Love, the second time around
It’s the laughter, the joy and the smiles that strike you about Betty Guenther and Bill Burger. They sit closely together on the couch, hip to hip, shoulder to shoulder, a hand on a knee, a hand on an arm as they talk about how sometimes love surprises you.
Just when you have settled into a life you’ve decided to like, and you do. Just when you’ve found a new home. Just when you’ve beaten back the loneliness.
Then love comes for you, sweeping you up in a whirlwind of happiness and you decide to get married at 78 and nearly 83 years old.
For Betty and Bill, that day was May 21 at Magnolia Manor, where they live and met. The staff threw them a wedding, a bachelorette party with cake and “I can’t tell you” what else and a bachelor party with a belly dancer.
“We were going to do a justice of the peace, then this happened,” Betty says.
Their children had suggested a June wedding but Bill said the longest he would wait was May 14. They settled on May 21 because he participated in an Honor Flight the first weekend in May and Betty thought he might need more than a week to finish getting ready.
He could do a week but he wasn’t waiting another month.
The sparks of a second love
Betty came to Magnolia Manor after her husband of 57 years passed away in 2014 from cancer. They had been living in Thomasville — away from both of their children — at a place that offered room for them to stay together and additional care when his Alzheimer’s worsened.
“I just went into a funk,” Betty says about her husband’s death. “I really went into a deep depression, just like Bill, only it happened quicker with me because he was more of a getting out and socializing (person). I didn’t do that. I was just like, shut the world out.
“So, my son says, ‘Mom, every time I call you, you’re crying.’ He says, ‘You’ve got to come over here where we can see to you.’ I said, ‘OK, I’m ready to get out of here. I can’t stand it anymore.’”
That’s how she ended up in Camden County, where her son lives, and decided that she would embrace and love her new life.
“I had resigned to the fact that this is my life,” Betty says. “I’d gone through marriage. I’d had children. And this is what I was going to have. This was going to be my life and I was going to participate in everything around here and I was going to like it. And I did, and then Bill Burger walked in.”
Betty was at a social function about six months ago when Bill arrived and caught her eye.
“I thought, ‘Hmm, there’s something about that fella, you know.’ I don’t know what it was,” she says, calling the attraction magnetic.
“Both of my pockets were bulging,” Bill jokes. (His pockets are loaded down with a wallet as thick as a brick, military challenge coins and other items. He keeps his rolling walker stocked with essentials and snacks — Werther’s candies, an apple, cherries — too.)
A while later, Betty spotted him at another event and he came up to the couch where Betty was sitting with two other women. He asked the woman on the end if she’d like to dance. No. How about the woman in the middle? Also no.
“He walked right by me,” Betty says. “He didn’t even see me. So I sat there and I thought, ‘Huh, this is not going to be.’ So I said, ‘Guess what, guys? I’m going to ask him to dance.’”
Bill said yes and Betty warned him that she didn’t fast dance anymore — “my legs won’t let me” — so they slow danced.
“I just snuggled right up to him,” Betty says, a move that was completely out of character for her. “This is the Betty that absolutely shocked everybody. … I just fit with him so good.”
She told him that she hadn’t danced with a man in a long time but dancing with him made her feel good.
“Just little things like that started us off,” Bill says. “She’d make me laugh and I’d say, ‘I haven’t laughed this way in so long.’ I was so lonely. Loneliness is a terrible disease.”
“It just about did me in,” Betty says.
“You’ve taken it away from me, kiddo,” Bill tells her.
“That’s my intention.”
From alcohol to Betty
When Bill arrived at Magnolia Manor in August, he figured that he would only last two weeks. After 55 years together, the death of his wife five years ago devastated him. He began drinking away the hours, becoming a regular at bars in the Savannah area.
“There was a bar down the street from where I lived. That wasn’t enough, I had to hit every one in town,” he says. “… I didn’t realize that I was just drinking too much until I hit curbs and had to call AAA to come out and change my tires. And finally, I fell in the garage after getting in after midnight. One night, I slept on the cement all night long.”
His oldest daughter, who lives in Camden, got him into Magnolia Manor and he moved south. Loneliness followed him at first but two new friends — who he calls the Bobbsey Twins — welcomed him to his new home and Betty noticed how well he treated them and how understanding he was with the two women.
“Now he’s replaced alcohol with Betty,” Betty says.
After that first dance, Betty and Bill started going together to see the movies played every night but Tuesday and Thursday. Then they discovered a mutual love of the TV show “NCIS,” so they watched that together on Tuesday and Thursday.
“We have sat there and watched some corny movies,” Betty says. “Really corny movies! But we were together.”
One night, they sat down on the couch, each at the opposite end with a pillow between them and watched the 1995 film “Sabrina.”
“I had my hand resting on the pillow and it was about halfway through the movie, he reached over and took hold of my hand,” she says. “I thought, ‘Oh. My. God.’ That’s how it started.”
They have a lifetime of stories to tell each other, funny moments from raising their children (he has two daughters and she has two sons) and things they experienced during their first marriages. Some of their stories are about experiences that they shared in a way. Tony, her first husband, and Bill were both in the Air Force while Betty and Billie, his wife, kept the home fires burning.
Bill, who was a pilot, talks about rescuing a group of Rangers in Vietnam. She tells him about how Tony typed the invasion plans for Cuba. They were even stationed at a few of the same bases, though probably at different times.
“We were made for each other. We both have war stories,” Bill says.
Saying I do
Betty may have sparked their love but it’s Bill who decided it was time to get married. He asked her three times and three times she gave him the same answer.
“That’s a lot to think about,” she told him. “He said, ‘OK, think about it.’ So the next time was about three weeks later and he says, ‘Will you marry me?’ I said, ‘Hey, we’ve got to talk about this and we’ve got to think hard.’”
Then he asked a fourth time, saying he knew she didn’t want to get married right now, and she said, yes, I will.
“She floored me,” he says.
“Hey, you never know about Betty,” she told him.
So they got married with her two sons walking her down the aisle, then standing up with Bill and his two daughters standing with Betty. They exchanged matching white gold wedding bands, fed each other cake and honeymooned for a few days at The Ritz-Carlton in Amelia Island, Fla.
Because that’s what happens when love surprises you.
“I kept thinking, ‘Bill, the reason you’re here is because you didn’t want to be alone and you hated loneliness and you’ve got something that you really adore and you’ve got to do something about it,’” Bill says.