For Dee Bynum, the smell of suntan lotion evokes strong feelings of nostalgia. She was 16 the summer of her first love. She spent hours hanging out at the pool with her boyfriend Doug, driving around in his red Datsun pickup, listening to the Bee Gees, Chicago, and Earth Wind and Fire.
For years—through college, a marriage to another man, two daughters—these memories were a bittersweet piece of nostalgia. But several years ago, the past turned into the present. And the future.
The First Time
Dee Pool and Doug Bynum attended San Marcos (Texas) High School together; he was a sophomore and she a freshman when they first met. “I remember seeing her outside the cafeteria and thinking she was really cute, but out of my league,” says Doug, 60, as he pats Dee’s hand at an Austin restaurant.
“I thought he was much too cool for me,” says Dee, 59, a church secretary. “I mean he played trombone in a jazz band.” They dated for about five months—attended prom together, traveled to the coast on a school outing, made memories, and talked into many nights.
“I was head over heels,” Doug recalls. “I remember standing in the driveway of her house one night telling her, ‘I’m planning the rest of my life around you.’”
Dee chimes in: “I was thinking, ‘Me, seriously?’”
Their love might have snowballed from there, except that Dee’s mother thought she was getting too serious too quickly. “She told me I needed to date other people. I didn’t want to date anyone else, but I was an obedient child.”
Doug remembers the break up as a “kick in the stomach,” coming out of nowhere.
“I still feel like I can’t apologize enough,” Dee says with a grimace, leaning into Doug.
Teenage Love, The Sequel
The two went on with their lives. Doug married when he was 20; Dee, when she was 22. Their relationship could have been just another teen romance that died a natural death. Except that there is a sequel to this love story. A grown-up part two that demonstrated the incredible staying power of that first connection.
Following her divorce in 2005, Dee moved back to San Marcos after living all over the country with her military husband. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she knew Doug still lived in town but little else. She was keeping her head down, helping her elderly mother, and rebuilding her life.
Then while she was attending Texas State University, Dee’s oldest daughter by chance got a job working for Doug, the manager of facilities at the university. It just so happened that his marriage was in the process of ending.
Connected through Dee’s daughter, they began seeing each other again—in a friendly way. When Dee’s mother passed away in 2009, Doug helped Dee re-floor her mother’s house and paint the exterior. “I won’t lie,” Doug says. “I was helping so I could be close to her.”
Rekindled Love: The Great Courtship
While Doug knew what he wanted, Dee was skittish. “I was concerned about getting into another relationship. It was important that I got to a place where I knew I’d be fine without a guy.” But Doug persevered, even notifying Dee’s daughter of his intention to marry her mother.
“And the great courting began,” says Dee. “The chemistry was still there, for sure.” Doug appreciated being with her this time around “without the teenage angst.” Soon they began talking about rings, and in Dec. 2011, Doug staged a surprise proposal, playing the guitar at a restaurant and singing one of their favorite songs, “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You.”
At their wedding in June 2012, his two grown kids and her two daughters served as attendants. “We were old enough to understand what we were doing,” Dee says. “We had perspective.”
They say that one of the biggest comforts is the understanding that comes with having a long history. Plus, there’s a bit of early mental imprinting that keeps them young in each other’s eyes. “He still sees me as a 16-year-old,” says Dee. “And I see him as he was.”
The What Ifs?
Indeed, in the era of Facebook, it’s easier than ever to find old loves and see if the fire can be rekindled. Sometimes the teenage heart was actually on to something. “These relationships were not a mistake in high school, just premature,” says Susan Heitler, Denver psychologist and author of The Power of Two: Secrets to a Strong and Loving Marriage. “They met someone appropriate for step five in life when they were only at step three.”
As happy as they are together now, and as much as they love their children, they can’t help but ache a bit for what could have been. “There are times we wish we had kids together,” Doug says. “But if we’d gotten married then, who knows? We might have messed it up.”
“We’ve allowed ourselves to imagine what traits the kids would have,” adds Dee. “But then I come to a very natural place when I know wouldn’t change anything about my girls.”
Dee sees their circuitous path to each other as a gift. “I would never make light of the hurt that divorce creates, but beauty came from the ashes. I see this as my do-over opportunity,” she says. “My chance to do it better this time. To do it right.”
Photos by Rebecca Bennett
A version of this article was originally published in February 2018.