I was keenly aware of the world around me this morning. I added some sea salt to the scrambled eggs I put into toasted pita bread for Sam and Will so they would taste better. I got them some orange juice so they would be full of “C,” well hydrated and ready for their first day of Driver’s Ed. I hurried them to make lunch thinking ahead to the school year, now just four weeks away. When I drove them to their new high school I turned off the radio for some silence after all the rushing.
I was stunned by the wide rays of sun that poured down on one random house on Northclift Road. “That’s God” I thought. When we got to the school and I handed the driving instructor their paperwork, I made a point of watching them walk down the hill to the portable classroom. “They are men,” I thought. My little twin babies who I nearly gave my life to have, turned into big, strong, hairy young men. More men in my life!
After dropping off the boys/men, I headed home and when stopped at a light I was fixated on this worker with his edger trimming the grass all along the road around Chick Fil A, The edger buzzed and he made this neat and sharp edge all around the grass which looked good and clean and he seemed to take pride in. I smiled at him and though he did not smile back, I had this overwhelming feeling of gratitude for this day and for my life.
You see, this is a very special day and a very different day than it was 35 years ago. Around this time, 35 years ago, my sister, Alice was fixing my hair so that I could be the best bride I could be by noon. We had been up all night because of one persistent mosquito that we could not find, but who insisted on buzzing and biting us all night long. It was maddening and we knew that having no sleep the night before my wedding was not a good idea, yet every time we turned out the light we woke up again and resumed our search. We were sleeping (or trying to) in a most beautiful home on the bay in Remsenburg, Long Island in the Hamptons. My wedding reception would be taking place in this house we had rented for the weekend, in just a few hours.
In addition to our pursuit of the pesky mosquito, Alice and I laughed and commiserated through the night. We laughed at the silliness of the situation and at the drama we two could create. We commiserated over our parents and all the years of misery that had existed. This day, my wedding day, would be no different than all the others that my mother was determined to ruin, to fill with anger and hatred towards me and to exhibit a vicious jealousy that would undermine all tenderness or kindness. My mother was very likely a Borderliine Personality, but knowing that, made it no easier to endure for those of us in her life. For my wedding weekend, she became particularly hateful and she began mimicking anything I said, copying my moves, ridiculing anything that Alice and I attempted to enjoy. She had a big fight with my father, who then was seen sitting on the dock of the bay, head in hands, weeping. The main reason for his crucifixion on that particular day, was that he had planned to give my groom and me a cash gift and that was unacceptable to my mother.
So, you might ask, what on earth was I thinking having my parents stay in the house with me, on the night before my wedding? Easy to answer. I continued to charade my life on every occasion and for most of the first 50 years of my life. In other words, I always attempted to make my life look normal to myself and to others. For example, although my fiancé and I were paying for the entire wedding, I worded the invitations to say “Florence and Walter Conlon invite you to the marriage of….” I craved normalcy in every way and I NEVER gave up trying. So, in a normal family, the parents would be there and loving and supportive, so I gave it a go and of course, as it always did, it backfired. As my parents continued their pathology, my sister and I moved onto getting ready, despite my mother standing in the doorway of our room saying, “Oh how corny!” and then pretending to gag.
The odd thing about my wedding is that I was a graduate of The Fashion Institute of Technology and had studied, breathed and adored fashion for most of my life. And yet, I am not sure that my wedding measured up or even came close to a fashion statement. I loved the color green and in fact, received an emerald as my engagement ring ,which I was thrilled about. So, it made sense then, for me to choose emerald and white bridesmaid dresses! Fashion faux pas in every way! My dress was pitiful and I call it a dress, rather than a gown, because that is what it was. Once again in my attempt at normalcy, I took my mother to the “bridal wholesale building” in New York to shop for a gown and show her the one I had already fallen in love with. It was $300 and she was horrified at the price (though I was paying!) and the fact that it looked like a “bridal gown.” “You’re having a garden wedding” she said. “Why would you wear something formal like that? It will look ridiculous. Just get something cotton.” It wasn’t overly formal at all and I loved it. For some reason, God only knows why, I listened to her. And the next week, I went to a showroom that only sold bridesmaid dresses, chose a white dotted swiss long dress and paid $28 for it. I know it didn’t look bad. My theory is that when you are young and tan and sparkling and happy, nothing looks bad. But, I have regretted this for the last 35 years and there are no do-overs.
To make matters worse, I took some of the dotted swiss fabric to the Notions district in New York and arranged for this shop to make me a matching hat. When I went to pick it up on the day before the wedding, they had never made it! I grabbed a crownless hat off the rack, added my friend’s veil to the back and off I went. I hated my hat too.
