When grieving pensioner Almeda Errell from Sevierville, Tennessee went to pay her last respects at her son’s funeral, the last thing she expected to find was love.
Following a whirlwind three-week romance, she and Gary Hardwick – now 18, and who had previously dated a woman of 77 – tied the knot in a ceremony which he arranged for just $200 (£137) in six days.
And now the unlikely pair are sharing Almeda’s house with one of her grandsons who is three years older than her new husband.
‘I wasn’t looking for a young man, but Gary just came along,’ said Almeda, a supermarket assistant. ‘I just knew straight away that he was the one.’
Her happiness at their meeting was in stark contrast to the lonely despair the mother-of-four had endured after being widowed and then losing her eldest son Robert, 45, after a seizure.
‘I’d been married to my first husband Donald for 43 years, and so when he died in 2013 after seven months in hospital from complications with diabetes, I found myself on my own,’ said Almeda.
‘I’d turn up for work at Walmart in tears and my colleagues would ask me what was wrong. Deep down, I was searching for a soulmate.
Almeda was also having to cope with Robert’s failing health.
‘He’d always had problems following a road accident when he was younger,’ she said. ‘But when his wife Lisa called to say he’d died, I was devastated. It was a hard time for me.’
Gary, whose attraction to older women started with a crush on a teacher at the age of eight, said he had also been in turmoil, feeling trapped in an unhappy relationship with his 77-year-old lover.
‘We were always fighting,’ said Gary. ‘I fell into depression and was looking for a way out.’
That’s when Lisa, his aunt, invited him to join other mourners for her husband Robert’s cremation.
Almeda said: ‘I’d noticed this young man with a lovely smile during the service and thought, ‘Wow, this is the one.’
‘He was on the other side of the church, but I kept looking over at him. It was like a bright light through the grief.
‘Then, as I was walking to the door at the end, he came over and passed on his condolences. We didn’t have much time, but it was enough.’
For the next few months, she couldn’t stop thinking about Gary. But what she didn’t realise was that the feeling was mutual – and as soon as he broke up with his girlfriend, he raced round to Lisa’s to confess his love for Almeda.
‘It was an instant thing for me too,’ said Gary. ‘She had the most gorgeous, sparkling blue eyes. When I told Lisa that I liked Almeda, she said that she liked me too and that she should get us together.’
Soon after, Lisa asked them both along to a family meal at the nearby Chuck E Cheese’s pizza restaurant for her daughter Evelyn’s ninth birthday. Sitting next to each other, it didn’t take long for the old spark to reignite.
‘He was just as I remembered,’ said Almeda. ‘That smile, those good looks. We were both too nervous to eat, and at one point he fell over his chair.’
‘We spent hours talking about everything and found we had so much in common like our love of country music and Italian food,’ said Gary, who has just written a book of his life experiences called This Is Who I Am.
But there was still one question Almeda needed to ask.
She recalled: ‘I just came out with it and said to him, ‘Look, I’m 71 and you’re 17. Am I too old for you?’ He squeezed my hand, grinned, and replied: ‘Age is just a number.”
That night, after returning to Lisa’s with the others, Gary surprised her with red roses and a bracelet for her birthday which had been a few days before. Then they shared their first tender kiss under the moonlight outside on a bench.
‘It made me feel like a teenager again,’ smiled Almeda.
From then on, they started seeing each other every night, and got the blessing of most friends and family, including Gary’s mum Tammy, 48, and his grandmother Carolyn, 71 – the same age as Almeda.
But not everyone approved.
‘Some family members Gary was far too young for me, and that I must be crazy,’ said Almeda. ‘I told him I wasn’t crazy, and that we loved each other.’
Two weeks after their first date, she had no hesitation in accepting when Gary proposed on the phone.
And six days later, after Gary had hurriedly arranged everything, budget, Almeda wore a dress borrowed from his cousin as they married in the gardens outside Lisa’s flat where they’d had their first kiss.
Later, on their wedding night, they had sex for the first time.
‘It was wonderful, beyond my wildest dreams,’ revealed Gary. ‘She really is my dream woman and the physical side of our relationship couldn’t be better.’
‘It was the best ever,’ agreed Almeda. ‘I’d never had a connection like it before.’
Since their wedding in October, Gary’s had their names tattooed across his chest and the couple are now living in Almeda’s five-bedroom house with her daughter DeAnna, 40, and grandchildren Aaron, 21, and Indianna, 16.
Gary has also started working at another Walmart store, but is applying for a transfer to Almeda’s so they can be together all the time.
He said: ‘Almeda is so young at heart that age never bothers us, we never really think about it. I just know that God answered my prayers that day she walked into my life.’
She added: ‘The one thing I’ve learnt is that when you truly love somebody, it really doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks.’