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I've given up on younger men. Now I'm dating a grandpa and it's great

Dating grandfathers forced Antonella Gambotto-Burke to adjust her expectations

When the man I’m dating revealed that he had an infant grandson, I blinked, quickly and repeatedly, in an attempt to make sense of the information. As I asked after the baby, I remembered my paternal grandfather, who, during an afternoon visit, sat opposite me and my mother in vast shorts – what is it with old men and enormous shorts? – and as he shifted, his testicles fell, from one leg and with continental insouciance, like boiled scallops in a string bag.

…as he shifted, his testicles fell, from one leg and with continental insouciance, like boiled scallops in a string bag.

I could never address older men in quite the same way again. However voluminous their trousers, I remained unable to shake the image of their testicles gradually sinking, in the manner of a flow chart showing the extinction of Palaeolithic megafauna, to their ankles.

Thing is, the man I’m dating is actually younger than I am.

Part of the problem is that my daughter is at the height of her adolescence, so our household is vivid with discussions about who’s been wearing whose All Saints skirt, whether Tori Amos inspired Taylor Swift’s new indie vibe, and why our exes are still stalking us on Insta. I’m up until 6am most nights in my knickers working on a book about sex and drugs, and my daughter and I are both dating for the first time in forever, so it’s a little like Katherine Ryan’s line about single motherhood with a daughter: we’re two 15-year-olds, but one of us has a credit card.

Except I don’t, because credit cards scare me. I prefer to work with cash.

The last time I was single was in my thirties, when, for the most part, the men I dated were in their twenties. When I came up for air, I was in my fifties, and the men looked very different – bald, depressed, fat.

The last time I was single was in my thirties, when, for the most part, the men I dated were in their twenties. I was married for a decade to a significantly younger man – the divorce was unrelated to the difference in our ages – and then I was bound, for five years, by related legal commitments. When I came up for air, I was in my fifties, and the men looked very different – bald, depressed, fat. British punk pioneer Viv Albertine had the same experience after her divorce, writing, “I had to retrain my eyes and brain to find older men attractivewhen I started dating again in my fifties.”

“I had to retrain my eyes and brain to find older men attractive when I started dating again.”

Retraining the eyes and brain is one thing, but sexual electricity is another. In certain photographs, Brazilian Fabiana Flosi, the 45-year-old third wife of Formula One billionaire Bernie Ecclestone, 90, looks like a despondent Bowie fan settling for a Labyrinth muppet. Similarly, I cannot begin to imagine 43-year-old British producer Sally Humphreys’ POV when multimillionaire Ronnie Wood, her 73-year-old Rolling Stones guitarist husband, mounts her.

Typically, men of my generation are poor communicators – in an effort to maintain gender status, they withhold all vulnerability.

Other ways older men are different

It’s not only a matter of aesthetics. Older men move differently. There is, in some, a stiffening, an intransigence or spiritual calcification that manifests physiologically. Typically, men of my generation are poor communicators – in an effort to maintain gender status, they withhold all vulnerability. This compulsion to perpetually exercise control – I exercise control in all things, Miss Steele – is a form of premature death. One man with whom I corresponded for over a year had an incapacitating panic attack the night before we were to meet. The prospect of deep feeling was too much for him; he preferred engaging with women he regarded as inferior.

My history with younger men is often assumed to be based on their erotic agility…but it’s their optimism and sincerity I love.

More than anything, this lack of courage bores me. As a “high energy” individual – not so much physically but emotionally and intellectually – I need candour, however disquieting it may be. Reserve suffocates the human heart, which, at its highest octave, liberates those who meet it. My history with younger men is often assumed to be based on their erotic agility – I remember a 60something womaniser guffawing suggestively when I mentioned my ex-husband’s age – but it’s their optimism and sincerity I love. Too many older men are sincere only when they feel in control; emotional risk, at a certain age, is understood as threatening.

How I dated when I was younger

In my twenties, I non-sexually dated older, sometimes much older, men for two reasons: First, I had spectacular father issues, and second, because I didn’t really want a serious relationship. A number of older men I know enjoy younger women on that very basis, but others search for love. The latter were, with me, invariably hurt. Another with whom I had an exclusively epistolary relationship – having met years earlier, we began a literary correspondence – was devastated when I broke it off. On finding my letters, his age-appropriate wife then left him. When, years later and in the months before his death from cancer, I introduced him to my daughter, he fell silent as he addressed me, as if to say She should have been mine

Having retrained my eye and brain to find older men attractive, I now think that even most thirtysomethings look a little green, like too-new potatoes.

I no longer want a notably younger man, beautiful as they are; I want a man with the same reference points rather than one whose Insta account features relatively recent shots of him playing cricket at Oxford. Having retrained my eye and brain to find older men attractive, I now think that even most 30somethings look a little green, like too-new potatoes. Besides, I’m growing somewhat fond of eye-crinkles and thick, silky greying hair.

Those visions of boiled scallops in a dangling string bag began to fade.

While my friend happens to have beautiful, crinkly eyes and thick, silky greying hair, it was his vulnerability that beguiled me. There was no arrogance in his approach, nor were there inappropriately intimate overtures. Curious to see his reaction, I spoke at length about my work, and, rather than reacting as I had threatened his intellectual supremacy – as have many men with whom I’ve been involved – he grew excited. This combination (enthusiasm, the willingness to grow) was electric to me. Those visions of boiled scallops in a dangling string bag began to fade. He wasn’t interested in forcing me to conform to a primitive gender template. We began to make plans to go to festivals, restaurants, to travel. He bought a campervan; I invested in white poplin sheets.

I even almost forgot he had an infant grandson.

Antonella Gambotto-Burke’s new book, Apple: Sex, Drugs, Motherhood and the Recovery of the Feminine, will be published in 2021. Follow her on www.instagram.com/gambottoburke

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