. But finding John lifted the veil of trauma from my eyes and revealed the truth.

Love isn’t about the pursuit of some fantasy ideal. Love is safety and belonging. Love is mutual respect. Love is openness and acceptance. Love is grace and forgiveness. Love is when someone sees you just as you are — sees you — and meets you where you’re at. Love is not longing to change somebody; it’s letting your relationship with them change you.



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I fall in love for the first time at age 50. It happens in a jazz club.

He picks me up and we go to dinner, dining on seafood with a view of Puget Sound as the sun lowers in the sky. Then he drives us to a coffeehouse to hear a live jazz band. The saxophonist, he says, played on Steely Dan’s Deacon Blue. At the club, we’re crammed into a corner without a seat. My crowd anxiety takes over, my heart beats too fast, and I become faint. Embarrassed, I hide it until I can’t, and then I murmur in his ear, “I’m lightheaded. I need to find a place to sit.”

He guides me to the back of the room where there’s a chair in a hallway. We can still see and hear the band, but we’re a bit secluded. He bids me to sit, and then some coffeehouse staffer provides him with a chair, too. He sits behind me, out of the way of people traveling the hall, and massages my shoulders. “That feels nice . . .” We swap places and I massage him for a while as he watches the band.

The song finishes. A slow song starts. He rises and extends a hand. “Dance with me,” he says.


No one else is dancing, but I don’t care. I rise, step into his arms, press myself against him, and we slowly sway. I’m not a good slow dancer. I’ve rarely had the opportunity to dance with a man and I’m not practiced. But we’re in each other’s arms and I’m breathing in his scent and he smells like home, warm and inviting. As the song winds down he says, “You’re dancing close…”

“It must be the wine.”

The song ends and his hand comes up to brush the hair from my face. He cups his fingers around the back of my head, pulls me to him, and then kisses me, long and deep. When we part, I’m certain my eyes are glimmering as they take him in. The neatly trimmed black-and-silver beard, the dark depths of his eyes, the soft expression that melts me.


“That wasn’t just the wine talking,” he jokes.

I sing into his ear, “I’ve got a crush on you…”

His laughter is warm honey rippling over me. We sit in the back of that club, kissing until our lips feel bruised and the band plays its final song and an encore. We make our way to his car where we kiss some more, like eager teenagers, exploring one another.

“I’m sorry for being such a wimp about the crowd,” I say.

“It’s all right,” he says. “It was just a club. Just some music. Some people. And you’re safe with me.”

At that exact moment, I give him my heart completely.

After two decades of abuse that started as physical and then wound down to being “merely” emotional, after years of being lied to and betrayed, after years of protecting myself and my children from harm, being the mediator and the caretaker, the glue holding it all together, to hear those words  —  ”you’re safe with me”  —  soothes my ravaged spirit.


I kiss him again, under the glow of the street lamps, in a Toyota Rav 4, not caring whether anyone sees us, not caring what anyone might think, content just to be in this moment with him.

“Let’s get you home,” he says. “Will you welcome me in when we get there?”

“Yes,” I answer breathlessly.

At my place, as we lie together in the afterglow we are grateful for one another’s touch. I ask him how long it’s been since he last made love.

“It’s been . . .” he ponders, then looks shocked. “Years!” he says. “It’s been five … no. Seven years!”

“I’m glad I could be the one to help you break your dry spell,” I tease. And we laugh. He calls me sugar.


And a love for all ages is born.

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A career writer and editor, Karen Lunde has crafted over 100 articles on writing and grammar for Grammarly and edited Macmillan Publishers' popular podcasts, including grammar celebrity Grammar Girl. She was an online education pioneer, founding one of the first online writing workshops, and currently provides writing tips and writing coach services at HelpMeWriteBetter.com.