A Serendipitous Encounter

Shonnie and I were married at Bend of Ivy Lodge outside Asheville 20 years ago tomorrow, May 30. In celebration of that occasion, over the next few days I’ll be posting a few episodes from my memoir-in-progress that tell the story of (1) how we met, (2) our wedding weekend, and (3) the life we created together including bringing Gracelyn into the world.

* * *

In August 1995, while reading the sports section of the Austin-American Statesman, I spotted an ad for Austin Fit, a marathon training group. Austin Fit was sponsoring a weekly workout for runners who wanted to train for the 1996 Austin Motorola Marathon. “Show up next Saturday at the pedestrian bridge under MoPac at Town Lake (now renamed Lady Bird Lake) prepared to start,” the ad said. Still a jock at heart, I thought, Hmm, I’ve always wanted to run a marathon. And I’m not getting any younger (I was then fifty-two.). Besides, I could use a few running buddies. And meeting some female runners too. Hell, I’m in!

I’d been living without feminine companionship (except for my cat Chocolate) for the first extended period in my life. And though it was sometimes lonely, I’d taken this time to gain a clear vision of the woman I wanted in my life. In fact, I had made a list of every possible quality I could think of—more than one hundred desirable attributes, several of which were non-negotiable, including attractive, slender, earthy, minimal makeup; able to run eight- to nine-minute miles for five miles or more; doesn’t smoke, do drugs, or drink to excess; let’s her sexual passion show; loving, vulnerable, and authentic; devoted to psychological/emotional/spiritual growth; believes in equality for all; good sense of humor; and eclectic tastes in music, film, TV, and books. Nowhere on my list was anything about age.

When I arrived at Town Lake to begin the marathon training, I was assigned to the intermediate-level Green Group, which consisted of approximately twenty runners. It was summer, and as usual hot as Hades in the capital city of Texas—highs in the upper 90s to lower 100s day after day after day. Of course, Austin runners (approximately 10 percent of the city’s population) were accustomed to being thoroughly sweat-soaked by the time they hit the half-mile mark during the summer, which extended from May into October in Central Texas. With the encouragement of our coaches, we ran increasingly long distances on the wide, well-groomed trails around the lake (ultimately up to twenty-plus miles) to prepare for the February 1996 marathon.

“Where the hell did everybody go?” I asked when the Green Group gathered on a Saturday morning in early January prior to a fourteen-mile run.

“Looks like we’re down to just the seven of us,” Tim said.

“What happened to all the other women?” asked Shonnie (the sole remaining female group member, who looked damned good in her running tights on that chilly day).

Our group of hardy souls, depleted in number but certainly not in spirit, set out. “If we’re running too fast to chat, we’re running too fast,” I declared. So the numerous, often lengthy, frequently humorous conversations among Shonnie, Jesus, Tim, Tall Bald Larry, Medium Bald Larry, Jack, and me ranged widely—from sports to politics to religion.

“What does President Clinton say to Hillary after a romantic interlude?” Tall Bald Larry asked. “Honey, I’ll be home in twenty minutes.”

“How about them Longhorns?” Tim said. “Was that a serious ass-kicking by Penn State (in the Fiesta Bowl) or what?”

“Looked like boys against men,” I added. “Brutal!”

“I got to hear Pat Buchanan give his stump speech at his presidential campaign rally,” Jack said.

“Oh, yeah, how was it?” Shonnie asked.

“It was OK,” Jack said, “but I think it would have been better in the original German.”

“What do you get when you cross a Unitarian with a Jehovah’s Witness?” I asked. “Someone out knocking on doors for no apparent reason.”

On the day of the marathon, the seven of us joyfully (and somewhat anxiously) set out together, pacing ourselves for the 26.2 miles that lay ahead. We all finished the race in less than four hours, though Shonnie and Medium Bald Larry each ran the half-marathon due to injuries that had limited their conditioning. Actually, I was injured too. A week or so before the race, I suffered a shin splint after a misstep during an evening run. But I was determined to finish what I’d started, so I took a handful of ibuprofen, put my head down, and completed my first marathon in 3:52:21.

