Two Octogenarians Commit to ‘Living Apart Together’

Harry Mirra made it clear from the start that he didn’t want to marry Ginny Valonis. Back then, though, she was too in love to care.

Ms. Valonis, 80, was in what she called her “merry widow” phase when she began dating Mr. Mirra in 2013, a year after her husband of 45 years, Joseph Valonis, had died. While she wasn’t at all glad he was gone, she was ready to acknowledge what may not have been evident to the outside world. “I wasn’t very happy in my marriage,” she said. “I was the more friendly, easygoing one, and I would describe him as moody. Let’s say it was a challenge.”

Her courtship with Mr. Mirra, 87, whose wife of 59 years, Elizabeth Mirra, died of esophageal cancer in February 2013, would have its own set of challenges. But those had nothing to do with compatibility.

Ms. Valonis, a retired registered nurse, and Mr. Mirra, a retired building inspector and program manager at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, first encountered each other in the early 1990s. The Valonises and their three children, and the Mirras and their three children, were parishioners at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church in Morton, Pa. The Mirras lived in Morton; the Valonises nearby in Ridley, Pa. Though Ms. Valonis attended regularly, it was never with the same devotion as her husband and the Mirras.

“I used to go while my children were growing up, but I never became a Catholic,” said Ms. Valonis, who went to Protestant churches as a girl in Rutledge, Pa., and in the early 1960s, while she was training to become a nurse at Chestnut Hill Hospital School of Nursing in Philadelphia. (By the mid-1990s, when her children were adults — Cynthia Bohner is now 53, Julia Pike is 50, and David Valonis is 48 — she switched to services at the nondenominational Blue Church in Springfield, Pa.)

Ms. Valonis was never introduced to Mr. Mirra at church, but she remembers her husband making small talk with him. “Joe and I would talk about hunting and fishing at the end of mass,” Mr. Mirra said. They had a military background in common, too.

The Rev. James E. Goerner officiated in front of 25 invited guests (and a few wedding crashers).Credit…Michelle Gustafson for The New York Times
Of the ceremony’s unexpected guests, the bride said, “That’s just how it is with Harry. He’s got a lot of friends.”Credit…Michelle Gustafson for The New York Times

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Joseph Valonis, who married Ms. Valonis in 1966 and died of heart disease, was a Navy veteran. Mr. Mirra joined the U.S. Air Force in 1953. After 51 months of active duty, he became a reservist. From 1957 to 1992, he was recalled to active duty twice: first in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis and again in 1990, during the Gulf War, where he served in Portugal.

Born in Philadelphia, Mr. Mirra said that, before he was 10, he was selling bananas off a truck on a street corner to help his mother, a factory seamstress, make ends meet for him and his sister, Della; their father died when he was 8. West Philadelphia Catholic High School for Boys kept him out of trouble. “Going to Catholic school is one of the best things I ever did in my life,” he said. “The nuns would have me stand against the wall and beat my hands. It made me learn to stay home and study.”

He and Elizabeth married in 1954, while he was stationed in Canada with the Air Force. In 1955, the couple had a baby who died upon delivery. In 1960, they adopted a daughter, Donna Mirra, now 62. Later, they adopted two sons: Michael Mirra, now 59, in 1963, and David Mirra, now 50, in 1970.

The Mirras’ 59-year marriage, 22 years of it spent raising their family in Norwood, Pa., before they moved to Morton in 1976, was happier than the Valonis’s union. “Ninety percent of it was perfect,” Mr. Mirra said. When Elizabeth Mirra died in 2013, he was bereft. But he made an effort to keep busy. “I’ve always had a very active social life,” he said. That September, he joined the Senior Community Services center in Folsom, Pa. Ms. Valonis was a member, too.

“I saw him in the pool room, shooting billiards,” Ms. Valonis said. “It had been about 15 years, but he recognized me from church. He came over and gave me a big hug.” Her mother, Agnes Pugh, who lived in Rutledge and occasionally attended senior center events with her daughter, saw the embrace, which sent her into Cupid mode.

Sometime that fall, Ms. Valonis and Ms. Pugh ran into Mr. Mirra in the parking lot and stopped to chat. After, “my mother said, ‘I think he likes you,’” Ms. Valonis said. “She talked really loud. I was afraid he heard her.” He hadn’t, but her mother was right. And soon Ms. Valonis — and Ms. Pugh — were equally taken with Mr. Mirra.

“My mother got to know Harry and she loved him,” Ms. Valonis said. “She would say to him, ‘Harry, could you find me a 94-year-old man? I just want to scratch his back.’ She was pretty funny and very young at heart.” Mr. Mirra never managed to find a man with an itchy back for Ms. Pugh, but by the time she died in 2018, at age 106, he and Ms. Valonis had been a couple for nearly five years.

