On this furiously warm Sunday afternoon at Georgia, the surreptitiously perched Melrose Avenue eatery, men and women en route to and from church pour into the restaurant’s foliage-shaded patio. Dressed for fall in too-warm suits and long-sleeve dresses, they try to bring the temperature down a notch, sipping from generous goblets of iced tea.
But for Shirlee and Harold Haizlip, this is yet another golden garden party for the ages--camera-ready and gossip worthy. The edges of which, to be sure, are already being fit within memory’s scrapbook-- alongside the rest, stilled and sun-drenched.
Though up until the day before, fall had seemed but an hour away, this out-of-nowhere summer blast is how life has often been for the Haizlips: That last-minute reprieve at the edge of disaster--large or small, like the couple’s 25th anniversary garden party that was almost rained out entirely; like Shirlee’s beloved father’s passing that coincided with daughter Melissa’s grand Sweet 16 fete; like Shirlee’s mother’s outdoor second wedding vows that had almost been drowned out by a downpour, the party miraculously granted a stay as the clouds parted, bearing the gift of sun.
It’s this couple’s enduring life metaphor: The hope that curls out brightly, blithely at the center of disarray. And it is that symbol that powers not only the marriage itself, but their memoir of the union, “In the Garden of Our Dreams” (Kodansha).
To hear them tell it, what began as a benign “study date” some 40 years ago, to their astonishment, took that fairy-tale bend in the road, into the land of love at first sight. And four decades later they stand smiling, Harold the Southerner, Shirlee the Northerner, the circle unbroken, telling the tale of their first meeting imbued with just-yesterday detail. Dressed not matching, but rather alluding to one another in black suits (his, trousers; hers, long skirt), with blue highlights (his, a tie; hers, jewels and trim), they trade flirtatious glances over the tops of their glasses. In their retelling, their voices fall in behind one another, the words a montage as vivid and telling as if the scenes from their marriage were flashing behind them on an old-fashioned movie screen.
“We don’t have a perfect marriage,” quips Shirlee, face aglow, her dark eyes flashing over the audience, the edge of her voice a clear girlish trill. “But we have a good marriage. On a scale of one to 10, I’d give it a 12.”
A House Like Camelot
A week or so later, the Haizlips find a moment to pause, at the eye of a whirlwind of travel--Missouri, Tennessee, next stop San Francisco--to and from their fanciful Los Feliz home, the penthouse rooms once built and occupied by Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. As the story goes, the Haizlips went to Europe on their honeymoon, and she told him she wanted a house that resembled the castles she saw. “Thus,” writes Shirlee, “the Trianon. Our building stands out ‘like Camelot shining on the hill’ ”
No better place to set up a household for the last decade of their 39 years of marriage, which is, Shirlee underscores, a larger story, ". . . the story of the country as well.”
Despite the hectic schedule, they appear unrumpled, amiable, full of a gentle sort of ribbing--sarcasm embroidered carefully atop a wide swatch of affection.
Long-limbed Harold folds into the booth-in-the-back-in-the-corner-in-the-dark of downtown’s venerable Pacific Dining Car, thisclose to his wife. They drink in the drawing-room decor as stately and well-appointed as they are.
“What’s been reaffirming is that by telling our story, I think it gives people hope,” says Shirlee, who is author of a bestselling memoir of her family, “The Sweeter the Juice” (Simon & Schuster, 1994) about the fair-skinned members of her mother’s African American family who “passed"--crossed over to the white world.
This story has its ragged edges but is not quite as poignant, says Shirlee.
“‘So many young people aspire to a relationship,” says Harold, “but don’t know how to start. They need something to grab onto.”
From the study dates and malteds of the ‘50s to the freedom rides and power movements of the ‘60s, to the afros and platforms of the ‘70s, and the excesses and pay-the-piper downsizing of the ‘80s, into the restructuring of the ‘90s, both Shirlee and Harold agree that “In the Garden of Our Dreams” is an ambitious undertaking. The book works on several levels, from social history to the politics of race, gender and religion--all of it folded into the conversational back-and-forth of a couple who know how to finish the unfinished sentences, who feel at ease in silence.
