friendship

Role reversal: When your widowed father starts dating again.

Even before my mother drew her last breath almost two years ago, the “casserole women,” as a friend described them, began circling.

“They’re vultures,” a friend warned, “they have no shame whatsoever.”

Widowed themselves, divorced or never married, the shameless 70 and 80-somethings breezed in and out of the stricken marital home, gold bracelets jingling at their wrists, trailing French perfume with beef stew.

They were staking out positions ahead of the open season everyone understood would commence as soon as a respectable mourning period had elapsed. This older generation is grimly practical.

Even though my mother’s passing extinguished a loving union of nearly 65 years, time was on no-one’s side and dad badly needed someone at his. A lifetime of career success could not prepare him for the indignity and challenge of microwaving his dinner, unstacking the dishwasher and wheeling out the bin on rubbish night.

Also, dad’s something of a catch. Financially comfortable, intelligent, keen on travel and with his own set of teeth. And still only 85. In the context of an average life expectancy of 140, a scenario the Federal Government’s Intergenerational Report claims is plausible within the next four decades, 85 is just clear of mid-life crisis.

The movie 'It's Complicated,' shows the realities of role reversals later in life. Image via Tumblr.

Dad duly fell for one of these casserole women; a dish herself, bubbly and soul-replenishing. But as they say in the States, it’s complicated.

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A Sex and the City meets The Golden Girls- type complicated: the woman, in her early 70s, was still unhappily married to a man in his early 90s. For the sake of the children, and later the grandchildren, she had stayed with him far too long and now found it difficult to extricate herself.

“She says she’ll leave him but she just needs time.”

Dad’s tone at the other end of the line was breathless.

It was one of many surreal conversations between settled, middle-aged daughter and her octogenarian father in romantic tumult. But this turning of the generational tables is becoming increasingly common among my 40-something peers, as longevity spins the life-cycle past full circle.

At our get-togethers we no longer simply lament our wayward teenage children; we also fret about our wayward 75-plus parents who are acting like teenagers.

“Ever since this woman’s come on the scene my father-in-law has no time for the grandkids,” a friend confides, rolling her eyes.

“He reckons she’s the one— says he’s going to sell everything and move overseas with her.”

We share war stories about ageing mothers cruising internet dating sites, families of blended grandchildren, the parent whose bed hopping is scandalising the nursing home, the parent moving out of the nursing home and in with a lover.

All evidence of what social researchers describe as the new normal of serial partnering across a lifetime, culminating in a fresh companion for retirement and the “third age”, once upon a time known as old age.

Related content: When you’re torn between your ageing parents and your young children….

“She’s scared her husband’s going to find out,” dad continued on the phone.

“Because everyone knows about us, everyone knows, the whole city’s talking about us.” A hint of boast in his voice now.

“It’ll work itself out dad, I’m sure.” I was cradling the receiver with my neck, trying to frock a naked barbie as I talked.

“I’ll dress her—just get in the bath,” I had pleaded with the six year-old.

“You wouldn’t believe what happened the other day,” said dad, breathless again. “We walked into a cafe, and had just sat down when out of the corner of our eyes we saw the back of his head! It was him! Sitting at another table! Can you believe it! And we just grabbed each other and ran! We just ran out of the cafe before he could see us.”

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I giggled.

“And you know we snuck away to the holiday house last weekend?”

“Oh yes,” I said. “How was it? What did you guys do?”

“And you know we snuck away to the holiday house last weekend?” Image via Tumblr.

“What did we do?” Dad paused. He gave a smutty chuckle. “You don’t want to know.”

I squirmed. The half-naked barbie slipped from my fingers.

Then a heavy sigh down the line.

“Honestly, you don’t know how hard it is having an affair with a married person.”

My mind instantly threw up a snapshot of my younger self in the decade before I rounded the corner into love, mortgage and babies. My own life had sometimes resembled a seedy soap opera, with mum and dad watching helpless from the sidelines as each overwrought episode played to the bitter end. Every so often I let my guard down and headed home for comfort and advice. Now I was anchored and my parent unmoored.

“I have to go dad. The kids are in the bath.”

But I felt a strange lightness. Despite life’s mess and pain and grief, there’s time for one last dance.

The beat goes on and on.