What my father and his girlfriend taught me about dating

WASHINGTON • My father and I have always been close, but he has never been a person I turned to for dating advice.

He was never one to talk much about emotions. That was always my mum's gig. But I could tell the end of my marriage in 2014 saddened him and that he wanted to see me settled.

While he wasn't the best at advice, he has set a good example. When we lost my mother to vascular dementia after a long struggle, he grieved, but didn't stop living.

In time, I saw that he wasn't afraid to put himself out there and take the kind of romantic risks that would baffle many a swipe-dependent millennial. At age 79, my father met his girlfriend on a bus.

My mother, Joan, and father, Ron, were married, happily for the most part, for more than 40 years. They met in suburban Philadelphia at a singles' dance, a kind of pre-Tinder version of Tinder. This experience gave my dad a fairly straightforward view of romance.

When I told him I'd recently been on a few dates with someone I'd met online, he responded, in his particularly earnest way: "I bet she's a fantastic lady, I hope it ends in marriage."

I rolled my eyes and let out a long, exasperated "Daaaaaaad!", just as I had done so many times as a teenager.

Having recently lost his wife, my dad should know how hard it is to meet someone nowadays. But he's done well for himself without Tinder or any singles' dances.

On a cold December day in 2013, he stepped on the senior bus in Leominster, Massachusetts, and saw Gillian.

He knew right away that he wanted to talk to her. He sat in the seat in front of her, pulled out his iPhone, turned around and started talking about his latest trip and his experience as a traveller.

Gillian, as she explained to me later, was startled at first, but let him talk. "I thought... This guy is really trying to impress me with his travelling overseas, he probably thinks I haven't been anywhere."

She has seen much more of the world than my father has. Now 76, she grew up in Wales, lived for decades in South Africa and travelled throughout Asia while running an import-export business. She didn't need my father to mansplain the finer details of travel to her and she subtly let him know by laying out her own experience.

She had left an abusive marriage 14 years prior and was proud of the independent life she had built for herself.

"During that time, if a guy asked me out or phoned me up, I never went," she tells me now. "I always declined because I was not interested in meeting anybody."

However, Priscilla, the bus driver, had been listening to Gillian and my father interact.

When my dad got off at his stop, he told Priscilla: "Boy, I really goofed that up. I didn't get her name. I didn't get her telephone number and I don't know how to meet her again."

The driver had answers. "Her name is Gillian and she goes to the Leominster Senior Center every Monday to play bingo," she told him.

Guess who showed up for bingo the next Monday? My dad didn't see Gillian, but asked around if anyone knew her. One woman did. He explained the story and gave her his number to give to Gillian.

I had to ask my dad how he worked up the nerve to pull this off.

I'm decent at getting dates on Tinder and the like, but meeting people "in the wild" is much harder. I would fumble all over myself trying to start a conversation on a bus, and if I tried to go to something like that bingo night, I would have probably given up hope after not seeing the person I was looking for, even if I made it in the door.

Sometimes, though, the happy accidents of life are better than what an algorithm can generate. "I just knew I wanted to meet her again," my father told me. "It wasn't a case of being nervous. It was a case of being determined."

Later, Gillian got a phone call from a friend, asking: "Did you meet a guy on the senior bus?"

"I know who you are talking about," Gillian said.

"Well, he's been looking for you. He's been asking everybody in the senior centre whether they know you. I've got his telephone number."

"You know I don't want to go out with anybody."

"But he's such a nice man. Phone him up and go for a coffee or something."

"Oh, give me the number, but I doubt I'm going to phone anyway."

Gillian did call. Their first date was at a Barnes & Noble. They decided to go to dinner afterwards and walked across the parking lot. He reached for her hand.

"It was freezing out," Gillian recalled. "He held my hand and his hand was as warm as anything. I've always got cold hands. That was a strange sensation, that was, maybe because a man hadn't held my hand in 14 years."

He held her hand again when he walked her home. "By that time, I didn't want to leave him... I just wanted to stay with him."

My father and Gillian have been together for the past four years and, in my biased opinion, they make a pretty cute couple. I admire my dad for showing up at the bingo night, and even more so, I admire Gillian for calling him.

She didn't need my father to find happiness. She had lived all over the world and had all the friends and family she needed. But when something good came her way, she knew how to see it, even if there wasn't a bold "You've Got a Match," message floating above my dad's head.

"I'm always happy wherever I am, but there was something I felt, when I met your dad and was holding his hand, there was just something I felt that I thought maybe I had missed."

Whenever I go through a break-up, I often hear a nagging voice in my head saying things like, "That's it. You'll never find anyone. Just give up and stop wasting everyone's time. Also, go ahead and eat that bacon burger and, yes, following it with a milkshake IS a good idea".

I can also get sick of the apps and all those repetitive First Date Questions.

In moments such as those, the story of my father and Gillian serves as an important reminder from someone who has never online-dated, but knows a thing or two about taking romantic risks.

It tells me that no matter what I've been through lately, there are still plenty of possibilities in front of me - even on the bus.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 26, 2017, with the headline 'What my father and his girlfriend taught me about dating'. Print Edition | Subscribe