Only days before Christmas of 2000 we pulled up to my grandmother’s house in the rented U-Haul. She welcomed Maggie, Paige, and me to move in with her for a few months while I save some money for a down payment on a house. She was also about to start a mild dose of chemotherapy as well, so our being there was actually very helpful. We were quick to settle in. And since the racing season wasn’t going to start for another four months I wasn’t under a lot of pressure to shoot.
That Christmas was truly Maggie’s first winter in the North. She was a Florida girl. And right around that time we got enough snow to give an impression of what living in the North is like. Just days before Christmas we walked into a mall and Maggie was complaining about having cold feet. I was fine having grown up there, but then I looked down and noticed Maggie’s shoes. She was wearing paper thin leather covered flats with a sole as thick as a quarter. Thankfully we were already at the mall. We went to an “outdoors” type of shop and I bought her the best pair of Merril hiking shoes we could find. Later that week we stopped into a ski shop and I bought her a winter ski jacket and bib snow pants anticipating sledding and maybe even skiing. I remember her saying to me, “Wow… my feet are warm.” I know this isn’t a big deal, but it was one of those things that was “normal” to me and I didn’t anticipate Maggie having to adjust.
During that holiday season we saw a lot of my family. My parents, Al and Sue,were only a 45 minute drive away and my uncle another two hours. Knowing how accommodating my family is, I knew I didn’t have to really say anything. But after the ordeal we had just gone through with Maggie’s parents, I just wanted to make sure everyone knew how fragile we were. I asked everyone to just be kind to Maggie and make her feel welcome. They laughed. “Of course we will Mark.” But I was worried about Maggie. Her parents disowned her. I had no idea the depth of the damage done. But soon after the new year Maggie came up to me in private almost in tears, “I can’t believe your family is so friendly and welcoming.” I just acknowledged her statement. In my observations my family didn’t do anything differently. Maggie is a smart woman with a sarcastic and dry sense of humor that would insult you if you didn’t know any better… just the sort that fit in with my family. She was home!
It seemed like we had just arrived in New Jersey when I was sent on assignment BACK TO FLORIDA. I spent two weeks there driving from Panama City Beach all the way down to Miami, and then back to Tallahassee to fly out. In two weeks I shot ten cars. That was enough to give the “house fund” a huge shot in the arm. In fact it was more than that. It gave me enough money to purchase a welding machine that I anticipated using in the very near future. By this time Maggie received her nursing license in NJ and started working at a local retirement home. It wasn’t much but I was fine with this. I preferred her taking care of Paige and being good company to my grandmother. And looking back at that time, I think Maggie and I just needed a sense of peace.
We bought a house!
We had looked for months in the Lehigh Valley starting with houses in the Palmer township area. A couple of my high school friends had bought houses there too so it made sense to buy a house there. But the months lagged and I felt like we were starting to encroach on my grandmother. I even put a bid on a house that was truly me “settling”. In the end I withdrew the offer as the house needed some major repairs.
It wasn’t until June of 2001 that I put a bid on a house in Bethlehem township. It was a foreclosure that everyone had passed on. Why? Because as soon as you entered the house there was a pungent odor that just would not go away even if you opened the windows. Apparently the previous owners daughter had a cat that was kept in one room. And that cat marked its territory in spades! What ultimately became Paige’s room wreaked. But aside from that, the house had “good bones”. Having a lot of repair and construction background I didn’t even think twice. We put a bid on the house.
Right after this I flew out to California to accompany the magazine staff on a trek to Texas for a massive race. It was incredible! We had pre-planned stops along the way with certain vendors that participated. And all the cars we were driving were ones featured in the magazines. When we would roll into that particular city hundreds of people were waiting to greet us and be a part of the rolling “event”. It was like the circus had rolled in. We gave away hundreds of t-shirts and stickers. We were celebrities. But I’ll never forget driving back to California from that event as I got a call from my realtor half way across Arizona.. we got the house! It was joy and happiness… and then reality set in.. I just bought a house!
By this time Maggie was pursuing her love in nursing… the operating room. She was accepted to the OR program in Allentown PA, but this was over an hour drive from my grandmother’s that she made almost every day. It was brutal. There were days she would call me as she was driving back just so we could talk and I would keep her awake. As well, she was telling me stories how she felt targeted by the staff trying to push her to make her quit. It was tough. By the time we closed on the house Maggie was sick of the commute. Our house in Bethlehem was a short 15-20 minute drive to the hospital. The day we closed on the house she grabbed a sleeping bag and just decided to start staying there. I can’t blame her.
