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After great loss, finding a great love

During the ceremony, Panitz said the love shared by Bert and Laurie could not have happened without Bert first loving Bobbie and Laurie first loving Alan.

Newlyweds Laurie and Bert ride the Elmwood Park Zoo carousel.
Newlyweds Laurie and Bert ride the Elmwood Park Zoo carousel.Read moreSol Purpose Photography, Taylor Witte

Laurie Blum & Bert Max

Oct. 17, 2021, in Norristown

Laurie arrived at Big Fish Grill in a dress festooned with little fishes. Bert liked her already — just as his late wife’s twin sister hoped he would.

It had been more than a year since Bobbie, Bert’s wife of 38 years, had died from complications of lymphoma. It had been more than two years since Alan, Laurie’s husband of 35 years, had died suddenly in his sleep.

By the May 2016 night she met Bert on the Wilmington riverfront, Laurie had been on a number of first dates, but not many good ones. “My girlfriends were going online all over, trying to find people. It was tough,” she said. “The dates felt like job interviews.” She had even kept her heart open to finding someone while traveling in Israel. Bupkis!

Bert and Laurie’s date had been realized through something much older than the internet: matchmakers. Laurie’s sister, Andy, and Bert’s sister-in-law, Dee, are good friends who live in the same 55+ community in Marlton. Dee approached Andy with the idea to introduce them. Andy deemed it perfect and gave Laurie’s phone number to Bert.

Over that phone call, then dinner, and a 40-minute walk on the boardwalk, the couple discovered they had much in common beyond surviving the loss of a beloved spouse. “We both have a son and a daughter, we both worked in training and development, we both love to travel,” said Laurie. “I had just become a grandmother, and Bert already had grandchildren. The fact that both of us are Jewish was of interest and importance to us both.”

Next came bike rides, salsa dancing, skating, and kayaking.

Within a few weeks, their relationship was exclusive.

Laurie says Bert is the nicest person she’s ever met. “He’s very sensitive. He’s funny. He’s very loving to me, to his children, to his grandchildren, and to my children and grandchildren,” she said. “We are both very interested in politics, travel, history, art, and food.”

Bert says Laurie is the most positive person he’s ever met: “Aside from being attractive, she’s very positive, intelligent, creative, and forgiving.”

A pandemic streamlines the logistics

When they fell in love, Bert, who is now 68, lived in Dresher, and Laurie, now 65, in Wilmington.

Bert is a marketing manager for Barnes & Noble and an adjunct marketing instructor at Penn State Abington. Laurie, who retired this past spring, was a manager in remediation, technology, and operations for Bank of America, and had to be in the Wilmington office three days a week. Those logistics prevented them from creating a single household, so they took turns making the drive.

Another furry factor: Laurie’s condo board wouldn’t allow dog visitors, including Bert’s late, great dog Harley. “Every time I would go down there, I would drop the dog off at my sister-in-law’s,” he said. This gave Dee and Andy a barometer of the progressing relationship.

Then came COVID-19, and both Bert and Laurie were assigned to work from home. They opted to sequester together at Bert’s place, where they still live.

“It was the ultimate ‘Do I want to get married to this person?’ because we were together all the time,” Laurie said.

Together, they learned to cook and now specialize in kale and higher-purposed leftovers. They Zoomed to stay in touch with their families and play games — including a Hanukkah version of Jeopardy! — with their combined nine grandchildren, who ranged in age from toddler to 12 years. Since then, a 10th grandchild has been born. He is four months old.

“We were constantly together, and we started talking about the reality of making this permanent,” said Bert.

Six months after that discussion began, they picked out a ring setting. Bert chose a center-stone sapphire on his own. One Friday night, he picked up the finished ring and kept it in his pocket. After dinner, Laurie hit the couch, prepared to stream the evening’s entertainment. But Bert stood between her and the TV and stole the show. “Will you marry me?” he asked.

Before their combined pandemic household, she might have hesitated. But her questions and his had all been answered and both were sure. “I didn’t want to be ‘the girlfriend’ forever, I wanted to be promoted to Bert’s wife,” she said. “And I wanted to be the real grandmother, too — I’m very attached to both his grandchildren and mine.”

She jumped off the couch and said yes, and Bert placed the ring on her finger.

Honoring all of the love

The couple correctly anticipated their engagement would cause their children to experience a second grieving period for the parent they had lost. Bert and Laurie sought counseling to help support them through it.

Bert’s children, Bryan and Randi, and Laurie’s, Jess and Jon, along with their spouses and children, made for an 18-person procession at the Elmwood Park Zoo. “In Judaism the number 18 — chai — means life,” Laurie notes.

The group walked down the aisle to Simon and Garfunkel’s “At the Zoo.”

Then the couple followed, walking to Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now.” “The lyric says ‘don’t stop me now, I’m having a good time,’ which is our theme,” Bert said. All carried small bouquets of sunflowers and alstroemeria, which they placed in a large vase to symbolize creating a single family. The vase had belonged to Laurie’s mother, Syd, who died in January at 91.

Jess was Laurie’s maid of honor. Bryan was Bert’s best man. The couple stood under a chuppah that had been made by a family member for Jon’s wedding. They were married by Rabbi Michael Panitz, who had also married both of Bert’s children, and whose father had married Bert and Bobbie.

During the ceremony, Panitz said the love shared by Bert and Laurie could not have happened without Bert first loving Bobbie and Laurie first loving Alan. He spoke of the deep losses suffered by Bert and his children and by Laurie and her children, and how this new family was a positive thing that had come out of tragedy.

The couple have always enjoyed the Elmwood Park Zoo, where Laurie is now a volunteer, but they chose to marry there for the sake of the 22 children who were among their 82 guests. Andy, Laurie, and Bert made every garden centerpiece. After brunch, the kids were invited to put on their Halloween costumes so they and their parents could have the run of the zoo. Giraffes were fed. Carousels ridden. And after everyone was tired from so much fun, they met at Zoo Brew for more celebrating.

Due to COVID, the couple opted not to honeymoon in Iceland, as planned, but they put their new hiking boots and fleece jackets to work in Colorado. They are planning for Paris in May. Said Bert, “The world is on the agenda.”