Deb Thea didn’t want a conventional wedding. “I was 70. Walking down the aisle? Wearing white? Come on!” she says. She wore a polka dot dress to marry her boyfriend, Tom Ford, who was 65. Her guests had polka dot ties, polka dot shawls and polka dot dresses.
Thea, who runs an antique shop in Petaluma, California, had always thought she would marry, but didn’t think it would take so long to find the right person. “I had boyfriends and I lived with people,” she says. “But we got to the point where we should go forward or stop, and they just didn’t seem enough to me.”
Besides, being single never felt like a burden. “I felt like a whole person,” she says. “I put time and energy into my friendships and they stuck with me all my life.” Now, at 73, she has watched her friends “accept my husband into the fold”.
Thea first met Ford when he was married to her late friend Alice, but they didn’t interact. Thea and Alice, another antiques dealer, hung out and shopped flea markets together. “Then Alice got cancer … She passed away very quickly.”
Although Alice had requested no service, the shock of her death was too great for Thea. “I went to a picnic area and I cooked up 50 pieces of chicken and I invited everybody that wanted to come. Tom wanted to help; he brought all the drinks. We had white balloons. Everybody said stuff. It was really great.”
Afterwards, Thea kept an eye on Ford. “Just like I would any of my friends,” she says. She dropped by his workshop with sandwiches and things for him to fix. A friendship grew.
“One day I texted him and he didn’t text me back. And I realised that I really cared.” The feelings, she says, felt right in some ways and uncomfortable in others. “If he was ready to get into another relationship that quickly I wouldn’t have liked him for that.”
Still, they had so much in common – both drove trucks, were good with woodworking tools, loved old things, disliked pretentiousness – and there was an ease between them, “like two gears that fit”. One day, they were out walking, and Thea slipped her hand in his. “He was like, ‘Oh! Oh!’”
Ford and Thea have discussed this moment many times as husband and wife. He says she outpaced him; she thinks she acknowledged what they both felt. Either way, a few days later, while Thea browsed a breakfast menu, Ford “turned me around and kissed me”. They married soon after.
Thea had nurtured her independence for decades and had a strong adventurous streak. At 28 she was working in the mayor’s youth office in San Francisco when the city supervisor Harvey Milk was assassinated. It was a turbulent time in the Bay Area, with children arriving from Jonestown in need of care. Each day felt like sticking a finger in the dam. So she went to Vermont, bought a truck and filled it with antiques to sell. Her spontaneity, which led to a lifelong career, was “a function of being single. I didn’t have to enlist anybody. I didn’t have somebody saying ‘no.’”
As she points out, she has “married somebody who is newly retired … I went from being alone all the time to being with somebody 24 hours a day,” meaning compromises have been struck. Thea has learned to go to bed at 9.30 – Ford’s preferred time – and Ford has to tolerate TV shows he doesn’t find amusing. Married life is both more and less liberating, but it is warm, funny, easier, with less worrying and more hugging. Thea has noticed that her shoulders are no longer hunched with the strain of daily life. “I feel light,” she says. “It’s a great picture … to see someone else on the other end of the piece of furniture.”
Customers at the antique shop have told Thea that her marriage gives hope to those who are still looking. But does she wish she had met Ford when she was younger? “I don’t think I would have been as fully developed a person,” she says. “I think doing all that by myself and not being waylaid by fear gave me a confidence that is kind of the point of life. To get that confidence and know that you’ve lived.”