But what the Haizlips want to make clear is that “Garden” is much more than how this handsome Amherst / Harvard swain sweeps this bright, beautiful self-assured “Wellesley Wonder” off her feet. It isn’t a how-to. Neither a template nor a model. Instead, much of it is rooted in a concern that crosses lines of race, class, generation and that both Haizlips have as they look at the state of modern relationships, or, better put, the absence of them.
“We do a lot of mentoring,” explains Shirlee. “People in their 20s to 40s, men and women who we enjoy and we share a lot of our life with, and they encouraged us to tell our story because they thought it would be so helpful on a broader level.”
They began to research what existed in print, and what became more and more clear was what didn’t. “We found nothing with other black couples,” says Shirlee, “except some books that had been written by men and women who are psychologists or sociologists. . . .”
”. . . or psychobabblists,” tosses out Harold in his boom of a voice smoothed with a chuckle.
It became clear to them how much of this black middle-class lifestyle had fallen into the margins, virtually unseen by the mainstream. But that world could very often mirror, and sometimes even intersect, that of its white counterpart.
“So many people see this cover photo of our wedding, and they think that it’s a stock photo. Not just white people, but black people,” Shirley says. “One guy in St. Louis said, ‘You mean white people came to your wedding?’ ”
“Well, white people introduced us!” chuckles Harold.
“Now when I look at Wellesley alumni magazines,” Shirlee continues, “I see all black and [all] white wedding parties--even though the school is integrated.”
As the saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
But more precisely, what life has taught them up to now, and most recently in the first legs of this book tour, is that for all the changes, the grand steps forward, there are equally tremendous and demoralizing steps backward from race relations and the fraught territory of sex and sexuality.
Their story’s timing is impeccable--arriving at a moment when the country is puzzling over what is acceptable in a marriage--in light of the Clinton-Lewinsky matter--and what is not.
Like anyone else, they haven’t been able to ignore the statistics in an abstract sense--soaring divorce rates, men and women who never marry, the interminable war between the sexes. Nor can they ignore, in a concrete sense, what’s happening closer to home. “Really, this is very personal, it really hurts,” says Harold, brow furrowed. “My worry is that my daughters not be required to compromise who they are, what they know, what they like, what they want to be in order to have a mate.”
“The tragedy of relationships is a nationally documented issue,” says Shirlee, starting in on her Caesar salad. “We can’t assume that [young people] had effective models . . . in their neighborhoods or in their immediate home. . . . There is just a dearth of information. A book like this . . . gives you lots of options to come at a core set of issues. There is no preachment here. There are no lesson plans. No abstraction into theory. This is just about some choices that people made and what happened to them.”
At the outset, they agreed it was important to provide a record of how the black middle class lives, historically and presently, with race being just one issue to cover. In this joint memoir, what the Haizlips have created is a tool for discussion in these cynical times. By looking deeply into their marriage, they attempt to deal with the larger sagging hulk that the institution has become--one that is as beleaguered and downsized as any in America.
Indeed, all this detail could be quite cloying, if not for their clear-eyed portrayal of not just their romance, but the texture of the times that erupted around them, the hard questions they posed (follow your career or mine?), the concessions they had to make as they changed with the times and the times changed them.
Coming of age in the ‘50s, Shirlee is the first to consider how burnished life’s edges were, how much she was shielded from, how much more she was privy too than most as a minister’s daughter, third of four children--two sisters and a brother. The Rev. Julian Taylor stressed scholarship and family values. Under the careful, loving eye of his wife, Margaret, he groomed his brood into a stellar first family in their small town of Ansonia, Conn.
Conversely, Harold grew up hardscrabble. His childhood memories were divided between Washington, D.C., and Deanwood, N.C. His parents hadn’t finished high school because they had to work the tobacco fields to help their large families survive. His hard-working Pullman porter father, whom Harold remembers only “in jigsaw pieces,” died when Harold was 10. It was his mother who took a job from 4 p.m. to midnight to support them; Harold who learned to cook for himself and his two siblings. Acceptance into the Ivy League was his family’s dream not deferred.
