second acts

Married for the First Time at 64

Illustration: by Paco May

“Second Acts” is a series about making big changes later in life.

Rhonda Joy McLean is the president and CEO of RJMLEADS LLC, a leadership consulting company in New York City. Prior to that, she was the Deputy General Counsel of Time, Inc. for nearly 20 years. In 2017, at the age of 64, she got married for the first time to her husband, Bill Craig, 70.

My husband and I met through music. I had been in New York for quite some time, and I was asked to come sing with this church choir in Brooklyn, where my husband-to-be sang. We saw each other across a crowded choir loft. I thought he was cute. And apparently he thought I was too, but nobody said anything.

I only went to that choir on special occasions, like Easter, so I only saw him three or four times a year. Finally, a mutual friend of ours figured out that we were interested in each other. It was like the sixth grade — the three of us went out for brunch after a dress rehearsal, and then we kicked our friend to the curb. I was 47. We’ve been together ever since.

Bill was married twice before, and had children from his previous marriages. I was a single career woman, working hard, certainly dating. I’d been engaged a few times early on, but mostly I was working. I was very active in the community, very active in politics, very active period.

I’ve often been a first — a first Black person, or first Black woman, or first Black woman and youngest person. In 1965, when I was 13, I integrated the high school in my town in North Carolina with two other girls. There was a sheriff with a gun. They separated the three of us, and we were put in different homerooms. I don’t know what kind of damage they thought we could do, these three little Black girls, but they separated us, so we never saw each other except at lunch time. It was disconcerting and scary. The threats, the KKK, just a lot of crap. We had to learn to stand on our own in the face of ignorance, and bias, and willful malevolence. Pretty much every night that first year, we studied in each other’s homes because we felt like we had to be perfect. We felt like academic excellence was our only real weapon. And we all did well and went on to have successful careers. I think that has a lot to do with who I am and how I approach life.

I was 16 when I finished high school, 19 when I finished college. Very immature, socially, very much protected. I didn’t know much about dating. In college, I spread my wings a bit and met some lovely gentlemen. But at the time it was the Vietnam War, there was lots going on in the social-justice movement and the civil-rights movement. My focus was on that. I was also very active in the arts, in theater, and I was vice-president of student government. It was hard for me to say no, which has a lot to do with why my relationships were so limited. I didn’t have a lot of time.

Also, I’m a Leo — I’m not very patient. I have a short attention span. If I don’t see something interesting happening here intellectually, I’m done. And I’m happy to say that Bill is interesting. He’s very much his own person. He had been a pharmacist. Then he became a nutritionist. He’s now an author and a painter. He’s actually working on some art right now, out front while I’m meeting with you.

Bill wasn’t intimidated by me. I have had people tell me, Why do you do so much? Or why are you so much? Tone it down. My husband accepted me as I am. And I am a lot. And so is he. I think that’s important to say, because in other relationships, I felt like perhaps things would be easier if I weren’t so active, and if I weren’t interested in so many things. He encourages those interests, and he has his own. Some of them are mutual, like travel and cooking and reading, and family, and the spiritual realm. And then others are quite different. He is a wilderness camper and my idea of camping is a three star hotel.

I was both excited and terrified as I began to formalize my relationship with him, and when it was clear that it was going to be serious. I really wanted to get married right away. My parents were married 60 years. That’s what I come from. That was not his experience. I think he didn’t want to get married at first, and what we almost broke up over, is that he perhaps lost trust in the institution because he had two failed marriages.

It was clear that he was not ready for marriage. I was already in therapy, and very much credit it for my semi-sanity. But I really did have to think a lot about: What does it mean to commit yourself to someone? Why was marriage so important? I’ve been in a lot of weddings. I’m a musician. I play for weddings and sing for them. So I think part of the reason I wanted to get married myself was jealousy. Some of it was the fear that lots of us are programmed to have that says there’s something wrong about being single, which of course there’s not at all if that’s what you choose. I had to learn to be comfortable with myself. One of the things I like about the fact that we took so long is that it really became clear to me that I could be very happy on my own and I could then choose to continue to coexist.

Maybe ten years in, he began to want to get married, and began to propose. And I always said yes. But then we could never get beyond that. It would come up once in a while. We’d go, Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. And then move on with our lives. Then, he proposed to me, for the nth time, on the back porch that he built himself with his own two hands. We had been together about 17 years at that point, and talking about getting married for 7. We were out there one beautiful summer evening and something felt different. And I said yes, and away we went. I was 64, and he was 70 at the time.

I do believe in alignment. The universe seemed to cooperate with us when we finally did agree. We did our whole wedding planning in one month. We had a little under a hundred people. We tried to select the people who had been most important to us throughout our lives, from all over the country. Almost all of them were able to come within this very short time period. And it was just a magnificent experience.

My feelings on what marriage represents are evolving. We’ll be married four years this coming May. In the beginning, I thought, Well, this just formalizes everything, and — remember, I’m an attorney — it makes our legal status more clear. But it felt very different. In fact, it was very difficult in the first few months. It really is work being with someone everyday, no matter how long you’ve known them.

For me, marriage is a learning experience. It’s about learning how to be yourself, and then to also be part of someone else’s existence on a regular basis, 24/7. I highly recommend breaks.  We’re kind of intense. A lot of the times he’s upstairs, and I’m downstairs or the reverse. And yet I do feel that he now is home to me. I am also home to myself, but I began to really cherish coming home to him. And to me, home is a person, not a place.

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Married for the First Time at 64