After the ‘96 marathon, I invited my running buddies to attend a preview of The More To Life Weekend, the intensive weekend workshop that had led to my evolution from macho man into Bruce Mulkey 2.0 (kinder, gentler, and not drunk). Shonnie, Jesus, Tim, and Tim’s wife Christie all decided to attend.

At one point during the evening, attendees had an opportunity to ask questions, and Shonnie stood up, made a comment and asked a very perceptive question. Though I don’t remember what she asked, I do remember thinking, “Hey, this is not just some ditzy blonde.” There was a depth and wisdom that I hadn’t anticipated from a twenty-five-year-old, and my perception of Shonnie shifted significantly in that moment.

August 1996. I listened to my phone messages after returning to Austin from several weeks in Alaska. There were calls from a couple of editors at Holt, Rinehart & Winston’s high school textbook division who wanted to meet about various projects. And there were three messages from Shonnie Lavender. “Hi, Bruce. This is Shonnie from the Green Group. We’ve started training again, and we’re wondering when you’re going to join us.”

Well, I guess I better get my ass down there, I thought. And so the next Saturday morning I rejoined the Green Group for the weekly training run in preparation for the 1997 Austin Motorola Marathon. For the most part, it was the same crew, though we’d picked up a few new runners, including Bobby Bennett from my men’s group. And in addition to our long runs on Saturdays, we began participating in the Tuesday and Thursday afternoon training sessions sponsored by Run-Tex, a running gear store. On Tuesdays we did speed workouts at the nearby School for the Deaf track, and on Thursdays we did hill repeats, though finding a decent hill in Austin was not a simple task.

We also began to cap off our weekly Saturday runs by heading to the nearby Magnolia Cafe for coffee and pancakes. And though we’d run hundreds of hours together, we’d just recently planned a true social outing—drinks, music, and dancing.

“So we’re going out tonight like we’d planned, right?” Shonnie said as she dug into her buttermilk pancakes.

“I going to have to pass,” Tim said. “We’ve got relatives in town.”

“I’m in,” I said between slurps of coffee that I hoped would help rejuvenate my dog-tired legs.

“I’ve got a church gathering that I’d forgotten about,” Jesus said. “Some other time.”

The two Larrys made their excuses, as did Jack.

“Is that tonight? I forgot all about it,” Bobby moaned.

Everyone backed out—everyone but me and Shonnie. We looked at each other, not realizing the significance of the moment. “So it’s just two of us,” I said. “You want to go ahead and do it?”

Did the universe conspire that day? Who knows? Shonnie replied, “Sure, why not?”

We chose The Broken Spoke (“the last of the authentic Texas dance halls”) which offered the alt-country music of The Derailers, dancing, and cold Shiner Bock (the official beer of Austin).

I picked Shonnie up at 7:00 p.m. As we were paying the cover at the venue, I lightheartedly asked, “How about the senior discount?” (I was 53 at the time.)

The woman taking our money said, “Yeah, I see a little gray on you, pardner, but I’m not so sure about your daughter there.”

Shonnie, decked out in her revealing sundress and cowgirl boots, grinned, and I chuckled self-consciously. Yeah, I get it, the joke’s on me, I thought.

As the evening progressed, the excursion seemed to take on the awkwardness and excitement of a first date rather than just two running buddies out on the town. When we danced the Texas two-step (quick, quick, slow, slow) to The Derailers’ “Just One More Time,” I was prepared to hold Shonnie at arm’s length, so I was pleasantly surprised when she snuggled close to me. Belly-to-belly we glided around the dance floor, the shuffle of cowboy boots a subdued counterpoint to the resounding beat of the honky-tonk music. We held hands as we walked back to our table.

“I’m going to get another beer,” I said. “You want more wine?”

