Leftovers: Romance and red flags, Florida-style

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It’s been 18 months since my mother, The Betty, passed away. Her memory remains a blessing and each day becomes less tear-stained.

Instead, there are moments I’m certain I can hear her laughing and can smell her Chanel No. 5 rushing past me. Mom and I have heated internal discourse about bothersome occurrences and she sends signs she’s thinking of me from an otherworldly place. 

For example, after weeks of looking and out of nowhere, The Betty’s lost leather bookmark appeared in the glove box of my new-to-me car. That same day, when I decided at the last second to have the car washed, a van whipped out of a parking lot and hit the car behind me full on. Had I not turned quickly, it would have been me. My mom washed her garaged, Florida car weekly, even when she only drove to mahjong. Conversely, I hadn’t washed my salt-encrusted car since I got it.

Was it a coincidence I found the bookmark and got the car washed? I think not. And I know I’m not alone. With The Betty’s presence surrounding us, I’m coaching my step-dad as he considers female companionship.

“I’m not looking to get married or anything,” he said last week. “I just want someone to talk to. To have an occasional dinner with. But I’m not good at chasing women. Look at your mother: She chased me until I caught her.” 

The Betty and my step-dad (a.k.a Nubs) have a love story for the ages. It was a second marriage for both and each came with two children, making us a blended family long before there were books on how to be one. They married when I was 10 years old and Nubs became the first man in the state of Florida to win full custody of his children.

Half old-school business arrangement (and really, isn’t that what marriage started out as? Two cows and a chicken for your oldest daughter …) and half mad adoration, the ceremony took place six weeks after they met. When The Betty died, they had been married more than 50 years. 

The Betty and Nubs after more than 50 years of marriage.

My difficulties in navigating the world without my mom are nothing compared to what Nubs faces, but I’m impressed with his handling of life these days. We both believe it’s better she wasn’t here to see the election drama, the virus handling by government and citizens alike, and of course, the insurrection violence. However, we agree she’d be all in for Nubs getting out there, so to speak. 

As unsure of the “getting out there” process as Nubs is, there’s no shortage of eligible women who’d find him a serious catch. At 84 he works full time at H&R Block during tax season. He’s been there for years and each season learns new software, tax-law changes, gets certifications, and adjusts to everything thrown his way. He’s a senior preparer in more ways than one and has a following of clients who request him annually. My mom insisted he keep at it for “fun money” and brain exercise. Getting him out of the house was a bonus, too.

Nubs also has his own teeth (which I’m told is huge), has been vaccinated twice, still drives at night, is fairly active, and is a super fun guy. The Betty made a great snap decision all those years ago and I love this man dearly. That’s why it was extra touching when he was hesitant to tell me one of my mom’s friends fixed him up with someone. 

The woman is very smart, he said. Very nice. They’d been out three times and she claimed to be many things, including a good cook, which earned her points. When he said she has expensive taste, I knew it meant she set the happy hour menu aside and did not choose the house wine. Nubs is of the generational mindset to never let a woman pay, and I’m wondering if her not following his lead by ordering off the early bird menu is a red flag.

When Nubs and I last spoke, he told this very nice, smart woman he was off Sunday and was looking forward to relaxing by himself at home. The next day, she called him and insisted he come over on Sunday. She’d carry out Chinese food, she said. 

Carry-out Chinese food when she had the opportunity to cook a splendid meal for my Nubs? Plus, how does she know if he likes chicken lo mein or beef with broccoli? And on Valentine’s Day? Red flag No. 2. 

“I guess I have to buy flowers,” Nubs said. Admitting he was miffed, I advised him to go small and could hear The Betty telling me to calm down. “This one’s a pro,” she and I agreed. “Before you label her manipulative, get down there and visit. Be gentle, he has a lot of catching up to do.”

Nodding, I said, “And a lot of joyful life yet to live.”

And didn’t I smell that wonderful perfume as I sat to shop for an airline ticket?

Natalie Ladd is a Portland restaurant veteran, freelance writer, and connoisseur of all things Bruce Springsteen. She loves Boston sports, chewy red wine and has never sampled a cheese she didn’t like. She can be reached at natalie@portlandphoenix.me.