They met in high school. Fifty years later, the pandemic helped them realise they belonged together

Early in the coronavirus pandemic, Betty Conner, a 71-year-old retiree, was suddenly feeling very young.

She was consumed by a crush on a boy (nay, a man!) who was at once familiar and a bit of a mystery. His name was Peter Nickless and he lived in Baja California, on a sailboat called Expectation.

Betty had known Peter nearly all her life. One of hundreds of people who had passed through it, largely unnoticed. But it took a contagious virus, and half a century, for the realisation to arrive: She wanted to be with him.

They went to high school together in Richmond, Virginia, in the late 1960s, when she dated Peter’s best friend and Peter dated hers. Peter was the co-captain of the football team at Huguenot High School. Betty was active in service clubs, a bit quiet and shy.

After graduation, they lost touch. “The last time I think I saw him was at a New Year’s Eve party in 1967,” Betty recalled recently. “It was the first semester of college. He doesn’t remember the party, but I do.”

After high school, they both launched careers, got married and divorced.

Eventually, they friended each other on Facebook. And it was only recently – in Peter’s trips to visit family Richmond in 2018 and 2019, and then through long phone calls and emails – that Betty started to discover who he really was: charming, intelligent, with a good sense of humour.

They talked about things they had in common: how their mutual friends were faring and how much they missed the ones who’d passed; how much they wished Trump would be voted out in the 2020 election; and their interest in meditation and what happens after we die. They had a bit of shared history, with plenty to still uncover about one another, a mix of familiarity and intrigue that’s rare when getting to know someone in your golden years.

As the pandemic approached, their connection intensified. Peter sent her a Valentine’s Day note. A few weeks later, she wished him a happy birthday.

Then, when quarantine orders were handed down in mid-March, Betty worried about Peter’s safety. She decided it was time to tell him how she felt.

She had little expectation her admission would lead anywhere. They were both in the high-risk age group for covid-19, after all, and they each had active lives on opposite coasts. But she just had to say something.

The subject line of her email: “The Teen-Age Betty in Me Confesses.”

I wasn’t planning on really liking you – but I do. I am trying not to like you too much, but that is harder than I thought it would be. And when you like someone, you worry about their safety. Please, please take this quarantining seriously. I know how laid back you are and you are not a worrier like I am. Just be more careful. In the meantime, I will work on liking you less, so you won’t think I am a pest, a pain, crazy, weird, etc.!!!

Betty ended her note by saying she’s a “realist,” so she wasn’t harbouring grand dreams of either of them uprooting their lives to be together. (She also asked Peter not to mention any of this to a particular mutual friend: her high school boyfriend.)

Peter didn’t think she was a pest, a pain, crazy or weird. Just the opposite.

“I had been becoming closer to her through our conversations on the phone, and my love and affection was building through those,” Peter recalled recently. Those talks prompted both of them to ponder: “Where am I going the rest of my life? Where are we going the rest of our lives? How can we make the best of it for each of us?”

The answer they landed on was that Peter would leave his boat in Mexico, fly out to Virginia and stay with Betty for a bit. “I’m gonna just come there,” he told her. “I can see us being together for the rest of our lives.”

Reconnecting in your 70s is different from bonding in your teenage years in one big way: There’s no sense in being coy or playing games, especially in a pandemic where it becomes clear you may not get another chance in a year, or two or 10. Peter took precautions before and during his flights to Richmond, and if the in-person connection with Betty proved flimsy, he figured he could always decamp to his mother’s place.

But when Betty retrieved Peter from the Richmond airport in late July, they immediately felt that they were starting a new chapter together. “I think it really helped that we were friends – and knew each other that way – and then that this just slowly developed and we discovered the things that we had in common, about how we look at life,” Betty said.

They don’t look at everything the same way: “He’s much more of a hippie than I am,” Betty notes, adding that he’s also neater. “I think that comes from being on a boat.” She’s a night owl and he’s an early bird, so Peter has a habit of bringing Betty breakfast in bed before he heads out for a morning walk.

They feel lucky to have found a connection during this lonely, difficult time. When Peter arrived at Betty’s place, he “quarantined” in her guest room. That lasted one night. The next day, she put out an update on Facebook about their relationship. “Sometimes good friendships very unexpectedly develop into much more.” Betty wrote. “We assure you that no one is more surprised about this than we are!”

After six months of living together, Peter hasn’t retreated to his mother’s place. In fact, he’s selling his boat.

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