For Florence and Sam, it really was "till death do us part."
With Sam right beside her, Florence quietly passed away in the bed they had shared for 59 years. It was Valentine's Day.
We asked Sam, after she died, what kept their relationship fresh, what kept them happily and eagerly bound, what made them want to sit down together every day for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Family and friends wanted these answers, wanted in on their secret. We with our splintered marriages, commitment phobias and blurry gender roles. We wanted a formula or a diagram we could follow. We wanted to know exactly what kind of sparks had gone off when they met, each at the age of 22, at a temple dance. We were ready to take notes.
When Sam couldn't drum up an answer, we began searching their lives for clues. Was it the little things? That she served him cherry vanilla ice cream every night and picked out his clothes every morning? Was it her alluring, powder-blue eyes? Or was it that during the Depression he grew fresh vegetables for her on a tiny plot of dirt in their driveway and listened patiently to his radio while she shopped (for hours sometimes) at Abraham and Strauss?
These things helped. But we decided that what kept them from losing interest -- from getting bored, straying or giving up -- was that they both relished small freedoms. They let themselves go -- apart from, but not in violation of, their relationship. They both were shameless, unapologetic, gifted flirts.
They made time, every day, for flirting. It was there favorite pastime. Florence had her "boyfriends" and Sam his "lady friends," most of whom lived in their Brooklyn neighborhood. Ladies on the block called Sam in emergencies. "Sam," Regina would say breathlessly into the phone, "I forgot to grease my pan before I put it the oven. Can you come over and help me get the cake out? " And Florence let him go, never asking why Regina's husband Stanley couldn't do the job. Sam would amble down the street and delicately chisel the pastry from the pan. Regina would marvel at his ingenuity, then make him sit for a cup of coffee and a few cookies. They would laugh together about the stuck cake, relay news of the children, then Sam would be on his way. When he got home he would mention to Florence that Regina's cookies were a little burnt on the bottom. Another neighbor, Marty, once asked for Florence's hand in marriage after a bite of her rice pudding. Her cheeks flushed and she lowered her eyes shyly. "You know, " she said, "I couldn't do that." After that, she made Marty rice pudding every chance she got.
Florence turned her daily shopping rounds into opportunities for stealing glances. She had a thing for the man at the fruit stand. He liked her gumption, he told her, because she insisted he weigh her fruit with the stems off. They would stand for a few moments, softly squeezing melons and poking at peaches together until they agreed on the ripest ones. The fruit man would tell a joke, Florence would giggle. Then she'd go home to cut up the fruit for Sam's breakfast.
Florence also had an eye for the butcher. While he wielded his cleaver, his shirtsleeves rolled up just enough to reveal his muscles, she would pose questions about the cuts of meat, the business, anything to linger for a few moments of shared conversation. Sometimes he would wink and add an extra slab of beef to her order. I would guess that they -- Florence and the butcher -- made each other's days. The smiles, the acknowledgment, the shared interest in meat.
Proper flirting, as exemplified by Florence and Sam, is about playing, not scoring. Had the butcher one day put down his veal chop and said, "Mrs. Brownstein, why don't you meet me after work tonight?" the spell would have vanished, their secret world would have evaporated, all the shared moments would have instantly turned to shards of glass.
Flirting expands our fantasy life and, I would argue, makes our actual romances better. Flirting tests our guile, allows us to practice clever turns of phrase and cool, calculated indifference. Like snacking between meals, flirting keeps us fueled and often makes us hungrier for the main meal -- the person we have real things to talk about with, the person with whom we share our real selves.
After Florence died, Sam started spending a lot of time with his daughter in Boston. He could no longer drive, so he took the shuttle. Flight attendants were more challenging than the neighborhood ladies. "When was the last time you were home with your family?" he would ask sweetly. "How does the airline treat you?" Sam's pillows would be fluffed and his tomato juice replenished. "Guess how old I am," Sam would tease the attendants. They always guessed on the low end, flirting right back at him. At the end of the flight, Sam would ask for the names of their supervisors. "I want to write a nice letter to go in your folder." And he would.
For Sam's 86th birthday there was a party, the last one before he died. Not surprisingly, all the guests except one were female, most of them Sam's partners in flirtation. Everybody was asked to write on a large piece of paper what they wished for Sam in the coming year. Betty, a friend, wrote: "Dear Sam, I hope this year you find a girlfriend in her late fifties with blue eyes and black hair." Betty just happened to fit that description.