“No, I’m good,” Shonnie replied.

We continued to enjoy the music and more dancing, perhaps sensing, but not fully aware, that our relationship was shifting.

At the end of the evening, I drove Shonnie to her condo. We parked, and I took her hand and gently squeezed it. “That was fun,” I said. “Let’s do it again sometime.”

“I’d like that,” Shonnie said as she smiled and gracefully made her exit.

At our Tuesday track workout a few days later, Shonnie invited me to a play, a dramatized version of All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Lessons from the play:

Always share with others.
Be sure to play fair.
Never hit anyone, even if they hit you first.
Put stuff back where you got it.
Clean up after yourself.
Do not take anything that’s not yours.
If you hurt someone, say “I’m sorry.”
Flush after you use the toilet.
Wash your hands after you flush.
Fresh-baked cookies and cold milk are good for whatever ails you.

After the play we lingered near our cars in the parking lot to talk. “I think we may be moving too fast,” Shonnie said. “I want to slow things down.”

Somewhat puzzled and certain that I’d never understand women, I simply said, “OK,” and figured that was that.

A few days later, however, Shonnie called. “What are you doing?” she asked amiably.

“Getting ready to have dinner and watch a movie with Pamela (a mutual friend),” I replied.

“Can I come over?” Shonnie asked.

I asked Pamela, and she was fine with it, so I invited Shonnie to join us. The three of us had an enjoyable evening feasting on Pamela’s famous sesame noodles and watching Apollo 13. After Shonnie left, I was feeling a bit confused. “What do you think she wants?” I asked Pamela.

“It’s pretty damned clear, big boy; she wants you,” Pamela responded, smiling.

A few weeks later, I invited Shonnie to join me in a breath workshop by Charles MacInerney, a well-known yoga instructor, on the University of Texas campus. After learning about abdominal breathing, alternate nostril breathing, breath of fire, and more, Shonnie and I stood outside on a balmy summer afternoon. I looked into her eyes. “I’m falling in love with you,” I said.

“I love you too,” came her tender reply. We kissed and held each other, totally oblivious to anything going on around us.

After this we fell into a pattern, spending a few nights together each week, sometimes at my place, sometimes at hers. Even in the early days of our relationship, Shonnie and I knew we didn’t want our intimacy to be based solely on infatuation or sexual attraction. So we spent hours revealing our pasts and sharing our greatest hopes, dreams and visions.

The day after Thanksgiving, on November 29, 1996, I got a call from my sister Nancy from our hometown of Tullahoma, Tennessee. “Dad just died,” she said.

Shocked and dismayed, I said, “I’ll get there as soon as I can.” Even though our relationship was new, I called Shonnie and asked her to accompany me to Tennessee. When we arrived, she met my entire family, except Dad, for the first time. Shonnie was a real trooper, being present with my mom and everyone else right where we were—in our sadness, our grief, our heartache. Perhaps born out of her mother’s death from breast cancer only three years earlier, I sensed a compassion and maturity in Shonnie that I hadn’t been aware of before.

On December 1, I stood in front of the overflowing crowd of friends, associates, and family at Trinity Lutheran Church. Having forgiven Dad for what I considered his shortcomings as a father, I was finally ready to acknowledge the gifts he had given to me and our family as I delivered his eulogy.

Mack Mulkey’s body was donated to Vanderbilt University Medical School for medical research as he had requested. After the funeral, still deeply saddened, I traveled with Shonnie back to Austin. Given the direction our relationship was going, I was glad she’d had the opportunity to meet all my immediate family.

For me, the trip to Tullahoma with Shonnie was the clincher. “Think it’s time to make this official?” I asked Shonnie after we got back to Austin.

“You mean like committed relationship?” she said.

“Yeah, moving in together, commitments, monogamy, cats, and all,” I said.

“My place or yours?” Shonnie asked with a smile.

“Well, since you own yours . . .”

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