By Barry Sonustun
LaDonna and Hal Abelson met on set as 18-year-old actors in St. Paul, Minnesota. Their amateur theatrical group, the Penthouse Players, was performing a love story.
Today, they’re both 91, but they’re no longer acting in a love story. They’re living a love story.
The Abelson’s celebrated their 69th anniversary on Feb. 16, and the longtime lovebirds could have been mistaken for newlyweds given their deep, unconditional affection for one another.
“Happy anniversary, sweetheart,” LaDonna said while making a toast with sparkling juice.
“Happy anniversary to you, my darling,” Hal responded.
The couple’s love for each other is just as strong as it was many decades ago. As a traveling financial consultant, Hal spent five years traversing the country making presentations to “anyone who would listen.” He’d always return home, where he and LaDonna picked up where they left off.
Recently, LaDonna transitioned to the specialized memory support unit at Palmview, an assisted living community on the campus of Gulf Coast Village. Meanwhile, Hal is just steps away in Gulf Coast Village’s independent living complex, where the couple first moved in 2011.
Because of COVID-19, Hal is unable to visit LaDonna in her room, so the two meet up twice each week on a schedule in Palmview’s lobby. They also call each other frequently on the telephone. Hal makes sure the newspaper is still delivered to LaDonna’s apartment and that staff is taking care of his darling.
Hal, who worked in accounting and credit management before starting a consulting business, uses a walker to get around as his eyesight is starting to decline. LaDonna, who worked in retail sales before becoming a full-time mother, jokingly describes herself as a “floater,” a social butterfly whose memory is fading.
Celebrating their 69th anniversary apart was never an option, so the associates at Gulf Coast Village made sure the Abelsons could enjoy a special candlelit lunch with hearty soup, shrimp jambalaya, ice-chilled sparkling juice and an anniversary cake as love songs played in the background.
They helped LaDonna create a card for Hal and tied an “I Love You” balloon to Hal’s chair. The table centerpiece was a vase filled with a dozen bright pink roses, LaDonna’s favorite, and a trio of electric candles.
No detail was left untouched.
The anniversary lunch was romantic, but also had an underlying purpose. Every element was designed for LaDonna to embrace moments with joy and purpose, a key facet of Gulf Coast Village’s memory support program.
The background music, for example, consisted of hits from the 1950s, not long after the Abelsons were married. The soundtrack included one of their favorites – Dean Martin’s “That’s Amore.” LaDonna and Hal sang along as the crooner delivered his famous line: “When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amore!”
The reference to Napoli prompted Hal to remind LaDonna of their dream vacation many years ago to Naples, Italy. That memory evolved into a discussion about how their international flight from Beijing to Detroit on Sept. 11, 2001, was among the last jets to land before the U.S. closed its airspace.
Their anniversary cake noted the number of years they’ve been married – 69 – to reinforce their long-lasting relationship. LaDonna asked Hal to retell the story of how he proposed. After one of their Saturday night dates, Hal took LaDonna home. It was so late the Sunday newspaper had already arrived. Once inside, Hal decided the time was right to propose, and popped the question.
“You said yes,” he told his bride, “and then asked, ‘Are the funny pages in there?’”
To this day, LaDonna still reads the comics in the Sunday newspaper.
Hal also recognizes his role in LaDonna’s memory support program and never once blinks at repeating answers and retelling stories, including details of their wedding day and anniversary celebration.
“69? Wow! 69 years?” LaDonna asked.
“You’re just thinking of your age. You look like a 21-year-old,” Hal retorted.
“Oh yeah, sure,” LaDonna quipped.
As we age, our memories may slip and our bodies may slow down, but love persists. Sixty-nine years ago, the Abelsons vowed that “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health,” that their relationship would stand the test of time, and it has.
About the Author
Barry Sonustun is the memory support program manager at Gulf Coast Village, Cape Coral’s premier continuing care retirement community