As much as my career was taking off, Maggie’s difficulties started to increase. So many times Maggie would come home completely ready to quit the OR program. She felt alienated and ostracized by the teaching staff there. She would cry from desperation. This was what she had wanted to pursue the entire time she went to college for this degree. Now it was looking like she might have to give this dream up. I talked with her… consoled her… and ultimately encouraged her. I was her “cheerleader” nudging her enough to keep going. It wasn’t that she wasn’t smart enough. In fact Maggie can be so hard on herself that she pushes herself to excel. But that is also her Achilles heel. She doesn’t give herself enough credit where credit is due. Thankfully in the end she stuck with it, got an operating room certification, and transferred to a different hospital.
I’m a long way from home!
Summer of 2001 was hugely successful and busy for me. The magazines were flourishing, and I had made my mark within the auto scene. Early September I flew to Houston Texas to cover another event. Maggie and Paige were settling into our new home and by this time they were used to me traveling all over the place. It had rained that Sunday and a decision was made to complete the racing on the Monday. I had already booked my tickets for Tuesday September 11th 2001.
That Tuesday morning I woke up before my alarm and immediately turned on the television. This was not normal for me. And I watched in awe as I saw one of the twin towers on fire. Within 30 seconds of turning on the TV I watched the second plane crash into the other building. In a split second I was aware of the gravity of this situation. In an act of bizarre instinct, I was out of my hotel (including a shower) in no more than 5-minutes and driving to the airport. I was flying to Newark, NJ that morning. On my way I was calling Delta airlines begging to divert me to Allentown, PA. They told me they could not change the flight. In frustration I hung up with them. Then I heard on the radio how another plane had crashed into the Pentagon. I called Delta again demanding to be sent somewhere else. That’s when the operator said, “Sorry sir but all planes have been grounded.” WHAT??? It was unprecedented. Never before had this been done. And then the operator said to me plainly, “If I were you I would check into a hotel right now before you cannot find one.” The only thing certain was I wasn’t going anywhere.
I went back to the same hotel I came from and checked myself back in. All I could do was stay glued to the TV. And then I got a call from Maggie. She sounded so grateful to hear my voice. At the time she was in surgery and could not break away to call me. She knew I was flying in that day, but had no idea if I was already in the air. I assured her I was alright. But with all planes grounded I had no idea what was next. After that night I called the rental car company to talk about the car I needed to turn in. Amazingly they agreed to keep me locked into the daily rate I was in. But what was even better is they allowed me to drop the car off wherever I chose to. I was so grateful!
I didn’t want to hang out in Houston knowing I could very well be stranded there for a week. And with the freedom of the rental car, I decided to drive to Tallahassee Florida and stay with my friend Jim. During my time in Tallahassee I was in touch with the California magazine editors I shot for. With the planes grounded they were going nowhere. And it was uncertain when they were going to start flying again. That weekend was the biggest event of the season in Atlanta with an expected crowd of 100k spectators. And no one from the magazines was going to make it. I offered to drive there as it was only a 6 hour drive. They were grateful.
So with my rental car picked up in Houston I made it to Atlanta. By this time I had been gone more than a week away from my family. We talked every day, several times throughout the day. But I still didn’t know how I was getting home. The event was over and I heard that planes were taking off again. But I also heard about 5-hour waits for security and plane cancelations. And I didn’t want to turn my car back in as I feared getting stranded at the airport. I knew the only way I was guaranteed to make it home was if I drove all the way from Atlanta to Bethlehem, PA. And that’s what I did. Houston to Tallahassee – Tallahassee to Atlanta – Atlanta to Bethlehem. I’ll never forget pulling into my driveway and opening the garage door. There in plain sight was a piece of sheetrock scrap left over from all the house remodeling. And on that sheetrock Maggie and Paige had decorated with crayons and colors “Welcome Home”. We went into our bedroom and just lay there on the bed embracing each other and giving each other kisses. There I was only 30 years old with a woman I loved dearly and a daughter that became my own. I didn’t want that moment to stop. And as you can see from the image here, it’s a little worse for wear but I still have the piece of sheetrock to this day. It’s been everywhere with us!
