It was raining when Mark offered to share his umbrella with Becca nine years ago. He says he didn’t have any other motivation, but Becca smiled Friday night when they told me the story.
“I don’t know what he was really thinking,” she said, “but I’m glad he took the chance.”
I met Mark and Becca — along with their two young children — at a restaurant. Their two daughters attracted my attention first. Their animated games of make-believe made me smile and I was soon chatting with their parents.
They live in Portland, Ore., now, but Birmingham will always be special to them. It was a twist of fate — like something out of a romantic movie — that brought them together in the rain one evening nine years ago.
Becca was a 26-year-old lawyer at her father’s Philadelphia law firm. She’s an only child and her dad had always wanted her to take over his law practice one day. He had planned her life. He sent her to Yale for her undergraduate degree and Georgetown for law school. She had been working at the firm for a bit more than a year, but her dad told anybody who would listen that she would eventually take over for him.
Mark was not the sort of man her father approved of. He was a freelance writer and made little money. He was 45 and still hadn’t published anything more than short stories and freelance articles in small magazines. He struggled to make his living and he lived in a cheap studio apartment in the Southside part of Birmingham — the artsy section of town which Bohemian dreamers and artists call home.
Becca’s aunt lived in Birmingham and the family was gathering at her house for Thanksgiving. It was a large group staying at her home in Mountain Brook for the holiday. Mountain Brook is the part of town where “old money” lives around here. Even though Mountain Brook and Southside are right next to one another, the social and economic classes of the people who lived there were miles and miles from one another.
Becca was restless in the big house among people she barely knew, so when someone needed to run to a grocery store for a few missing items for baking, she volunteered. She took her aunt’s car — since her family had flown in — and she took off in the dark with directions to the store.
She didn’t realize that Mountain Brook’s streets were so winding and confusing. She took a wrong turn, but she wasn’t concerned about it since she found a grocery store anyway. She had ended up at a Western Market on Highland Avenue, only about half a mile from Mark’s Southside apartment. And it turned out that he had come to the store at the same time — just as it started to pour down rain.
As he arrived and parked, he noticed a woman sitting in a car and looking frustrated with the rain. As he got out with his umbrella raised, he offered to let her join him on the walk inside. He said it was purely a spur-of-the-moment thing.
After she shared his umbrella and they got inside the store, they both laughed at how wet they had gotten even with the umbrella. As Becca started looking around for the things she had come for, Mark stayed near her side.
“When I saw her in the parking lot, I just knew she was a woman who might want to share my umbrella,” Mark said, “but once we got inside, it was like everything changed for me. I didn’t believe in love at first sight until that night, but when I saw her face and looked into her eyes, I would have done anything to keep talking with her.”
Becca felt a connection to Mark, too, but nothing about what she felt was convenient for her. She thought it would be harmless enough to keep talking to him while she was in town — since she didn’t know anybody in the area and her extended family left her eager to get away — so she gave him her phone number.
Over the next four days, Becca slipped away from her family as often as she could get away with. Mark met her family, but he didn’t feel as though they were very happy to meet him.
“I think they were afraid I was going to kidnap Becca,” he laughed. “And they were probably right.”
In the time Mark and Becca had together, they quickly felt as though they had known each other forever. They both say there was a strong sense of intimacy — a kind of shared heart — that made them both very happy. The family was flying back to Philadelphia Sunday night. On Saturday afternoon, Mark took Becca to the Birmingham Botanical Gardens. They walked among the flowers and along the paths for hours.
While they were in the Japanese garden, Becca sensed that something changed in Mark. They were both dreading that the time had come for her to leave and were talking about what the future might hold. Becca said Mark looked her in the eye for a long time before he finally spoke again. She said she remembers his words clearly.
“Becca, will you take a chance on me?”
For his part, Mark was having trouble not saying as much as he wanted to say.
“What I wanted to say was that I was madly in love with her and wanted her to marry me the next day,” Mark said Friday night.
Becca didn’t return to Philadelphia with her family that night. Her parents were angry and worried at her sudden involvement with someone she barely knew, but she trusted her instinct.
“All my life, I had done what my dad had wanted me to do,” she said. “I always thought he wished he had a son to be just like him, so since he didn’t have a son, he tried to make his daughter just like him. This was the first time in my life when I defied him. He didn’t take it well.”
Becca stayed with her aunt for a few days while she looked for a job and a place to live. She finally returned to Philadelphia to move her belongings and drive her car back. Her father told her that if she left the job he had given her, he was disowning her. But she listened to her heart instead of her fear.
Within six months, Mark and Becca married. Her parents wanted nothing to do with the wedding and didn’t attend. They belittled Mark and told her she was making the worst mistake of her life.
Becca’s father died last year. A few months before he died, he was diagnosed with a fast-moving form of cancer. Even though her dad didn’t speak to her, her mother talked to her at times, against her husband’s wishes. As he was close to death, he asked if he could see Becca and Mark — both of them — so they went to see him.
“We went up there and we took our daughters,” Becca said. “Mom was overjoyed to finally meet her granddaughters, but I still didn’t know what Dad might say to me. I wasn’t sure why we were there.”
Mark and Becca went upstairs to the dying man’s room. He was confined to bed by that point and couldn’t talk very well.
“This is very hard for me,” Becca said her father said, “but I was wrong about both of you. I thought I was trying to steer you in the right direction, but what I wanted was for you to fulfill my own plans. I should have said this a long time ago, but I apologize for the way I acted. You two seem to be really happy together and I understand now that’s what matters. Will you forgive me?”
Mark had a novel published four years ago by a small press in Portland and it was well-received by critics. He has a second book that’s about to come out from a bigger publisher. Becca is the business half of the family and Mark is the creative half. They tell me they’re doing well financially, but I don’t know exactly what that means.
“Before I met Becca, I didn’t have any real motivation,” Mark said. “I wanted to do well — everybody does — but I didn’t do my best work. After she came along, everything changed. It was like some kind of magic light switch had been flipped inside me. I did better work and I started caring about selling it, especially after we had the girls.”
Mark and Becca have been gone from Birmingham for two years. They’re not sure how long they’ll be in Portland or where they might end up. They came last weekend for Thanksgiving and stayed for the entire week. It’s the first time since nine years ago that the extended family had gathered at the home of Becca’s aunt. Mark and Becca came to see the family and then visit friends and places they haven’t seen much — and to show their daughters where everything started.
They took their daughters to the Western Market where they met, but the little girls didn’t seem impressed. It was just a small grocery store to them.
But the tiny store on that corner means everything to Mark and Becca.
“I can’t imagine how much I would have lost out on if I hadn’t offered that umbrella to her that night,” Mark said.
“And I can’t imagine how much we would both have been lost out on…” — she gestured to their daughters — “…if I had done the reasonable thing and gone back home with my parents,” said Becca. “I saw something not long ago that really resonates for me. It said in the end, we only regret the chances we didn’t take. I’m glad I don’t have to regret not taking this chance.”
Sometimes the opportunity we need most is right in front of us, but it might not always make sense to anybody else.