THE PARENTS: Abby Gilman, 34, and Eli Gilman, 36, of Lafayette Hill
THE CHILDREN: Evelyn (Evie) Mira, 3; Benjamin Caleb, born Nov. 28, 2019
AN EARLY SIGN OF ACCORD: “I like the Flyers,” Abby says. “And he likes that I like the Flyers.”
The occasion was a surprise birthday party for one of Abby’s housemates. The real “aha” turned out to be each other.
Abby was back in Philly, living with a cluster of people she’d met through Craigslist, after a year teaching English in Prague. Eli had gone to college with the birthday person. They quickly learned that their interests chimed: eating out, an affection for extended family. At the same time, they introduced each other to new realms.
“I knew nothing about foreign policy when we met, and Eli knew nothing about nutrition,” says Abby. He works for the Foreign Policy Research Institute, while she is a registered dietitian with expertise in school-based health interventions. “We like to learn new things together.”
After that party, they hedged their bets with a “preliminary date” at For Pete’s Sake, the Queen Village pub, then a two-stop — dinner, followed by ice cream at Philly Flavors. “After that point, I don’t think I spent a day without her,” Eli says.
For a few months, when his lease ended, Eli joined Abby’s household, which included a longshoreman and a restaurant worker, a buzz of people sharing close quarters. They found their own place near Rittenhouse. They got a dog, Goji, a rescue they chose in spite of the sign on his cage cautioning, “I’m nervous.”
“My cousin said, ‘You got the dog. When are you going to get married?’ ” Abby recalls.
In April 2013, Abby left a nail salon appointment to find a limo idling on the street, a chilled bottle of champagne inside. The car whisked her to all the landmarks of their relationship: Giorgio on Pine, Yogorino, the Morris Animal Refuge where they’d found Goji. At each stop was a clue. The last note led back to their apartment where, at the end of a path of rose petals, Eli waited on one knee.
They married in the round, with relatives and friends ringing the chuppah. Eli’s aunt, a rabbi, officiated, and the mutual friend who’d brought them together signed their ketubah, or marriage contract.
And though a planned honeymoon to Thailand was waylaid by a military coup in that country, a savvy travel agent quickly rebooked them to Indonesia by way of Japan — a 30-hour travel slog that involved two Japanese airports, a 12-hour layover, and a 3-hour boat ride.
There was never really a question about children; Eli, an only child, wanted to raise siblings, and Abby, who is one of three, yearned to replicate her family’s warmth and closeness.
She figured conception might take a year. So she was stunned — and scared — when a pregnancy test turned positive after just two months. “Eli was excited and crying, as per usual, but I was really nervous: Who to tell, how to move forward? How would it affect my schooling?”
The pregnancy was easy. She ran a half-marathon in her second trimester; she proposed her dissertation topic two-and-a-half weeks before giving birth. They’d opted to be surprised about the baby’s sex, and to be “ready, but not over-prepared” with information about labor and birth.
One day after her due date, the couple walked from their Fairmount home to the Rittenhouse Square art festival; later, they took another walk to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. And it was there, in view of the Rodin Museum and a gaggle of tourists, that her water broke.
At Pennsylvania Hospital, Abby says, “I barely even remember laboring. I got an epidural, I slept a little bit, I pushed for 40 minutes, and out came a healthy, happy baby.”
Eli cut the umbilical and held their daughter skin-to-skin.
“We always knew we wanted more than one,” Abby says. “But we wanted to make sure we had our feet underneath us again and knew how to function as a small family.” The second pregnancy was harder — more nausea, more fatigue, full-time work, and full-on parenting of a feisty toddler, not to mention a summer rippling with heat waves.
The birth, too, was more eventful than their first. The baby’s heartbeat periodically vanished from the monitors, and nurses would nudge Abby into different positions until they could find the percussive sound again.
“When Benjamin came out, the umbilical was wrapped around him seven or eight times: around his leg, his middle,” Abby says. “He must have been doing somersaults in there. But he was fine, totally healthy.”
Abby returned to work March 1 — a date that now seems lodged in a different world. She’d been reading reports of the coronavirus in China and had started wondering aloud if Eli should continue taking the train, if they should both plan for working remotely.
Then Gov. Wolf issued a stay-at-home order for Montgomery County. Eli did a massive grocery run. They explained to Evelyn that there was a “buggie” making people sick, so they would have to wash their hands a lot and stay home so everyone could be safe.
Both feel fortunate that their work lives are flexible. At the same time, it’s a stretch to manage a day’s worth of Zoom conferences and work calls while building a toddler-sized obstacle course in the basement and nursing Benjamin every three hours.
“We made a pact that we were going to stay on the same team,” Eli says. “We try to be cognizant of needing space and time alone — to take a bath, to exercise.” They also try to spell each other — Abby’s a better cook, while Eli has a knack for making Evelyn laugh — and recognize when the other is nearing the edge of his or her patience.