After September 11th there were very few events left in the season. But the truth is I wasn’t about to jump on a plane if I didn’t have to. I had my family and that was my focus. I just kept with the local events which was enough to keep me busy until November. But that winter I had a lot of free time, a good chunk of money, and a house I was remodeling and customizing. Many days I spent building out a basement, painting a room, installing custom wood flooring… the list went on. Maggie would come home in the evening and we would all spend time together. And then when she went to bed I kept on working. Many times people will buy a house and over the course of ten years or so, do little projects. Not me. I wanted all the custom features done now so I could enjoy them and call this “our house”! It was always a surprise for Maggie. One day I would finish a room and before you knew it I was on to the next.
I’ll never forget her reaction after she took a nap one day. I wanted to put recessed lighting in the ceiling of the living room, but I had structural beams to contend with as well as dropping in a new switch. How do you do it? Cut out the ceiling! Well, Maggie came into the living room to see this and freaked out. She went to bed assuming a ceiling was in perfectly good shape… next thing you know everything was torn up. This was a time of healing for me. Paige would come home from school and I would greet her at the bus stop. Then we would go into our bedroom and cuddle while watching Sponge Bob. But this time was also a catalyst to get me thinking about God and church again. And I am sure I am not alone. But when facing such traumatic events one starts to think about his/her mortality. And for me it was also about reprioritizing what was important. Sure I always thought about my family, but it must have hit me harder than I remember. Maggie has said to me, “It’s like you were clingy.” Maybe I was. But by this time Maggie and Paige were the most important people in my life. And they still are.
That winter my grandmother let us all know the cancer had come back once again and she made a conscious choice that she was NOT going to do another round of chemo. The last two times she did, it really had taken a toll on her, and she wanted to enjoy the rest of her life at the quality level it was. Chemo, while it can kill cancer, it also kills the body. My grandmother was 78 and just didn’t have it in her. As she put it to us, “I’ve lived a rich and full life.” So it was a matter of time.
By March/April of 2002 the race season was underway again and I was back to shooting. Maggie had made her switch to another hospital and Paige was going to school and making friends. We had settled into a good routine. But it was obvious my grandmother wasn’t going to last forever. By late spring of 2002 my grandmother was on a constant supply of oxygen to combat the cancer that was taking over her lungs. I tried to go see her as much as I possibly could turning down a lot of work to do so. Maggie was so supportive and understanding. She knew in what high regard I held my grandmother.
Since September 11th I had been thinking of our mortality. And what was pressing on me was the truth in God’s word and the path it takes to be “saved”. It had been many years since I sat in church. I was “saved” at a young age of 9, and went to church regularly with my parents starting around 1980. I was very involved for many years, but as I grew into my teens I felt a rift with the church. By the time I was 16 I left feeling judged and looked down upon. It was just that kind of church I grew up in. Wear your hair a certain way, act a certain way, fit into this “church-mold”… it wasn’t for me. However God’s truth was always something that sat with me regardless of the sins I had committed over the years. I also knew my grandparents were not saved. All their lives they figured if you were “good enough” and gave money to the church maybe God would look upon you and say, “okay.” My grandfather had died five years prior to this and I didn’t think he had ever confessed his sins. And now I was staring down the inevitable.. my grandmother was going to die, and likely very soon.
Now by this time my whole family had left the church as well. Even my mother, who had held on the longest, stopped going. I was hoping my mother would have “the talk” with my grandmother, but something nagging was brewing in me. Looking back at it, I have to say without a doubt it was the Holy Spirit that was prompting me to go talk to my grandmother about Christ. But surely not me! I mean I was a sinner… so far removed from the church. Surely not me.
Middle of summer my grandmother was getting worse and they were starting to “up” her medication. I remember that last time I had lunch with her when she was coherent. It was a pleasant day and we shared a lot of talk about my future and how I was doing with Maggie and Paige. It really was a wonderful day. But I also felt the pressing of the Lord on my heart to talk with her. I just couldn’t. I can’t explain it. In the end I said nothing. But the one distinct thing I remember was the hug I gave her. It was as if I knew I would never see her again.
