The summer of 1998 things were looking great. I had been in Tallahassee for approximately 5 years and I was wrapping up my Elementary Education degree eager to move onto a career. Without warning I received a small email response referencing a dating ad I had placed 6-months prior. Mind you, this was back in the day when the internet was young and you could easily be labeled as “desperate” for placing an ad on a dating site. And maybe I was back then. I had met so many incompatible people. Most seemed to be game-players.. not something I was into. And the ad I had placed was extremely straight forward. I called it a “weeder” ad. Sure enough it weeded people! So much so that 6-months passed without one response. I had forgotten about it. And then there came this email from Maggie just wanting to get someone to show them around Tallahassee.
It started just as some simple emails with getting to know each other. But soon I was spotting a quick and sarcastic wit… she had intelligence. This went back and forth for quite some time as we pushed each other’s boundaries seeing just how far we could go with each other… it was pokes and prods all in jest. But something lasting was forming. Not just an attraction of the mind, but perhaps a true friendship even if it was still in the digital realm. It was time to meet.
About a month after her first email I was pushing to meet her. I had asked so many times for a picture as she had already seen my profile. (She said I looked “gay” 🙁 ) We agreed to meet in the food court of the mall. At the designated time I scoped out the food court hoping to get a first glimpse of this stranger. She could not be found. I figured maybe she was the one wanting to get a first glimpse as well. I just sucked it up and sat down at a table waiting. Then out of the corner of my eye I caught someone peering over a book. I caught her. I just looked at Maggie and smiled. She was blushing knowing her anonymity was over.
Talking with Maggie was easy. We had shared enough over the internet that we were pretty comfortable in our skin. And we didn’t have to struggle with topics to talk about. I wanted to know her and she wanted to know me. And pretty soon our lives began to intertwine with each other’s.
I should mention here that Maggie was married almost 3 years prior to me and she had a beautiful daughter from that union. But it was a relationship short lived as sometimes happens with young couples. I knew head on that to date Maggie I would have to accept her daughter Paige. I didn’t mind it at all. I can remember my grandmother having a “talk” with me early on when we started dating. She didn’t want me having a “fling” knowing a child was involved. But she didn’t know that I was quickly in love with Maggie and Paige. They were a package, and together we made a family… the one thing I had wanted for so long. And with Maggie’s first husband nowhere in Paige’s life, and with Maggie willing to allow me to play the role of “dad” to Paige, it was very easy for our family unit to form.
I graduated college in December of 1998 just as Maggie was about to start nursing school. Our whirlwind romance made moving in together a natural transition for two non-church going people. I had originally planned on teaching after college, but my last semester was a real eye-opener to the political challenges within the public school system. In short, I felt the children were more mature than most of the teachers. About a year prior to moving in with Maggie, I made friends over the internet with someone that shared my passion for cars. As a means for part time income my friend David took pictures for several automotive magazines. That’s what I wanted to do! I talked with Maggie about it and she was behind me 100%. I figured I had 6 months before my student loans were going to kick in so I took a chance on myself.
David allowed me to “shadow” him on two auto shoots as well as assist on a model shoot in the Bahamas. I couldn’t believe it had taken me so long, but I had finally found my niche’. I took a month driving around the NJ/NY area shooting upwards of 12 cars for this magazine. And with a box of film loaded with enough cars to ensure one feature in every issue for a year, my photography career exploded. Before I knew it I was flying all over the country. In a matter of months I had become “someone” in the racing scene. I got to go places most people couldn’t go. I wasn’t a spectator… I was a part of the action. And with the words I got published in ink (as I wrote too) I had become a regular contributor in an industry that was growing exponentially.
As much fun as that was, I still remember to this day how anxious I always was to get back to my family. Maggie and Paige would always meet me at the airport and we would usually go out to dinner to play “catch up” as I would sometimes be gone for weeks at a time. It was wonderful! My grandmother had a vacation house in Daytona we would “escape” to on the weekends. Sometimes we would just get away for a long weekend. Other times Daytona played as a place to rest before going to West Palm or Key West. And sometimes my grandmother was there when she wasn’t in New Jersey. My grandmother loved Maggie and Paige. I think very quickly she realized there was no need to have “the talk” with me that she originally did as we were all inseparable.