Both were imprinted with a wide range of ideas around the concept of coupling, of family. But building a span over those differences proved easy compared with what came much later as the world around them became far less starry-eyed, less hopeful, much more hard-edged, sardonic.
“I truly wasn’t raised to think of myself as an independent woman,” says Shirlee, “even though my father pushed us to be professionals. But it would have been in the sphere of our patriarchal husbands. So that was a major shift for both of us. And fortunately, Harold played right into it.” Both had sky’s-the-limit aspirations, Shirlee either medicine or law, maybe academia; Harold to get his doctorate and whatever else the walk down those hallowed halls led to. But life had its own ideas. Dreams shaved down to pragmatism. There was a household to maintain and two daughters to raise. Jobs that fell through. Others that abruptly ended. Rerouted plans.
Collectively, the Haizlips tried on as many jobs as the knickknacks they’ve scattered in their homes--Harold teaching at Wellesley High School, education director with the Action for Boston Community Development Inc., an executive at Xerox, a headmaster at the New Lincoln School in Manhattan, a peculiar stint as commissioner of education for the U.S. Virgin Islands. Shirlee, an editor, fund-raiser and publicist for the Boys Club of Boston; general manager of a teaching fellowship at Tufts; general manager of WBNB, the CBS affiliate in the Virgin Islands and later as “special assistant to the president” at WNET in New York; and ultimately, working to raise funds and awareness of film preservation for the American Film Institute. They’ve raised two independent daughters, Deirdre and Melissa, both of whom studied at Yale. Deirdre, who went on to earn a law degree in 1990, is now going into marketing. Melissa is an actress pursuing film and television roles.
“I really didn’t know I wasn’t grown up until I was in my 40s,” says Shirlee, “and I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. I guess I kept changing and things came to me and I accepted them, and I followed them and they were wonderful. And you,” she glances over to Harold, “really gave me hope that I might find the right thing.”
“I had a pretty good idea about what I felt that I wanted to do,” Harold says. “The questions were: Where and for how much money? But equally important was what she wanted to do and how I could help her. I knew that Shirlee loved the girls, but being a mother was not all that she wanted to or should be doing, and so I was always encouraging her to do something else, whether we could afford it or not. The point is, I didn’t see myself as some flaming liberal. What I saw myself doing is protecting my interests. I married a woman who is very interesting to me. Sure we were excited to talk about the children, but then what else? We found each other before we had children. Our girls joined our family rather than defined it. We had a base of our own. And I think that that’s sort of a core theme for me.”
Ultimately, what makes their book most resonant isn’t the head-over-heels romance, not the garden parties with the frothy dresses, not the degrees won and the executive posts in exotic lands, not the museum fund-raisers or elbow-brushing with a galaxy of luminaries, but it is the honesty of a barehanded fight with life. It’s the book’s last 100 pages, when Camelot is crowded with cancer, heart attack, unemployment, death, aging, when not just the fabric is strained, but the foundation truly tested.
“It’s an undressing,” says Harold, tipping his coffee cup to his lips. “When I say that it was scary, what I mean is that I don’t think most men will bare their soul. So I wondered what this self-declaration was going to do to my future. It’s out of my hands.”
It is unrealistic expectation that bruises and often fractures so many marriages beyond repair. And the cynicism--even before the dress is bought or the down payment made on the hall--that marriage ultimately will end in messy divorce fuels so much of the one-toe-in-the-water approach to unions.
“We don’t hear enough deeply felt words about relationships. We don’t hear a lot about mystery and passion and romance, commitment, love,” says Shirlee. “Everything is about acquisitions and space--and self-development. Maybe the words are old-fashioned. I don’t know. But those are the things that hold Harold and me together.”
But equally, if not more, important to their longevity has been their flexibility.
“A good marriage is never static, in that you don’t fight the changes,” says Shirlee. “You revel in them and appreciate them. I look back at things like our first date and he was going to take me to get a shake! A shake! It was a different time. There was a lot of fuzziness. Then people became polarized. Then there were all of these causes that we embraced. But we had that certain foundation that allowed us to embrace it.”
And continue to embrace each other.