The next day my mother started taking care of her staying on a full time basis. She would give me reports how my grandmother was slipping into a lucid state. All the while I felt God’s presence pushing on me to go speak with my grandmother and give her an opportunity to accept truth. But I kept resisting because I didn’t feel adequate. Surely not me. But it was me. Two weeks after I had last seem my grandmother I knew she wasn’t doing well. It was a Friday and I had a race to cover that weekend in southern NJ. I was in my dining room putting the finishing touches on painting. All that time I was wrestling with this nagging feeling that I had to go to my grandmother. I reasoned and rationalized figuring out every which way I could get out from this responsibility I felt. There I was standing on a chair with a brush in one hand and a bucket in the other coming to grips with an immense burden put on me. Finally, after mentally wrestling with this burden I made a deal with myself (and God). After Sunday’s event I would go on the Monday and try and pray with her. It was set. I made the decision and said it in my mind. Just as soon as I dipped the brush back in the bucket I heard God’s gentle whisper, “But it will be too late.” Immediately I broke down and sobbed uncontrollably. I can’t tell you exactly if it was audible or in my spirit, but one thing was for certain… it wasn’t ME! (1 Kings 19: 12 talks about this.)
After I gathered myself together I knew I had to go over my grandmother’s house right then and there. I called my mother to see how she was doing. “Not well..” she said, “She probably won’t even know you’re there.” I told her I didn’t care and had to come over. I gathered Maggie and Paige along with some clothes for overnight. When I arrived my mother greeted me telling me she had already called hospice care. In the distance I heard a faint sound of water bubbling in rhythmic succession like breathing. Sure enough it WAS breathing. (I have later found out this is called the “death rattle”” in the medical field) We went in to see my grandmother and she was not doing well. I remember going to hug her and she hugged back not letting go. I don’t know if she knew it was me. This went on for a time with everyone gathered around. The hospice nurse had come in by now and checked her vitals. She assured us it wasn’t going to be long. Knowing what I had to do I asked everyone to leave the room.
I don’t know how I knew what to do next, but what I am about to tell you I can only say was by the grace of God. After everyone left and I shut the door, I turned and walked slowly towards my grandmother. I said, “Jesus is coming for you soon.” I kneeled beside her on the bed and I said, “Grandma.. your time has come, but have you made yourself right with God.” She didn’t saying anything. I said, “Jesus died for you Grandma, and all you have to do is ask him to forgive you… will you pray with me.” She shook her head and told me, “No… I’m not ready yet.” I was taken back. She was on her deathbed. I asked her again saying, “Grandma… there’s not much time left…” She shook her head in defiance again, “No.. I’m not ready yet.” I then stood up and put my hand on her head and I started praying. And I prayed using the name of Jesus commanding whatever spirits were binding her to set her free. And for some reason I knew to say and do this three times. Then I said to her again, “Will you pray with me.” She nodded her head “yes” and I did my best to lead her in a prayer asking forgiveness. She couldn’t say anything and she was in a lucid state, but I also saw her lips moving after mine. I then stood and with my hand on her head prayed that the blood of Jesus wash her clean. After this I opened the door and allowed everyone to come back in. The meds given started to kick in by now and she seemed a little more coherent.
Soon after, my uncle came in having made the 3 hour drive from upstate New York. That night was memorable. My mother, Uncle, Maggie and Paige and I all sat in with my grandmother watching TV spending what would be the last hours with her. She was grinning, and looking at all of us saying, “I’m ready to go.” We went to bed with peace. She was gone by morning. Three days later we held a viewing back in the house. She was in the bedroom. Friends were already in there paying their respects and I slipped in the back just to watch. As I leaned against the door jam thinking about what had happened just days before, I felt something warm grab my right hand. That warmth then traveled up my arm and into my chest giving me a peace I had never felt before. Still to this day I have no idea what that was. An angel.. maybe the Holy Spirit. But just like the quiet whisper from days before, this was yet another incident I cannot explain. But it certainly happened. And thankfully my family was there by my side.
Fall of 2002 I did my best to keep my composure finishing out the race season, but I was not doing well. My grandmother meant so much to me. But I was so grateful to have Maggie and Paige to help me weather through. Right after she died I went down to Tallahassee to clear my head. By this time I had facilitated many phone calls between Paige and her grandparents. Maggie still wasn’t talking to them. In fact it was almost 2-years since she talked to either of them. We had gone so far as to get caller-ID on the land line because when Phil or Judy would call, Maggie would not pick up. She would call me saying, “Mark, pick up the phone.” and I would talk to Phil or Judy and then pass the phone to their granddaughter.