For Ms. Valonis, those years were mostly blissful. After their first date in November 2013 at the Springfield Country Club, where they slow danced, she fell in love. That Thanksgiving, she told her family she wanted to marry him. “The chemistry was really there for me,” she said. “My daughter almost fainted.”

By then, Ms. Valonis had set herself a task of trying to forget something Mr. Mirra told her soon after their first date: He had no interest in remarrying.

Mr. Mirra and Elizabeth Mirra had married when he was 20 and she was 19. After she died, he liked having the freedom to roam to the senior center and Amvets and Knights of Columbus events at his leisure. “I wanted to enjoy life,” he said. Ms. Valonis wasn’t the type who needed a spouse’s constant companionship, either. But for her, sex without marriage was a deal breaker.

“It was hard that first year, because there were a lot of endorphins popping,” she said.

Ms. Valonis figured Mr. Mirra would eventually forget his reluctance to remarry. For Christmas 2014, she thought he would give her an engagement ring. When he didn’t, she started wondering if they would have to call it quits. “Frankly, I was so attracted to him I thought, how will this ever continue?” she said. “I was ready to give him a hiatus, so to speak.”

Julia Pike, one of the bride’s three children, and her daughter, Sophia Pike, one of the bride’s four grandchildren, viewed the ceremony on FaceTime.Credit…Michelle Gustafson for The New York Times
Guests embraced outside of the church before the wedding.Credit…Michelle Gustafson for The New York Times

But the idea caused her heartache. Mr. Mirra had made her feel special.“I guess I felt I wasn’t really valued by my husband.” she said. “And then here comes this man who seemed to really care about me. It was a whole new world.”

The bride wore a champagne lace knee-length dress with a matching shawl.Credit…Michelle Gustafson for The New York Times

After the no-ring Christmas, “I called him up and talked to him about my feelings,” she said. “He was upset. He said, ‘Please let’s not break up.’” She relented, and they resumed their evenings of watching “The Andy Griffith Show” and “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.” reruns at his house, then saying good night before she drove the mile and a half back to her house in Ridley at 10 p.m.

Once Covid invaded the world, saying goodbye each night got more difficult. The senior center shut down. Their social lives did, too. Ms. Valonis floated an idea she had suggested early in their relationship: that they start “living apart together,” with her coming over every evening, staying all night and returning home in the morning. “But he knew it would have to be as a married couple,” she said, because platonic sleepovers were out of the question for both.

This spring, after enduring a full year of Covid restrictions, Mr. Mirra started to rethink the status of their relationship. And by the end of April, he told Ms. Valonis he had changed his mind and wanted to marry her. “Finally,” she said.

Still, neither wanted a traditional marriage with combined households and full days spent together. “I liked doing whatever I want to do in the daytime,” Mr. Mirra said. And “I felt like, I’m not going to sit in your house all day twiddling my thumbs while you’re out doing your thing,” Ms. Valonis said.

On June 28, the couple went ring shopping at Exxtra Jewelers in Milmont Park. There, Mr. Mirra dropped to one artificial knee to propose. “Both my knees are metal,” he said. “But it worked just fine.” Ms. Valonis thought so, too.

Following the wedding, the bride and groom went on a honeymoon in Atlantic City.Credit…Michelle Gustafson for The New York Times

On Sept. 21, they were married in the chapel at Our Lady of Perpetual Help, where Ms. Valonis had started to occasionally attend services again with Mr. Mirra, by the Rev. James E. Goerner. They had invited just 25 guests, but as Ms. Valonis anticipated, there were more than a few wedding crashers. “That’s just how it is with Harry,” she said. “He’s got a lot of friends.”

Ms. Valonis wore a champagne lace knee-length dress with a matching shawl; Mr. Mirra, a royal blue suit with a bright white carnation boutonniere. At a simple altar lit with candles, Ms. Bohner served as matron of honor and Michael Mirra as best man. Once the couple promised to love and honor each other for all the remaining days of their lives, and after Mr. Mirra once again took to his metal knees to pray alongside their friends and family, Rev. Goerner presented the newly married couple with his blessings.

On This Day

When Sept. 21, 2021

Where Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church, Morton, Pa.

Many Hands Several of the couple’s six grandchildren served as greeters and general helpers at the wedding.

Still Slick Mr. Mirra’s charisma, the cause of the extra guests in the pews, is built on confidence. “Harry is one of those city guys who years ago would stand on the street corner whistling at girls,” she said. “He told me I was a country girl and my mother never let me go around the corner.”

Together But Apart Instead of a reception, the couple left after the ceremony for a honeymoon in Atlantic City. When they returned, it was to their separate houses and bank accounts. “We have a prenup,” Ms. Valonis said. “We both have children and grandchildren to think about.”

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