Rockville’s Joan Vassos did not wind up with Gerry Turner, the dashing star of ABC’s senior dating show, “The Golden Bachelor.” But her time on TV still ended in a love story.

“Once a mom, always a mom,” Vassos told me about her decision to leave the production to take care of her adult daughter. Her connection to Turner seemed to be solidifying, but her child had given birth just 15 days before filming started and was battling postpartum depression. Looking for real love on a reality show? There you go.

I first noticed the gorgeous 60-year-old on the premiere of “The Golden Bachelor” because I always look out for the Maryland contestants, and because she, like me, is a widow — though only one of us had the guts to go look for love on TV. I wrote about how brave that was, and she wrote me a lovely note thanking me. (As a columnist, you come to especially enjoy the lovely ones because a lot of them … are not.)

I finally got to talk to her on Zoom last week, a few days before she appeared on the show’s “Women Tell All” reunion episode that aired Thursday. I told her that, while she was obviously sad not to continue getting to know Turner, I was impressed by her decision.

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“People are giving me credit I don’t deserve,” she answered. “Any good mother would have left. People have said, ‘I would have done the same thing.’ It’s lovely to have that reinforced. It feels good. My daughter was having a hard time navigating mental health in this country, which is not a surprise. With postpartum, all of a sudden you’re extremely sad while you’re trying to keep a baby alive. It’s very, very hard. I had to go. There was someone who needed me, an immediate need.”

Like I said, that’s love. If you watch any of the “Bachelor” shows — and I’ve watched most of them — you know the franchise is big on the word “journey.” Vassos’ began as she contemplated life without her husband, who’d died about two years earlier. “Everybody said, ‘After a year, you’ll start to feel better,’ and that you start coming around and feeling better,” she said. “That’s completely not true.”

I responded with a literal poetry slam-esque finger snaps up, because people do indeed like to tell widowed people it’s all gonna work out. In reality, you have no idea how you’re going to feel after a year of losing the love of your life, and y’all need to stop lying to people. Vassos had reached that alleged milestone and “wasn’t in the mood. But I’d had a happy marriage. I wanted to get back out there and at least try.”

Trying is hard, particularly when the pickings are slim. “I had dinner with friends, and I said, ‘You know, it seems impossible to meet anyone. You look around, and everyone my age is a pair.’ I am not a pair. How do you do this organically?” Vassos said. “You can go on a dating app, but I really didn’t want to do that. It’s a lot of work!”

When she got home from that dinner, the self-described “Bachelor” addict turned on the TV and saw an ad for contestants “in the second half of their life, looking for love. I felt like the universe was talking to me,” Vassos said. So she listened, immediately filling out the application on her phone. “It was a long one, and I’m kind of lousy typing on my phone,” she admitted.

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She didn’t hear anything from ABC for a couple of months, so in the interim she did briefly join a dating app. Her welcome was more than warm. “It was overwhelming!” she said. “In the first hour, I got 100 replies. I was trying to look at everyone and be respectful. Some of them wrote whole paragraphs of information. I gave it a chance, but I got through 40 [profiles] and thought, ‘This is not sustainable.’ I went on one or two dates, nothing great. But then I got the call [from ABC], and it all snowballed from there.”

I rewatched Vassos’ entrance on the premiere while writing this column, and it’s apparent that she had an instant connection with Turner. Then again, he had connections with a lot of women, because the whole plot of the show is they’re all dating the same person. It can be pretty competitive, but Vassos said “The Golden Bachelor” cast members have a special bond because they were coming from a similar place — that of experience.

“I met these incredible people that I got to share this beautiful mansion with,” she said. “It was so special. We’ve all had relationships. Every person there has lived life, married, been divorced. They’ve lost spouses, many of them, or been divorced. We’ve all had rich lives behind us, so much in common.”

They bonded to the point that, when Vassos left, she wasn’t just sad about leaving Gerry but “leaving all these friends behind. I finally found my tribe. We joke that we’re sister wives. They got me, and I got them.”

She left knowing the show would go on without her. “If I was just dating someone in Rockville or Bethesda and something happened with my family, I’d say, ‘just give me a few days to get back to you,’” she said. “This is permanent. You can’t leave and decide to come back. You leave, and you’re gone. But it was what it was.”

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Although Vassos didn’t wind up with Turner’s final rose, she got confirmation that she was, indeed, “ready to date. I wasn’t sure, so I was hesitant, but after meeting him I left there feeling that I could picture a life with someone else. That’s the first time I felt that,” she said. “He gives of himself and is very open and vulnerable. He made me feel I could be vulnerable.”

We won’t find out who Turner winds up with until the Nov. 30 finale, but we know it’s not Vassos. People in this franchise sometimes pop back up like hot bad pennies after they’ve left or been eliminated, so I was kinda wondering if she’d return. No dice, but she doesn’t have any regrets.

“I happened to leave in a really tough situation but on a really good note,” she said. “And I think it resonated with our generation. A lot of people have responsibilities. It’s a real story.”

leslie.streeter@thebaltimorebanner.com

Leslie Gray Streeter is a columnist excited about telling Baltimore stories — about us and the things that we care about, that touch us, that tickle us and that make us tick, from parenting to pop culture to the perfect crab cake. She is especially psyched about discussions that we don't usually have. Open mind and a sense of humor required.

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