Understanding the bond between Paige and her grandparents was no different than mine and my grandparents. And so when I flew into Tallahassee, I brought Paige with me so she could see her grandparents. I was still cautious, wanting to protect Paige from any form of coercion or manipulation, but figured the week I was there wasn’t going to be enough of a long-term influence anyway. My grandparents were fairly well off financially, and when my grandmother died I was left a $25,000 inheritance. I took $5,000 to pay off a credit card and to take Maggie to LasVegas, and then invested the rest. I remember at the time asking my mother to watch over Paige while we went on this mini-vacation. For some reason it was a big deal (which is revealed later) for Paige to be in her care, but she did it anyway. My mother dropped Maggie and me at the airport where we kissed Paige good-bye. The car door shut, my mother and Paige pulled away, and we were alone… the first time in years.
It was surreal for me as I didn’t know how to act around Maggie. Paige had always been there. It was always the three of us. In Vegas we had a wonderful time. We ate great food, saw a lot of shows, went hiking, and reconnected. One of the highlights of the trip was I paid for a helicopter trip from Las Vegas to the Grand Canyon where we had a champagne lunch at the bottom, and then flew back to Vegas. One thing that stands out however was going to the top of the needle at the Stratosphere. By this time I had overcome my fear of flying since 9-11, but I wasn’t prepared for the feelings of terror in high buildings. Having grown up in New Jersey, I had been to the top of the Trade Towers several times. Even once with Maggie and Paige. Tall buildings weren’t a problem. Not until now. It only took about 10-minutes on top and I had weird feelings of vertigo along with flashbacks of watching people jump from the burning Trade Center. I had to get down. Thankfully Maggie didn’t even question it.
The next few days Maggie wanted to go out dancing, but I just wasn’t in any condition. We still went to dinner and saw more shows, but I just didn’t want to be around big crowds as I would be uncomfortable. We finished the vacation, flew back to New Jersey, and reunited with Paige. I look back at it and say it was a great trip. But I failed to realize at the time just how 9-11 affected me. I did eventually get over it within a couple years, but at the time it was a real eye opener to see how I was still affected.
Middle of August 2002 I received a phone call from Maggie in desperation. She had just been told the grandfather of her HS boyfriend had died. This is someone she had grown up with and was someone incredibly special in her life. Maggie started looking for plane tickets, but because she was not family, airlines were unwilling to give a bereavement fare. We were still not okay financially speaking so flights were just cost preventative. Maggie was frantic. I was fresh off my grandmother’s death as well. That’s when I just said to Maggie, “Let’s just jump in the car and go now.” I could see the relief she felt as her eyes welled up with tears.
Within 2 hours we had the car packed and were driving the 1100 miles to Tallahassee. My friend Jim was letting us stay with him. I drove through the night until I could drive no more, then Maggie drove while I slept. It was tough as I was up early the previous day, but we managed to make it by lunch time the next day. After lunch I immediately went to sleep. The very next day we drove down the coast to Maggie’s home town and dropped Paige off with her grandparents. The funeral was that afternoon. I could see the connection Maggie had with this family as she greeted other family members. It was memorable. And I know Maggie was appreciative that we made the trip. And it was the first time in almost two years Maggie visited her home town. She still wasn’t talking to her parents.
Long Cold Winter
The winter of 2002/2003 was brutal in the North East. Not only was there lots of snow, it was just downright COLD! January of 2003 there were two major fronts that moved in and just sat. For an entire week the temperatures didn’t get over 15-degrees, hovering more around zero. This happened for two one week stretches. And when it’s that cold you just don’t want to go outside for any reason other than necessary. With the work that I did, my season ended in November, and then I didn’t start up again until March the following year. The magazines I shot for would not pay me until my photos actually went to print. This was a good thing as during those few winter months nothing was really going on I had such a back-log of photos from working so hard during the season my income level never dropped off. That was until that year however. With my grandmother becoming ill, I turned down a lot of work to go spend time with her. I never regretted that decision, but I was feeling the pinch from it. So when the winter came we just didn’t have the money to go and do the fun things you would normally do.