But, here’s the good part. Susan Smith worked for me at the boutique I ran in JFK airport. She was an overly made-up, edgy type with no soft edges. Despite the fact that the sixties were long since over, she still had dyed jet-black and teased hair with black doe shaped liner around her eyes and thick foundation. For some reason, though were as different as day and night, we clicked and became friends. We each lived alone in Queens and laughed a lot. The day I met her younger brother, Shep, I knew I had met someone very special. He had a girlfriend and he owned a beautiful home in Rockville Centre, so unlike many of the men I dated, this man seemed settled and together. I will never be able to know why, but I had this feeling inside that someday we would be together. It was an odd thought and I told no one.
I left the airport boutique in 1973 and traveled through Europe for most of the summer with my best friend, Lucia. It was one of the most fun six weeks of my life.
From there I worked for an advertising agency but, merchandising was always calling me. And so I then landed a job running the busy and profitable gift shop in New York Hospital. It was a great job with a full staff and a diverse mix of merchandise including jewelry, gifts, toys, fashion, floral and more. I was very young for this much responsibility and I loved it. In 1976 a French girl who worked for me, named Nicole encouraged me to go to the New York piers to see the tall ships coming from all over the globe and celebrate the 200th birthday of the United States. It was a grand a time as I had ever had and because we were young, beautiful American girls who were as flirty as could be, many sailors invited us onto the ships to get a close up look. It was thrilling and fun and exhausting and though we did not sleep that whole weekend, it will stay with me forever.
When I finally returned to my apartment in Woodside, Queens I fell into my four poster bed draped with red Indian fabrics and collapsed. When Susan’s brother, Shep Smith called me to ask me out on a date, I was in such a deep sleep that I really did not remember having the conversation, so when he came to pick me up for that date on Friday night, you can imagine my shock and confusion! Nevertheless, on July 8, 1976, Shep and I went to dinner at a restaurant on the water in LaGuardia airport followed by a visit to a Grenwich Village bar I had hung out with the sailors the weekend before. It was not the same on this following weekend and instead, it was a very gay bar with many cross dressers and entertainers. Imagine this suburban Long Island guy and how disconcerting this must have been to him in the seventies, with this girl he didn’s know. Nevertheless, we had a fabulous time, laughed all night and stayed so late that the garage that Shep had parked his beloved Mustang convertible was locked when we were ready to leave. He laughed it off (unusual when matters pertaining to his car!) and we went to a coffee shop, had some breakfast and waited for the garage to open. I still remember him driving me home as the sun came up over the Queensboro bridge. I felt an ecstasy that I kept under wraps!
Oddly, when we called Shep’s sister, Susan to tell her we were still on our date despite the fact that it was now morning, she was not the least bit amused. And, over the course of the next two years that we dated, she wrote each of us off in bitter anger. After my first date with Shep she warned me, “Don’t you ever think of marrying my brother!” “Whoa” I said, “marry him? I just went out on a date with him, that’s all.” Prophetic.
We had so much fun dating during those two years. We spent many weekends in the Hamptons in group houses, went to wineries in upstate New York, saw plays, laughed in comedy clubs, sat on Shep’s beautiful screened porch, and grew deeply in love. Shep’s mother had died from Huntington’s Disease and this was an issue that loomed in his future. If it turned out that if he had it, then each of his children would have a 50/50 chance as well. It is a horrific disease and it really gave me cause for pause, but at that point in my life, I did not imagine having children anyway, so although my mother seemed to grab onto this malady and its ramifications, I did not dwell on it long enough to consider leaving Shep. I was deeply in love with him and loved spending every minute we could together. We moved to a brownstone with a fourth floor walkup apartment on W. 73rd St, and spent every free moment walking the city in love. By now, I worked in Macy’s and he worked for Stone and Webster downtown and then switched to WR Grace.
Once were engaged we knew that we wanted to be married in the Hamptons that we loved. But how? We began this arduous and impossible search to rent a home for a whole weekend where we could have our wedding. We spent many winter weekends driving out East and presenting our plan to realtors and agencies who simply could not wrap their minds around anyone wanting to rent out their home for a wedding. We found an Episcopal Church in Quogue where we could be married and since this darling church was only open for a few weeks a year, we would be the 13th couple to be married there since the 1800’s! Ironically, Shep’s priest from Rockville Centre happened to be assigned there for the summer so he agreed to do the wedding and I actually convinced my Catholic priest to concelebrate!