Maggie’s parents were very generous in helping us furnish our first rental house. We would often go back to Maggie’s home town to visit. Looking back I think they were accepting of me at first. Maybe tolerant is a better way to describe it. Maggie was young though.. only 24 by the time we moved in together. Paige had just turned 3. I believe they still looked at Maggie as a child and definitely not someone responsible enough to raise a child. And for the past 2 years the two of them were living with Maggie’s parents Phil and Judy.
Phill and Judy were both from a small town in Alabama. Both had children from prior marriages and Maggie was the only child from their union. They lived in a modest trailer home on a small Florida coastal town about 100 miles from Tallahassee. They both worked hard and enjoyed simple things like fishing, and watching sports or NASCAR. I think someone judgmental might call them “rednecks”, but I didn’t care. By the time I had met Maggie I had lived in Tallahassee almost 8 years and for those that know the area, Tallahassee really should be considered Southern Georgia. Despite the fact that it might be a “foreign” place to someone from the North, I had grown to love it there. I don’t think Phil and Judy knew what to make of me though. I don’t remember ever showing any prejudice towards them. But I believe I was the “Yankee from the North” to them. And of course, what came with that was a lot of assumptions about me.
Problems started very small and I was picking up on two constant issues. The first was manipulation. Yes, Phil and Judy were generous in giving us furniture and Toys for Paige or going grocery shopping for us. But it always seemed to come with a catch… Paige! Every time they would give us something the very next thing they did was ask for when they could get Paige to stay with them. At first I didn’t mind this. Honestly, we would have gladly let Paige visit regardless of their assistance. But Maggie and I were realizing Paige was the central focus. When we would tell them we were unwilling to allow Paige to come for whatever reason, they would subtly remind us of how they “helped” us by buying things for us.
The second issue was Paige’s behavior when she would return from her grandparents. Maggie and I saw eye to eye on parenting style. It was strict with a lot of love. ie: Maggie and I would always be physically affectionate with Paige giving generous heaps of hugs and kisses. Maggie and I would give each other little kisses in front of Paige and get her attention, and Paige would run over to us trying to stop us and get in the mix. And then we would turn it around on her smothering her with kisses saying “love-love-love” using an annoying high voice. Paige would laugh and tell us to “get off” and then we would do it all over again. It’s just what we did. But we also believed in spanking and discipline and used it as a means to keep Paige in line. Many times I could be gone for 1-2 weeks at a time with work. With Maggie in school, the easiest thing to do about Paige was to let her go with her grandparents. But they would never discipline Paige. In fact the norm was shopping sprees. Now I have no issue with a grandparent buying their grandchildren toys and clothes and showering them with “stuff”… I mean this is expected. But many times Paige would be back in our care and it would take upwards of 3-days before Paige would settle back into the rules of the house. This would be fine if it was once in a great while, but Paige was going off to her grandparents 1-2 weeks at a time once a month. And Maggie’s parents wanted MORE time with their grandchild. We tried talking with them about this, but they blew us off reminding us of all the things they did for us. Pressure was building.
Year two.. The dam breaks.
My second year shooting for these magazines I put a tremendous demand on myself. But I saw opportunity with an industry that, at the time, was growing exponentially. Races I had covered previously would attract 20k spectators. In 2000 it was more like 50k. I found myself traveling twice as much. Maggie was in her final year of nursing school. And Phil and Judy were wanting more time with Paige. Maggie and I had talked about moving away after graduation, but weren’t sure where at the time. Either way we saw distancing ourselves from Maggie’s parents as a necessity. And Judy seemed to be getting worse. ie: more erratic behavior. When Paige would part from Judy it always ended in hours of tears. Paige would say to me and Maggie, “When we move I’m never going to see my grandparents again.” And she would bawl like the earth was about to end. Eventually I saw it; what was causing this “doom and gloom” attitude. One time when we got Paige back from her grandparents, I witnessed Judy saying to Paige, “Give me a great big hug baby, because when you and momma leave I won’t ever see you again.” I WAS APPALLED! With disgust and disbelief, I exclaimed, “WHAT?!?” Judy looked up at me as she was hugging Paige. Her expression was much like you would catch a child stealing a cookie from the cookie jar. She knew I heard what she said and wasn’t happy about it.
