If music be the food of love, play on

Bob Mather hugs his wife, Rose, after playing the piano in their Preston home. They play music from the 1940s to the 1970s on the piano every night.
Bob Mather hugs his wife, Rose, after playing the piano in their Preston home. They play music from the 1940s to the 1970s on the piano every night. Abigail Pheiffer/The Day Buy Photo

It's the end of the interview, and Bob Mather, still holding Rose's hand on the sofa, says, "I thought we could play just one song while you're here."

"He doesn't have time for that, sweetie," says Rose.

But only a moment later, Rose is picking up a piece of sheet music and asking, "Do you know 'Time on My Hands?'"

"He doesn't have any time on his hands," Bob says, and they laugh.

They sit side-by-side at the same piano she was playing the day they met. They plunge into the old Billy Eckstine song, she playing the melody, he adding harmonic flourishes.

("I put in the fancy stuff on top," Bob has said. "I figure I need a few runs at the top instead of just blah blah one two three four.")

The song ends and they laugh, and Bob softly sings, "Time on my hands ... and you in my arms..."

"We play for hours. Hours," Rose says.

"That's what we do before we go to bed," Bob adds.

It's what they've been doing for 74 years.

"In June, 1936, a boy that was in the same class as me in school and one of his friends was starting a band. And so he said, 'Rose, would you be interested in playing piano with the band?' And at this point in my life I was 16, so I said, 'Well, I'll have to ask my father.'"

And he said, "'Sure,' as long as I rehearsed in our house."

And this is how it began: "The first rehearsal, we didn't have a trumpet player," Rose says. "So the drummer said, 'I know a good trumpet player.' And they said, 'Who's that?' And he said, 'Robert Mather.' And I thought (and here her voice drops into a whisper), 'Robert Mather. The girls on the bus talk about him. Boy, I'll be glad to see what he looks like.'"

"Little did I know," says Bob, "I was gonna get hooked."

"So he came in, and I was sitting at the piano, and I thought, 'He is cute.'"

Bob chimes in: "In fact, Rose was the only girl that I ever dated in my whole life, the only one."

"That goes for both of us," says Rose.

They started dating in the fall and, five and a half years later, they married.

Meanwhile, their dance band performed all around the Norwich area, playing big band music: Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Harry James.

"And I used to tell our kids that their father played trumpet better than Harry James," says Rose.

Bob laughs.

"That's going some, isn't it?" he says.

"Bob had the best tone," she says.

"We still go and play at assisted living places," Rose adds. "We go up there and play for the old folks. We laugh at that because of course we're older than most of them who are there."

She is 91; Bob is 92.

"That's a lot of fun," says Bob. "To see all those people out there smiling once again ..."

"And some of them are sitting in a wheelchair like this, and the tears are rolling," Rose says, miming tears running down her cheeks.

"Singing all the songs that are their age, you know," Bob says.

They consider themselves more fortunate than their audience. After all, they still live on their own, in their own home, the one they built together in 1954, a little blue house perched on a hill in Preston, not too many miles from where they grew up.

In a way, it was the Ponemah Mills that brought them together. Bob's father came over from England to work there, as did Rose's Scottish grandparents. Bob was born in Taftville; Rose grew up in Greeneville.

Bob would grow up to work a succession of jobs, a man whose genius lay not in the written word but in mechanical things. He rose to the position of assistant engineer at United Nuclear, building the power plants for submarines, and was an engineer at Pratt and Whitney, no small accomplishment for a kid who started out working in the mills.

"I've had a beautiful life," Bob says, "believe me, covered a lot of stuff, but it's been very interesting, and my greatest ambition: Get ahead, get ahead, do this, do this, you can do it. All my life I've found these different jobs, and I went right to the top of the line, I kept going, growing bigger and bigger and more important, and that's the way my whole life's been."

They had two children, a son and a daughter, and "inherited" two more, children whose parents died. Now, they beam as they show visitors pictures of their extended, multiracial family.

"If you can see, they're different colors, adopted," Rose says. "Best kids in the whole wide world. Wouldn't trade any one of them for anything, none of them."

She shows a picture of her daughter, Arlene, and her husband, Dr. Roy Beebe, who adopted four biracial children.

"They all call," she says. "They come whenever they can. What more can we ask? What more can we ask out of life?"

She remembers when her daughter and husband-to-be were dating.

"It's funny, when Arlene and Roy were dating, the couch was here and our bedroom is here" (she indicates the room on the other side of the wall behind her), "and ... you would hear this drone of talk. Talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, talk. If it was me, I wouldn't be talking, but..."

Bob and Rose burst out laughing.

"But finally one day I said to Arlene, 'What do you talk about all the time?' She said, 'Roy wants to be a doctor, but he doesn't think it's fair to any woman to be a doctor's wife."

As to Bob and Rose, they've been married for 68 years, and the hardest days of their marriage came early on, the two years that Bob had to go fight in World War II. He served under Gen. Patton, in the 18th Tank Battalion, 8th Armored Division, and fought in the Battle of the Bulge.

Asked about those days, Rose pauses, as if to pull herself together. Then she says, "I have goose pimples." She pauses again, then sighs. "The day Bob went... the day he left, I went totally blank. Black. I could just feel my whole system went just black. That's all I know. Just black. And that was a week before our second anniversary."

She knew that thousands of soldiers were being killed every day, and she knew that so many were dying that the government was a month behind in breaking the news to their families.

"So from the day he left Norwich until the day I picked him up," she says, "I really didn't know whether he was alive or dead."

As for Bob, "Oh, I'll tell ya, I wished I was home. ... All you think about is your wife and your family and you've got to live through this."

So what has kept them together for all these years?

"Quality," says Bob. "A real..."

"But that's a two-way street, Bob," says Rose.

"Yeah, I know," says Bob. "A very bright..."

"He's always very complimentary," says Rose, "but..."

"Lady," Bob continues. "Very smart. Good memory. And the music tied us together."

"Every night," says Rose. "We'd look at the clock and say, 'It's time to go to bed. Well, let's play.' We'll play for a couple hours. ... Last night we were still playing past 11."

She laughs.

"Well, here we are," she says. "And this is all the time." She lifts up his hand in hers. "It's so natural that we don't even pay attention to the fact that we're sitting holding hands ..."

"Security..." Bob says.

"Never..." Rose says.

"Love..." Bob says.

"If we walk down to the mailbox, we go hand in hand," Rose says.

"We've had a beautiful life," Bob says.

"I tell my grandchildren, 'If I could will anything to you, it would be the life we've had,'" Rose says.

The Mathers, here in their Preston home, play for residents at Noble Horizons retirement community in Salisbury during the holidays and for special occasions. Rose began playing the piano when she was 5 years old. Her parents in 1928 bought her the piano that she and Bob still play.
The Mathers, here in their Preston home, play for residents at Noble Horizons retirement community in Salisbury during the holidays and for special occasions. Rose began playing the piano when she was 5 years old. Her parents in 1928 bought her the piano that she and Bob still play. Abigail Pheiffer/ The Day Buy Photo

Between 2000 and 2005, the population of those 85 and older grew by 20 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, making it one of the fastest growing demographics. Kenton Robinson interviewed and Abigail Pheiffer photographed some of these nonagenarians.

Explore the full series at www.theday.com/90thenew70.

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