Another issue that winter was Maggie. She was not doing well with the cold. I can’t blame her… I wasn’t doing well with the cold. But what made it worse was the hospital she worked at was under major renovation. As such, they made all employees park very far from the building and have to get driven in. This allowed more exposure to the elements… something Maggie dreaded. Many nights Maggie would come home from work with a migraine headache driven on by the deep cold. She would walk into our closet and shut the door and cry. Other times she would crawl into bed shivering and I would embrace her wrapping myself around her to warm her up. No amount of clothing was going to warm up this Florida girl.
SNOW! On top of the record cold, it seemed to snow a lot. Great for skiing and snow tubing, but this was ridiculous. I honestly had not seen this much snow since the 70’s growing up. One storm had so much snow I had to crawl out my daughter’s window just so I could get on the roof and shovel off the 5-foot drift that had accumulated. The snow plows didn’t hit our block for 3 days. The only real benefit of being stranded like this was it gave me an opportunity to work more on the house. It got old.
Typically when spring rolls in in the North East you would get a few really nice days mixed in with cold nights. Not the spring of 2003! Winter kept hanging on into May. Cold days and colder nights. And then all of a sudden summer came in the matter of a week. FINALLY… The warmer temperatures one would be used to for this time of year arrived. But by this time it had made a lasting impression on Maggie. She was not happy. And I am sure she wondered if this was “normal”. I tried to assure her it wasn’t, but that winter made an imprint in her that could not be overlooked.
Between the long cold winter and me getting over the absence of my grandmother, I knew I had to get back in the saddle and tend to my family’s needs. So as the race season came into full swing I started bringing Maggie and Paige with me everywhere. I had a shoot in Pittsburg.. they went with me. I had a shoot in Maryland… they went with me. I did a shoot in the Washington DC area… they went with me. In fact that was a very memorable trip. I scored a premier hotel downtown for a third the cost. We toured all the museums. While I did my shoot (which only took half a day) Maggie and Paige ran around having fun. And then that evening we walked to a top rated sushi restaurant when Paige (only 6 yrs old) had her first taste of sushi. These were the kind of trips that bring a family together and make memories.
For a long time I had been working on Maggie trying to convince her to forgive her parents. I have always known harboring resentment and unforgiveness is something that will just eat someone alive. Even that Christmas of 2002 I had convinced Maggie’s parents to go in “half” on a computer system for Maggie hoping it could be a peace offering. Slowly I think Maggie was coming around. But I don’t doubt that brutal winter was a wake up call.
June of 2003 Maggie had a high school friend that was getting married so she traveled down to her home town in Florida and stayed with her parents. And while this was a time to reconnect with family and friends, I believe this was a time to reconnect with her roots and Florida. Maggie did not like the cold. But looking back at this I also have to question any advice given to her by her friends. (read Psalm 1:1)
When Maggie returned to Pennsylvania she subtly started hinting around at her dissatisfaction with Pennsylvania. I was in shock. And then she finally made an announcement… “I’m moving back to Florida!” WHAT??? Maggie and Paige and I had started taking all these trips. The money started rolling in again. I HAD JUST FINISHED REMODELING THE ENTIRE HOUSE!!! And not only that, we were quickly buying custom furniture to fill that house. You have got to be kidding. She told me how she was going to move to Jacksonville with Paige, and I thought, “But we’re a family! What are you doing?” Not even an invite like “we” should move to Jacksonville. And then it occurred to me… what happened on that trip. I immediately thought she cheated on me. I interrogated Maggie as best I could and she completely denied doing anything. I had my doubts but there was no way to prove otherwise. I tried to bargain with her to stay. I had just finished my photography dark room studio in a portion of the basement. I offered to rip it out and put in a floor to ceiling sauna if it would convince her to stay. I mean my entire career was there in the North East. My family was in the North East. We had built a life there. Maggie was convinced, but it just didn’t sit right with me. Maggie was 28 years old at this point with a career, a car, a daughter in school and happy, a man that loved her dearly, and a house completely remodeled and filled with custom furniture. Why do you walk away from that?
