At last recovered from the end of a long, not-great relationship, Stephanie was looking for a new, sweeter boyfriend. Her mother suggested she look at the local ice cream shop — there were cute guys working there.
Stephanie walked into the South Street shop bearing an excuse in a white cardboard box: Her mother sold cakes she baked in her home kitchen at Sixth and Lombard. Hillary’s Gourmet Ice Cream was a customer, and Stephanie made the delivery.
There were three men behind the counter, one with dirty-blond hair, round glasses, and a strong jaw: Fran. “That’s the one I want,” thought Stephanie.
Twice weekly throughout May and early June, she delivered every chocolate, carrot, or Jewish apple cake her mother made for Hillary’s. She ate more ice cream than ever before or since. She spoke a little to Fran, and then a little bit more, building off their last tiny snip of conversation. “This ice cream is so good!” “It’s very busy in here today!” “Where are you from?”
Fran, who grew up in Twin Oaks and by then lived at 13th and Lombard with several roommates, had certainly noticed Stephanie. “I found her very attractive,” he said. He did not notice that she was flirting with him.
One delivery day in mid-June, Stephanie brought the cakes, but did not see Fran. “I turned around to leave, and he came walking in with a girl, carrying her groceries,” she said. “I thought, ‘So that’s why he’s not making any kind of move. He has a girlfriend.’ ”
Fran saw the disappointment flash across Stephanie’s face. In that instant, he understood why cakes were now delivered by daughter instead of mother, and what every ice cream cone slowly eaten and every conversation Stephanie started really meant.
“We work together,” Fran said of the groceries’ owner. He had gone to the store to use the ATM when he saw his coworker and offered to carry her bags. “I’m helping her.”
Stephanie knew what Fran’s words really meant, too.
“In that case do you want to walk me home?” she asked.
Forty years ago this weekend, he did so. Then they sat on an iron two-seater bench in her backyard and talked for two hours. They learned they were both 22, that he had gone to college at St. Joe’s for awhile but didn’t finish, and that she had just graduated from NYU. Technically speaking, he was Catholic and she was Jewish, but neither were into religion. Both were into politics — a little joke about Ronald Reagan told Stephanie that Fran was a Democrat, too. He was close to his family. Two years earlier, they had lost his father to colon cancer. Stephanie considered her mother her best friend. Her father had left the family when she was a teenager, so it was just her, her mother, and her two brothers — brothers who Stephanie usually loved, but not at that moment.
Her brothers were in the house making a racket. There was screaming, then a loud bang when one, who was fighting with his girlfriend on the phone, punched the wall. Stephanie was mortified.
“I’ll probably never see you again,” she said.
“I lived in a dorm,” said Fran. “Nothing your brothers could do would surprise me.”
Sometimes, Stephanie gets anxious — like when her brothers carried on within earshot of her big crush. With his kindness, Fran made her feel so calm. Since her father’s departure, that feeling had been largely missing.
That was when Stephanie decided to marry him.
Fran invited her to what became their favorite movie house — the TLA, now a concert venue — to see a Bogart flick two nights later. Afterward, she kissed him goodnight.
“By my [early July] birthday, we were serious,” said Fran.
That fall, Stephanie moved in with him and his roommates. Fran was so completely committed to Stephanie that he saw no real need to get married. But Stephanie told him she really wanted to. “OK,” he said, and got her a ring.
They wed on June 16, 1984, in the same small Catholic church where his parents had married, then held a reception for 125 in tents in Fran’s mother’s big backyard, behind the family’s beer distributor business. Fran wore the same tux his father had worn when he married his mother — a tux made by Fran’s uncle, a tailor. The band played “As Time Goes By” for their first dance.
Stephanie has held many administrative jobs for the Philadelphia School District and currently works in payroll. Fran is an insurance underwriter for Fidelity National Title Insurance.
For 20 years, the couple, now both 62, lived at Sixth and Washington — home when son David was born in 1987 and son Douglas in 1989. “We built our life around giving them good lives,” said Stephanie. Fran worked very long hours. Stephanie volunteered in the boys’ schools. When Fran had a day off and needed quiet time to garden, Stephanie took the kids to the beach. When she needed a break, he’d join their sons in watching cartoons.
In 2003, the family moved to Germantown, in no small part so their dogs, always rescues, would have a yard. It’s currently enjoyed by Cora the beagle and Husky the golden retriever, senior citizens whom the shelter had a hard time placing.
Despite his business success, Fran had always wanted to finish college and applied in 2010.
Stephanie, too excited to wait until Fran got home from work, opened a letter from the school. It was a rejection based on his poor grades from 30 years earlier. Stephanie wrote a letter of her own: “My husband had a lot of things going on when he was 18, 19, 20,” she wrote. “He’s the smartest man I know. If you don’t take him, you’re going to be making a big mistake.”
Stephanie didn’t tell Fran about the first letter until after he read the second one accepting him. Studying remotely, Fran earned both a bachelor’s and a master’s in library science and maintained a 4.0 GPA.
When theaters are open, the couple still enjoys the movies. They like going out to dinner and regional travel — especially to spend time with their sons. Fran takes Stephanie’s insistence that Fran call her at the end of his daily bicycle commute to the office as assurance of her love. Whenever it snows, she considers the deiced front step his love letter to her.
They like these simple joys, this predictability. But they are also pretty good at managing the times when life goes off the rails.
In 2007, Stephanie’s mother was told she had Alzheimer’s. Stephanie spent every morning for seven years with her, making her breakfast, ensuring she took her medicine, and talking with her about 1976, a year she seemed to be stuck in.
“She’s the best person I know,” said Fran of his wife.
Stephanie tends to dehydrate when she gets sick and consequently is a frequent fainter. “The first thing I always feel is Fran, behind me, holding me up,” she said. He does this literally as needed, but always, metaphorically.
“Some girls are attracted to bad boys,” said Stephanie, but witnessing her parents’ breakup taught her to crave just the opposite. “I wanted a really good guy, and I got him.”