They didn’t go on their first date to a rock-climbing wall or a splatter painting studio at age 28. Lots of life had already happened for Dave Burns and Marilynn Bellmann. Marilynn married in 1972, had children, worked as a church music director, and then married again, to a man who was 24 years older. Whew! Dave fell in love with the sound of a train whistle in the night, and after serving in the Navy, worked for the railroad for 36 years, married, had kids, moved 16 times and taught school. Double whew!
When the two Southminster residents first met during Valentine’s Week in 2022, both of their spouses had passed away. Marilynn had just finished singing “The Greatest Gift is Love” during a chapel service, and her performance proved to be foreshadowing. After the service, Dave, with another Southminster resident as his wingman for support, walked right up to Marilynn and blurted out, “You sing like an angel!” In recalling the moment, Dave said, “Since we were the same height, I was looking right into her eyes. I had never had that experience with a woman before. I got the feeling that here is a missing half I didn’t know I was missing.”
Dave’s Rules for Dating
If Dave and Marilynn had chosen to stay in their own homes instead of moving to a senior living community, they would never have met. Living at Southminster gave them excellent opportunities to make friends and forge strong social connections. Dave in particular had developed an interesting strategy for meeting women and dating.
Rule 1: Three, or even four, is not a crowd.
Instead of asking Marilynn to go to dinner with him, he called and asked her if she would go to dinner with him and two other ladies. “My wife had died two years earlier, and I would not hesitate to ask three other ladies to come and have dinner with me. Other guys would come up to me and say, ‘how do you get these gals to invite you?’ And I would say, ‘I ask them.’”
On the phone after their group dinner, Marilynn remembers Dave asking her how old her husband was when he died. She replied, “96, 24 years older than me.” Dave said, “clearly you don’t have a problem with a difference in age.” Dave figured since he and Marilynn were only 11 years apart, she would see him as making progress in closing the gap.
“I wasn’t really looking for anybody, so I wouldn’t have gone to dinner with any man here who asked me to go by myself,” Marilynn explained. “I felt comfortable with four people and had a chance to get to know him. Not being from Charlotte I didn’t really know many people here. It was a good opportunity to get to know the other ladies too.” Score one for Dave.
Rule 2: Instant gratification is overrated.
A couple of months after they had dinner with the ladies, Dave called Marilynn and said “I’d like to get to know you better. Would you consider having dinner with just me?” She remembers thinking “Oooo-Nooo,” but she said “Yes.”
They had more dinners for two, but always parted at the stairs. Then he asked if he could walk her to her apartment. Then he progressed to, “Can I come in and tell you goodnight.” Then “Can I give you a little hug.”
Winter turned to spring, and Dave decided it was time to up the ante. Before Easter Sunday, he asked, “Are you going to church, and can I go with you?” Marilynn, the retired church music director, remembers thinking, “Oh, my! I couldn’t very well say ‘No’ to going to church, could I?”
Rule 3: Pretend to go along with the “just friends” thing
On the way home from Easter service, Marilynn confessed, “I just have to tell you that this is moving really fast, and I just want to be friends.” Dave replied without blinking an eye, “Sure, that’s fine. I can do that if we can still see each other.” For some reason, Marilynn chose that moment to ask him what day he and his late wife, Barbie, had gotten married? “When he said ‘Easter,’ I realized I had probably just crushed him by saying I just wanted to be his friend. I realize now that feelings for him happened for me when he said we could just be friends, because I had never planned to marry again. Now I could relax, knowing he was such a kind and patient man.”
In the weeks afterwards, Marilynn recalled, “After the concert at church in May, one of his sons and his fiancé took us out for dinner. While Dave was in the restroom, his son John said, ‘Marilynn, I just want to give you a little warning. When dad wants something, he tends to be a little direct.’” I said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ve got it under control.’”
Rule 4: Keep index cards and poetry in your pocket.
Dave kept index cards in his pocket. When he took Marilynn home after every dinner, he would pull one out and say, “the next time we go out, the topic of conversation will be…” He also carried a little book of poetry. He would bring it out and read one during dinner. One of his favorites written by Robert Browning was particularly compelling:
Grow Old with Me
Come, love, grow old along with me,
The very best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made.
Our times are in his hand, who saith “A whole I planned.”
Youth shows but half;
Trust God, see all, nor be afraid.
Call-out: Comment overheard when Southminster residents started noticing Dave and Marilynn holding hands: “Dave is one smitten kitten.”
Rule 5: Honor one another…
Recognizing their fondness for one another was growing, they both agreed they were ready for more than just dating. They were ready for a lifelong commitment. So, they went back to the Southminster chapel near where it all began, just eight short months after their initial Easter Sunday date.
As just the two of them and Carol Anne Lawler, Southminster’s Minister of Spiritual Wellness, stood in the chapel, Carol Anne proclaimed, “This love is sanctified in the eyes of the church.” They were in perfect agreement that it would be much easier for both of their families not to get into having their union legally sanctioned by the state.
Rule 6: …and keep the love alive
On that day in the chapel, Carol Anne also gave Marilynn and Dave a challenge, “What are you going to do to keep the relationship new and fresh and alive?”
Their plan: Take three-day trips once a month, do date nights, and maintain both apartments, which really worked well for quarantining when Marilynn got COVID. “Dave came out to my porch every afternoon and sang me a love song. Plus, he writes the most beautiful poems.” Dave says Marilynn reciprocates by picking out amazing cards for him. She also plays and sings for him in the chapel.
As for times when they disagree, they think of their life as three stools. He’s on the first, she’s on the third, and if each keeps one foot on the middle stool, they will make it. Harness your strengths and balance your weaknesses.
As Dave said, “Unlike younger people, time is not on our side, but old people are romantic too. No matter how old you are, when you have had great love, you still want love. His bottom-line advice to younger daters? Slow down the pace, find true love, and go about it the right way.