I have to state this right here and now… I didn’t want to move! And I guess in all reality I wasn’t invited. Somehow I actually convinced Maggie to stay with me, but I had to move back to Florida. I told her Tallahassee and Jacksonville were “out”. South Florida and Tampa… “out”! That left one place… Orlando. By this time I had taken several trips back to Florida for work, and when I traveled back I would stay with friends in Orlando. It was a natural fit. And the truth is we still realized we had to be far enough away from Maggie’s parents so they couldn’t just drop in. But it was during that trip for the wedding Maggie had started to reconnect with her mother. Please note… I say “reconnect” here, but the truth is there was never any healing. Things were just smoothed over and nothing ever discussed. I suppose this is normal in a lot of families, but when things get swept under the rug, it’s funny how issues can arise down the track.
July of 2003 I flew to Florida to look at houses. Paige was with me as we looked at several. The plan was to scout out a possible area, look for some possible homes, and report back to Maggie. We found a couple, but the truth is nothing compared to the house in Pennsylvania I had worked so hard on. But it was during this time we started applying for financing and a fairly major issue arose. During Maggie’s first marriage she purchased a trailer home with her husband. In the divorce she was supposed to be exonerated of any liability. What Maggie failed to realize was the bank never released her, so there was a 14k debt with her name on it. No house was going to be purchased… yet.
I knew that if we were going to move we had to take care of this. Through some digging, I was able to find the holder of the debt and contact them. The only thing I wanted was for them to release Maggie so she could clean up her credit. They wanted her to pay the full 14k. I felt she was only responsible for half. They argued and complained threatening they would come after her, but I had already faxed them the court paperwork stating Maggie shouldn’t have been responsible. In the end I made it really simple for them… I would pay them immediately HALF the principal owed and nothing more. And if they didn’t like it they would get nothing. Needless to say, they took the deal and after receiving payment, mailed us a letter releasing Maggie from the debt. (This later was known as the $7000 paper) We were free to finance a house.
As we came into September of 2003, I knew selling a house in the North East was going to be difficult as buyers typically dry up right after school starts. I was hoping Maggie could just hang in for another winter. They money was flowing again and Paige had just started school. But she was bent on not going through another winter. The look in her eye was clear… she was petrified. So that month we took a week to scour the Orlando area for a house. We looked at several. Some good… some not so. And then we found one that met the right criteria. It was a foreclosure so it was cheap. It was in the “right-rich” area so I knew we could sell it. And it had 3-acres which also made it attractive. We made a bid that was very generous. In my opinion it was throwing the owners a life preserver to get out of a very bad situation. To my surprise they turned it down. Frankly, I was alright with this. We couldn’t sell our house in PA. I was happy there. And we couldn’t buy this one. Not much we could do but go back to Pennsylvania.
A few weeks went by and the weather in Pennsylvania started to turn cold. Maggie seemed to be accepting of the fact we had not found a house. But early one Saturday morning in October of 2003 I received a call from my real estate agent in Florida. It seems that the owners of the house we put an offer in on came back hoping we would still buy the house for the same amount. I rolled over to face Maggie in bed to ask her, “Do you still want to buy the house?” She said, “Yes!” We committed to the purchase. But in all of this, we had one major problem. We needed money for a down payment as we hadn’t sold the house in Pennsylvania. So what we did was I went to my mother, as I know she had just inherited a sizable sum of money, and Maggie went to her parents asking for the other half. Both parties agreed. I hated to do it, but Maggie was dreading another winter so much… I just wanted her to be happy.
November of 2003 we closed on our new house in Orlando. We had so much to move that it was actually cheaper for me to BUY a 26-foot box truck, transport all we had (which took 3-trips), and then sell the truck. However half way down on the 2nd trip the engine blew. I was probably 5000 lbs overweight as well as towing a car so I might have pushed things too much. So just outside Florence, SC we crammed into the little Honda Accord I had bought from my grandmother before she died which Maggie was following in. (Ultimately I gave Maggie this car when she overheated the engine of her own car) A week later we drove back to collect the repaired truck and unload the majority of our belongings.
So the first week of December of 2003 we were moved into our new house. We still owned the one in Pennsylvania, and I still had another trip to make for some small house repairs as well as retrieve the rest of our stuff. For Christmas Maggie’s parents came to visit. I remember it being pleasant and actually joked with them a bit. I know they were happy to have their daughter and granddaughter nearer. But I felt at the time they saw me as the mediator that helped reconnect the relationship. Looking back now and knowing what I know… I might have been wrong.