BATTLE GROUND — When George Bennett was at Pearl Harbor in September, the longtime sailor went to the base exchange and bought something romantic for his sweetheart.
On Saturday, that gift will be part of the festivities when Bennett, 90, marries Donna Higgins.
• There were 38 marriages during 2012 in Washington in which both spouses were 80 or older; there were 156 marriages in which one spouse was 80 or older.
• There were two marriages where both spouses were 90 or older; in 15 marriages, one spouse was 90 or older.
• The oldest person married in Washington in 2012 was 97.
SOURCE: Washington State Department of Health
The gift is a set of salt and pepper shakers. One figure is a sailor, the other is a nurse; when you set them face to face, they share a magnetically enabled kiss.
Higgins, 77, says the ceramic sailor and nurse will be the toppers on her wedding cake.
The day-after-Valentine's Day wedding will be in the dining area of Mallard Landing Assisted Living Community. That's where the couple met, and where their romance bloomed.
"I not only like her," Bennett said, "I love her."
It's not their ages that makes this a classic romance. Their courtship — which includes a case of mistaken identity that Shakespeare could have plotted — followed a familiar path.
"He's a big flirt," Higgins said.
She stepped things up, she said, when she gave him a kiss on the cheek.
Bennett countered when Higgins was sitting with some friends.
"A girl at the table said George wanted to talk to me," Higgins recalled. When she turned around, Bennett kissed her square on the lips.
They started spending some time together, and went out.
"That was when I had a car and we could drive around," said Bennett, who broke his hip in October. "We went to a few places."
Things took an unexpected turn one day when Higgins saw a woman coming out of Bennett's room.
"It turned out to be me," said Bennett's daughter, Jane Higgins. (As far as they know, the two Higgins families are not related … well, not until Saturday, anyway.)
Bennett told her the woman was his daughter.
"I did not believe him," Donna Higgins said, and she started to steer clear of him.
Eventually, "We got it straightened out," Jane Higgins said.
The bride and groom share a lot of American history, although they've seen some of it from different vantage points. Bennett was at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked. He was a 17-year-old radioman with a seaplane squadron. The morning attack was stamped into his memory, but so was supper that evening.
When they got to the mess hall, half of it was dark. There, rolled in blankets, were the burned bodies of men who had died on battleships.
Higgins was only about 41/2 years old when America was drawn into World War II. But she recalls her parents pulling down the window blinds in their home in The Dalles, Ore. They were afraid, she said, that somebody might "come and kill them."
Bennett brought some of his Navy keepsakes to Mallard Landing, but there wasn't room for all of them, such as the Japanese rifle and bayonet he picked up at Guadalcanal during WWII. They're in a safe place at his daughter's house.
The bride and groom both are accustomed to married life. Donna was married to Harmon Higgins for 56 years, before his death in 2006.
George was married to Barbara, his second wife, for 53 years.
'A new page'
While senior-citizen marriages are a thin slice of the Washington wedding cake, they're not rare.
According to the most recent annual statistics from the state Department of Health, there were 43,238 marriages in Washington in 2012. In more than 600 marriages, the groom was 65 or older; in about 1,100 marriages, the bride was 65 or older.
Nadia Andreyeva, executive director at Mallard Landing, said this will be her first wedding at the assisted living community in the year and a half she's been there.
During her 13 years in the field, "We had a few in other buildings," Andreyeva said. "It's fun. This is a new page in their lives, and it's a pleasure to assist them."
All the staff and residents are invited to Saturday's ceremony, and there will be plenty of family links. Donna Higgins' son John will give away the bride.
"We will cut the cake with the slicer Don and I used when we were married 47 years ago," Jane Higgins said. "I asked about using that Japanese bayonet, but we decided it would send the wrong message."