In the late 1950s, Kenneth Felts met a young man who became the love of his life.
Felts, now 90 years old, had not revealed that relationship to his family until a few months ago, when he finally told his daughter, Rebecca Mayes, that he is gay — a secret he’d been keeping for more than 60 years. It happened in mid-March, when Felts was quarantining because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The two spoke about Felts’ first love, Phillip, during a remote StoryCorps conversation from Arvada, Colo., this month.
“Being alone drug up all these memories from the past,” he said.
That’s when he shared with his daughter.
“One night you told me you were sad because you had lost the love of your life,” Mayes, 48, said.
“And that’s when I came out to you,” Felts said.
Mayes, who is also gay, says she and her wife are thrilled that Felts can be himself now.
Felts met Phillip when they were in their 20s. Both worked at an insurance company in Southern California, and Phillip offered to help teach Felts how to do some paperwork required for their job.
“When I met Phillip, to me he was the perfect person,” Felts said. “Of course, I guess that’s what everyone thinks of their first love. We just kind of blended into each other.”
Their romance developed quickly, over coffee and weekend excursions driving around California. After a few months, the two moved in together.
They were together for about two years, but that changed one Sunday. Felts and Phillip were at church near Long Beach, where Phillip sang in the choir.
“I sat in the pews, and it occurred to me that I was sitting in a place that condemned our behavior,” Felts said. “I had to make a decision. And I made the wrong decision.”
“It was not until I got the divorce from your mother — first thing I did was go through all the phone books, trying to find Phillip,” he told Mayes. “But I was unable to find him.”
Looking back, Mayes remembers her dad getting emotional one day when she was in high school.
“You had gotten all dressed to work in the garden, but you just sat crying for a while,” she recalled. “I asked you what was wrong, and you said something about, ‘Oh, just stuff in the past that doesn’t matter anymore.’ Do you remember what you were crying about?”
He’d been crying about having left Phillip, who died in 2013.
“I just wished we had found him sooner,” Felts said.
Mayes asked her dad what he would’ve said at the time if he had found out that Phillip was alive.
“I would have apologized for the decision I made,” Felts said.
“My guess would be that he forgave you long ago, and I just wish you could forgive yourself,” Mayes said. “Would you entertain having a boyfriend?”
“Oh, absolutely,” Felts said. “Hopefully, they will consider my age as only a number and not a date for the undertaker.”
Mayes asked her dad what he thinks she should know as she goes through the rest of her life.
“Being yourself, not hiding as I have,” he told her. “Because I have found out how much love there is out there that just keeps pouring into me, day after day. And I thought I was doing great, until I came out and started to discover what it means to be free.”
Audio produced for Morning Edition by Jey Born.
StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.