Divine intervention finally took place at a Hamptons cocktail party where a realtor happened to be discussing this crazy, young couple looking to get married and how far out an idea they had. A recently wed couple heard this conversation and said they were interested in renting out their home for such an event! We got the call, drove out East and were completely thrilled to rent this beautiful home on the bay. It was perfect in every way, with a deck for dancing and tables set up all over the lawn right at the water. No one ever forgot this wedding.
I do remember walking into church with my arm in my poor, proud, beaten, enabling, depressed father’s arm, and being overcome with emotion when I looked at my life long friend Nadine. When I looked down the aisle and saw my beloved, Shep, I had never been surer of anything in my life, as I was about marrying him. He looked so handsome and I adored him. I felt that all the bad in my life up until that time, including many of the dashing but rotten men I’d dated, the home life I hated, the running away over and over, would come to a more terre ferma by sharing my life with this stable and loving man.
So, we danced to Billy Joel’s, “I Love You Just the Way You Are” and though it may be trite, the words still fit us to a tee. Beginning with where we chose to have our wedding, the extreme challenges of doing so and the determined way we continued on, we matched well. Besides, my mother only liked and flirted with the most dysfunctional men that Alice or I dated. She paid absolutely no attention to Shep at the time, so I knew – this must be the right guy!
What can one say about 35 years of life together? Oddly, I remember having a 35th surprise anniversary for my parents in my Hampton Bays home in 1986. I did it once again, because it seemed normal, but in fact, what a sham it was to celebrate a marriage so filled with rancor and hatred. Ours is not one even remotely like that. Shep and I have been to hell and back, more than once, but so far, we have made the journey together. Are there days when you wake up and look at each other and think, “What the hell am I doing with this stranger? Who is this person and why would I have married him?” but more often than that, I think, “Thank you God, thank you, thank you, thank you. I love him.”
We began on the Upper West Side of New York, but once robbed, we moved to a fancy doorman building on the Upper East Side and we loved it there. But, shortly after that, Shep’s job was switched to one in San Antonio, Texas. I was not happy! In fact, I was one miserable relocator! I complained before we went, once we got there and the whole time we were there, which in retrospect, was completely unreasonable. It was a wonderful place to live and we had great friends and good jobs as I was a buyer then for Dillard’s. We lived in an apartment for awhile, and then bought a home where we brought our first son home. Nicholas was the most awesome thing to come from the love of two people. However, I continued to complain about not being “home” in New York near my family. Huh? Reality check again? In January of 1982 we moved to Hampton Bays where three years later I would give birth to our second miracle, Peter. Shep was working in real estate and though the winters in the Hamptons were still lonely then, it was a nice life. My sister was married and came to visit often and we had some friends. We learned about tofu and hummus and joined a food coop, so our learning curve had begun. And, best of all we had wonderful neighbors, Bea and Greg who became our surrogate parents and mentors. We are still very close friends of their daughters.
We bought a piece of land in Southampton, and began building the first non-toxic home on the East Coast, while I carried our third baby in utero. Because our house sold before our new one was built, we moved into a rental in East Quogue. We also built an investment home with partners in Quogue around that time. Oh, those were the days. In April of 1988, our third miracle son, Oliver arrived and shortly after we moved into our glorious Southampton home. No sooner had we done that, then the real estate market collapsed along with the economy, so we had no income! We rented rooms out in our home every weekend, sold organic produce out of our garage every Wednesday, worked for a caterer on weekends, edited classified ads for the Southampton Press, and Shep drove a school bus so that we had medical insurance and a small steady income. This was a very difficult time and lots of fighting and disagreements ensued. I would say it was probably one of the weaker times in our marriage.
In the midst of these bad times, I shockingly found myself pregnant. I remember meeting with my closest friend, Joan and crying my heart out over this. We had no money, a big mortgage, no real jobs, three kids and I was in my forties and pregnant! She laughed with relief when she said, “ I thought for sure you were going to tell me you have cancer!” Ironically, 20 years later, she is the one who had cancer and has now recovered. On the night of January 17, 1993, I gave birth to my biggest and most robust miracle sons, at home in my bedroom in Southampton. Six months later, we finally sold our home and moved to Raleigh, North Carolina.
For the most difficult time of all in our 35 years together, one need not venture far from Mary 4, 1995, when we were back visiting friends in the Hamptons and our then, 27 month old son, Gregory ventured out to the swimming pool and drowned. The five of us who remained would never really recover and never be remotely the same people we were. It affected us each differently and our marriage could have easily been tossed to the wind. Instead, I felt that Shep and I would need to stay close to each other forever, because no one else would ever have any idea of what we now shared and the searing and endless pain that took years to subside. It brought us even closer through shared tears, two years of Compassionate Friends meetings, and the constant worry of keeping our three remaining sons alive, healthy and recovering.
