Bob DeMarco and Bertha Redden first talked marriage 20 years ago.
Shortly after his mother died, Bertha visited Bob. She held the man she had cared for as a baby while he spilled his grief for hours.
Once he slowed down, she shared a worry of her own.
"I want you to help me find myself a husband," she told him. Her husband of 54 years had died from a heart attack six months earlier.
"I don't care if he's black, blue, white or yellow. I just care that he's a good husband, has got some money and likes to touch and kiss me. And he's got to be between 64 and 74 years old."
At the time, Bertha was 69 years old. Bob was 41.
"I'm all of that but one," he said.
"What! I'm not talking about you! Child, I've got five children older than you!"
Bob didn't truly think it could work either. She's black. He's white, and had been raised by parents who considered a mixed marriage a Methodist coupling with a Catholic. He had never been married, but looked for girlfriends within his own race and age. Then, there was their history, which started squarely in segregation.
In 1951, Bertha was hired as a nanny for Bob's older brother, then just 6 months old, in the family's home in Fort Myers, Fla. Bertha lived across the railroad tracks in Dunbar, where blacks resided by law and many didn't dare to leave after dark.
Two years later, Bob entered the world. Bertha cradled him in her arms, cleaned his umbilical cord and fed him bottles from the time he was 2 days old. Little Bob grew to be an avid reader, smart as a whip, Bertha thought. He could pronounce hippopotamus by age 2. It wasn't long before Bertha became pregnant with her sixth daughter and she chose to stay home with her own children.
In that moment two decades ago, Bob felt solace with Bertha. Their families had stayed in touch, and Bertha had returned to work for his mother in her elder years, but romance? No chance. That's too weird, he thought.
Yet, they continued to eat out together, watched movies and nature shows on TV, and enjoyed the dinner theater. He turned to Bertha when he lost his inheritance in a business scam, he said. At one point, he tried to drown himself in the bathtub. Bertha never scolded him for being foolish; she listened. Sometimes, he slept on the couch at her house. He feared he would hurt himself if alone.
"She was the only beacon of light in an otherwise dark world for me," he said.
But folks and fellow churchgoers in the Dunbar neighborhood where Bertha lives noticed Bob's van parked in her drive overnight. That's when the gossip began. It was as if she had earned the Scarlet Letter in her circle of senior citizens.
She decided she'd better start spending the night at Bob's instead. It was there, one morning in 1998, when the idea of marriage became real as they watched Maury Povich in bed. The topic that day: unusual couples. There was a young white man with an elder black woman. There was a man who looked older than his 45 years in love with an 88-year-old who looked younger. (Coincidentally, Bertha barely has a wrinkle. Bob is round and gray.)
Would their lives change if they were husband and wife?
No, they agreed.
Let's just do it, they decided.
She made him feel like a king, somebody worth loving.
"It's because of Bertha and her love that I know my life indeed has meaning that I truly am somebody," he said.
He showered her with kisses and gifts of gum and candy. Her first husband would pull away from her advances. She giggled when he serenaded her with saccharine songs like, "Looking through the Eyes of Love."
"I love him for what he is. I don't try to change him," Bertha said. "Don't nobody want no bossy woman. Let the man feel like he's a man."
Bertha didn't want to stir scandal at her church, so they married in her home on March 14, 1998. Redden's daughter, Marion Redden-Sims, a Christian minister, was happy to officiate. Her mother had asked the Lord for a good father and husband for her first marriage, and she had it.
"For this round, she asked the Lord for romance and that's basically what she got," said Redden-Sims, who is seven years older than her mother's husband. "We never did think she would get it through him, but who are we to judge?"
It was good to hear his mother laugh and enjoying life. Were other relatives shocked?
"Were there!" Redden-Sims laughed.
Bob moved in with his bride as did his older brother, who has a cognitive disability. His family grew exponentially with Bertha's 24 grandchildren, 40 great-grandchildren and 28 great-great grandchildren. Bertha's relatives will gather to celebrate her 90th birthday in May. Bob, now 61 years old, is planning to croon a medley of love songs.
For Valentine's Day, Bertha has asked for a bag of Hershey's kisses with almonds to share at a senior center, where she leads a morning exercise class. He'll make sure her card is ready before he leaves for his job delivering pizzas. When he returns home, predictions call for kissing and "I love you's" before Bertha heads to bed around 8 p.m.
"Love is no secret and it's right there for the taking," Bob said.
"It's right there," Bertha nodded.
"But you've got to know what it is," he said. "Before, I didn't know what made a person rich. Now I do and I'll spell it out for you, L-O-V-E."