We tried many times to speak with Maggie’s parents. We tried to reason with them, and even pleaded with them. Judy’s behavior was becoming more and more irrational however. She blamed Maggie for splitting up the family. And because Judy was so upset, Phil would get upset. However most times he just blamed that “damn yankee!” Judy was constantly buying gifts for Paige. Not just a few here and there, but car loads full. It got so bad that one night when Maggie, Paige, and I went out to dinner we returned to a lawn with 5 moving boxes full of toys for Paige. Maggie then found out Judy was spreading lies about her in town. This infuriated Maggie, but it also distressed her greatly. I will never forget how Maggie was crying on my shoulder saying she didn’t understand who her mother is anymore.
Eventually Maggie somehow convinced her mother to see a psychologist with her for counseling. This did not go well. Apparently the counselor “sided” with Judy and didn’t understand the depth of what was going on. I can never forget how Maggie came home from this counseling session crying so deeply saying, “I don’t understand… I don’t understand who my mother is anymore.” Maggie was never really one to cry either. But this was not Judy’s first time she lured people to side with her. Judy was the consummate “victim”, always pointing the finger at everyone else. She would control other family members telling a sob story of how hurt she was. Next thing I know we’re getting phone calls from other family members. We would explain what was happening, but no one really listened. I wonder if they were afraid to cross Judy. Many times we would try to explain how she was hurting the relationship with us. But instead we got excuses.
Ultimately this led to a point where Maggie and I weren’t going to put up with this behavior. Judy and Phil had driven to our house to drop Paige off. And in typical fashion the tears flowed from both Judy and Paige. But what I saw was Judy working Paige up and pulling on her heart strings telling her how bad it was going to be when we left and how they would never see each other again. I had to step in. I asked Judy to put Paige down so we could talk. She refused and answered forcefully, “I am an adult… you can’t tell me what to do!” I just looked at her and said, “Look at your granddaughter… look how you are upsetting her. Just put her down for a moment. This doesn’t have to be this way.” Judy got even move excited causing Paige to cry even harder. And that’s when I snapped. “That’s it! You two (Phil and Judy) OUT OF MY HOUSE! I have tried to talk to you nicely and you don’t listen. It’s time for you two to leave.” Phil said sharply, “Those are strong words Mark.” I assured him how serious I was and repeated myself. We shut the door and tried to calm Paige down.
Where to Move
It was pretty obvious to Maggie and me the only way we were going to get some sort of control of the situation was to get further than a day’s drive from Tallahassee. My career was taking off and I found myself traveling all the time. July of 2000 I was only home for 2 days. By the end of the year I figured I was gone a total of 5 months. And 70% of that time was in the NY/NJ/PA area… back where I grew up. But what really sealed the deal was my grandmother. By this time she was in her late 70’s. She had battled lung cancer 5 years prior to this and she recently found out it had come back. My grandmother was such a big part of my life and I wanted to savor the precious time I had left with her. I wanted Maggie and Paige to get to know her better. So moving to the North East just made sense. My work was there. My family was there. And even friends I had left behind in NJ… they all moved to the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania. By the end of summer 2000 it was settled. We go North.
This was also about the same time this incident happened with Maggie’s parents. Maggie was crushed. We had been trying to talk with Phil and Judy for so long with logic and reason. And while we thought Judy’s claim that she would never see her granddaughter again was absurd, it was as if it was becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy all brought on by her own actions. Nothing made sense. They kept calling and demanding to get their granddaughter. We had to screen our calls. Eventually Maggie got an email from her father that devastated her. Here’s what he wrote.
I just came in the house and found your mother crying. Finally she told me that she had called you and you were very cold and did not sound as if you wanted to talk to her. I have told her that she needs to forget that she has a daughter and granddaughter in Tallahassee because it’s apparent that you do not want to have anything to do with her or me. I have never seen a child turn on their parents like you have your mother and me. We did without a lot of things for you but I guess this is the thanks we get. I do not have many days left on this earth but I will not let you ruin them for me. If I get sick or when I die do not come. You will not be welcome. When you finish reading this never again call me your father because you are no longer my daughter.
The stress and strain this situation put on Maggie and me was tremendous. But to get through we stuck it out together. And I was her rock. I tried to be the comforting voice of reason. Time and distance seemed to be the only solution. And in mid-December of 2000 our U-Haul was packed. We escaped the chaos only just barely, but escaped none the less. However I remember distinctly saying to Maggie on our way to New Jersey, “We can never allow your mother get between us again. It will destroy us.” I could see so clearly how it tested and pushed Maggie and me right to the edge. But we were in love with each other, and to us, that was all we needed. New Jersey here we come!