Oddly, in 1996 I sat for the International Lactation Consultant boards, and though I am convinced that I was unable to absorb a word of what I studied for months, I passed and this became my new career. I clearly chose this because I was determined to enable all babies within my reach to have the benefits of breastfeeding that my Gregory had. After the eight hour long exam, I came home told everyone to get in the car, and drove to Atlanta to attend the Olympics. We had not tickets, no hotel room, but I didn’t care because I was simply desperate for some normalcy, relief and time away from our sadness. In 1997, we embarked on our next impossible challenge when we decided that in fact, we really had to have another baby! We felt that it would be in everyone’s best interest to bring new life and light into a family deep in a dark hole. The day I had coffee with Elizabeth Edwards in Barnes and Noble at Crabtree was a turning point. She told me that she too was trying to get pregnant and asked why I didn’t realize we were both too old to get pregnant on our own. She gave me the name of her Fertility Specialist at UNC and the rest is history. We ended up at Duke and by Christmas 1997, I found out that I was pregnant with twins!
Having Sam and Will come into our lives in our late forties was beyond anyone’s wildest definition of a miracle. There is a passage in the bible that says something like, “Imagine if I had not believed….” And this is apropos for this phase of our lives. We were completely overwhelmed at this point and definitely over the top with responsibility and stress. Nicholas was graduating from high school when I showed up at graduation with two nursing babies! I couldn’t look at colleges with him. I couldn’t focus on high school sports that Peter was in and dealing with Oliver’s middle school struggles was a huge challenge. Shep and I cried some, but mostly we laughed and honestly, this is the thing that has gotten me through more than anything else. Do I love and appreciate the fabulous meals, the loving care and responsibilities that Shep takes on, the thought and love he devotes to fathering? Oh, I do, I do, but most of all in this world, is that no matter what, no matter how impossible a situation we are in – Shep can always make me laugh. Sometimes Shep makes me laugh so much, that I have been known to wake up in the middle of the night laughing!
We have been on many wonderful family vacations, to mountains and lakes and beaches, to California and Florida and Oregon and Canada and Tennessee and New England. Shep and I have finally gotten to Europe together and enjoyed every minute. When Shep and I go to New York, it takes 20 years off of our lives as we become young and carefree and unstoppable, walking 20 or more miles in a day. We eat pizza till we can take no more, savoring every bite of the food we miss the most in North Carolina. We live and work and worship in North Carolina, and have for 20 years now. Although we will miss New York forever, we feel this is the very best place for us to live and to have raised a family. But, hey we still both dream and fantasize about owning a tiny pied a terre in NYC! This will NEVER happen!
We have been through devastating illnesses and addictions in our children that have brought us to our knees over and over and like two wet noodles can never support each other, we have taken turns propping one or the other of us up. We have buried both of my parents and lost many close friends that we loved and cared about. We have watched our friends fight health battles that have broken our hearts and currently cheer my own sister on as she fights breast cancer and my very best friend as she renews her battle against that vicious visitor’s repeat entrance into her body. Our faith has deepened as our children’s faith has waned and disintegrated and our political views have moved further and further left. We have been on retreats and renewals, been to weddings and reunions and parties we’ve loved. Shep has had a food business, which was both the culmination of a dream and a resulting nightmare when it failed. We have fought school and health battles for ourselves and for our children to the point of exhaustion. We have changed churches from one we loved and felt tied to, to one where we learn so much more and grow differently. I am forever grateful to Shep for the gift of my confirmation as an Episcopalian early on in Hampton Bays. It is a religion I am proud to be a part of and one that feeds my soul and my heart.
It is hard to describe what it is like to have had my beloved, Shep at my side for 35 years. As he once said, “it is difficult to know where one of us leaves off and the other begins.” I look forward to doing everything with him and there is never anyone with whom I would rather spend my time. When I see him approaching me, my heart still sings and I feel happy. Sometimes I look at him and feel unfathomable love for him. He is an unusual man and an unusual father in that he took both of these roles on with complete grace and commitment and through his actions have made each of us feel loved and cherished. And damn, he can cook! Although, he rarely tells me, I do believe he loves me as much. With so much illness around us on a daily basis, it is hard not to wonder when I will be struck or when he will be and that is a fear that most of us carry around, but for now, I try to remain in the sheer joy I feel in having found my perfect life partner. And yes, Shep, I love you just the way you are!