by Harriet Sohmers Zwerling

My letter to the Sunday Times magazine, in response to a piece about Liam Neeson’s connection to Helen Mirren read, in part:

“As an older woman, involved with a much younger man, I was shocked to see that you adhere to the ageist, sexist double standard which appears clearly in your article…”

Now, some years later, I sit in my apartment looking out at the gray, rainy Manhattan skyline while Amanda’s tape plays softly in the background. Her lush soprano warbles the liquid melodies with such passion that the tired old chestnuts: “Speak Low”, “All the Things You Are”, “Baubles, Bangles and Beads” throb with the kind of emotion I, myself, can hardly remember. And when I recall my cruelty to her — that innocent, romantic soul out there in her Chicago suburb — I wonder how I could possibly have done what I did.

A few weeks after my letter appeared, I received the following, forwarded to me by the Times. The handwriting, on lined notebook paper, was parochial-school perfect.

“Dear Ms. S.,

I took heart upon reading your letter in the paper, in which you stated that you were an older woman, involved with a much younger man. As I am caught up in a similar situation, and meeting with scorn, medical advice and recriminations from all sides, I was curious as to the age difference between you and your friend.

I must say I was surprised at myself when all this happened, but I could see no reason why a sixty-eight year old woman (I have splendid health and vitality and would never be taken for sixty-eight) could not respond to a thirty-four year old man, and he to her. It does seem to happen with sixty-eight year old men taking thirty-four year old (and younger) wives or sweethearts.

I just felt the need to hear from someone like yourself who has the experience of this not usual, but certainly not degenerate, match-up. I have no wish to intrude upon your privacy. A postcard (enclosed) with the two ages written on it will do.

I thank you sincerely.

Amanda M.”

I was astonished and moved by this cri de Coeur from the heartland. I couldn’t just return her postcard. I wrote to her as follows:

“Dear Amanda,

I am most gratified by your response to my Times letter. First of all, since it seems important to you, I must tell you that my friend, Michael, is twenty years younger than I. No one I know seems to have a problem with this. My son dislikes him but it’s not because of the age difference. Perhaps I have not suffered the negative reaction you speak of because I live in New York City where pretty much anything goes. I just want to say that you must follow your heart and hang in there with your love.


Helen S.”

Two weeks later I received this reply:

“Dear Ms. S.,

I could not have hoped for a more encouraging and kind reply to my letter forwarded to you by the Times. Perhaps I could have hoped that your friend was a little younger. My beloved is considerably younger than yours. One of the great surprises of this affair has been that it made me want to sing again, after more than thirty years of setting it aside and concentrating on family life. Singing was a girlhood dream. Considering my age and that I hadn’t vocalized during all those years, I was startled to hear myself again and so put together, a year ago, mostly for my family, a cassette tape. I am sending you a copy of it under separate cover to illustrate the power of love in rejuvenating a voice, AND because they are mostly love songs which you might share with your dear one.

Most sincere thanks,

Amanda M.

The tape was amazing. Did anyone still sing like that? And the songs: “These Foolish Things”, “All the Things You Are” – the way she rolled her r’s, her dovelike cooing, the throbbing fruity timbre! I played it for friends over martinis. They loved it. Michael was amused but somewhat embarrassed. “You must write her,” he said. “Tell her how moved we were by it!”

So I wrote her once again.

“Dear Amanda,

I very much enjoyed your tape. You have a beautiful voice. I think you could sing in clubs here and be a great success. My friend Michael has accepted a job in Europe and I will miss him. Luckily, I have a backup, a big Puerto Rican stud, fifteen years younger than I. Again, thanks for the wonderful tape.



I imagine Amanda receiving my letter. She sits in her sunny living room with the picture window, the baby grand piano, brocade sofa and deep comfy armchairs. Her white-blond hair is fluffed around a pale blue velvet headband. Her cheeks are carefully rouged to enliven the chalky skin with its web of tiny wrinkles. Her lips are a youthful coral. “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” is playing on the stereo. She wraps the pink satin robe around her soft, full body and opens my letter in luxurious anticipation.

But as she reads, a sob rises in her throat. “Back-up?” she gasps, “Stud?” Her blue eyes fill with tears. They roll down her cheeks and spot the pink lapels of her robe. She buries her face in her hands. I will never hear from her again.

Now, with Amanda’s tremulous voice pulsing through the room, I ask myself, “How could I have been so cruel? How could I have shattered her romantic dream?”

And I answer myself in the words of the scorpion in the old tale who stings the frog carrying him across the pond, thus drowning them both. “I couldn’t help it. It’s just in my nature.”


Harriet Sohmers Zwerling: Ex-expatriate, ex-nude model, ex-school teacher. Forever hedonist, grandmother and of course, writer.