Early one mid-August evening in 2000, Carl felt energized and optimistic.
He swung by the Center City home of his parents to check in. “I’m going out tonight,” he told his mother.
Her son was more than 50 years old, but Bunnie was still his mom. She offered Carl some advice: “Look, if you meet someone — I know the way you are — don’t start telling her right away that you had a stroke, that you went through chemo. Wait until you get to know the person.”
In the Northeast, Susan was dressed for dancing, but the dread in her stomach reminded her why she didn’t go very often. “Why am I doing this?” she thought to herself. It was like her mother could read her mind. “You should go out tonight,” said Sadie, whom Susan had invited to live with her after Susan’s father, Abe, died. “I’m not going to be here forever, you know.”
Carl hadn’t been at Michael’s Cafe, the former Bensalem nightclub, for more than 20 minutes when he noticed Susan. They danced and danced, and in between, got to know each other. Susan told Carl she taught high school English at the Shallcross disciplinary school. Her childhood had started on South Street, near the mom-and-pop store her grandparents owned, she said. Her family moved to the Northeast when she was about to start middle school.
Carl told Susan he had two careers: flowers and music. The first was his family’s business; his grandfather started what became Shaw Florist & Decorators in 1918. His parents later ran the business and then he and his brother, Alan, did. Musically, Carl was the leader of a band — the Cal Shaw Orchestra — for 25 years, he told Susan. That led to the discovery that they both love klezmer music and both speak Yiddish. The two also graduated from Northeast High School without ever meeting, they realized.
The more they danced and talked, the more fun they had, and the more comfortable Carl felt with Susan. He and his brother had just launched Carl Alan Floral Designs, he told her, and it would be his big return to business. He had retired from the band and sold Shaw Florist in 1992, after having a stroke, which led to a diagnosis of cerebral vasculitis, and the cocktail of chemotherapy and prednisone that was his treatment.
Carl’s mother was right that he would reveal personal details quickly to someone he liked, but her worry that a new person would be scared off was unfounded.
Susan simply wished him luck with the new business. “You have your health, so you’re already a millionaire,” she said.
Carl asked for her number.
Back at home that night, Susan sat on her 94-year-old mother’s bed and woke her. “Mom, I met someone,” she said. “This is it, I just know it.”
Carl called the next day at 9 a.m. — a move Susan found both shocking and delightful.
“Look, we’re both over 50,” he told her. “I’m not going to wait a week or three days to see you. I want to see you. Let’s go out tonight.”
A few days after that first dinner, Susan and Carl were on the phone when someone came to her door. She asked him to hang on while she saw who it was, but Carl already knew. It was a Carl Alan delivery person with 100 roses.
Bunnie and Harry Schwartz loved Susan from the start, and Sadie Spector loved Carl so much she cooked him peppers with anchovies. Six months after Carl met Susan, she invited him to live at her condo. Every Sunday morning after breakfast, the klezmer music went into the CD player and Carl, Susan, and Sadie danced.
Not quite a year after they met, Carl handed Susan three greeting cards, as is his way. “They build to a crescendo,” he explained. “The first said something very nice and caring, the second a little more so, and the third was very ‘I love you, I want to spend the rest of my life with you!’ ”
He had written “OVER” in big letters at the bottom, and when Susan flipped the card, even bigger letters said, “WILL YOU MARRY ME?”
Carl, who is now 72, and Susan, now 73, had each been married and divorced before they met. His daughter, Allison, her son, Matthew, her mother, his parents, their siblings, and a few friends witnessed their Dec. 29, 2002, wedding, which took place in their rabbi’s study.
That was enough for Susan, but since events were literally her love’s business, she let him plan one for them and 100 guests. The reception was held at Colleen’s the following month. “When I walked into that room, I near died,” Susan said. “It was magnificent.”
And then, of course, they danced.
The couple, who recently moved to Elkins Park, has supported each other through the deaths of their parents and various health problems.
Carl has survived prostate cancer, shoulder replacements, and lung and back surgeries. Three years ago, Susan had breast cancer. Two years before that, she had a bowel resection. “I was in the hospital 11 days, and for those 11 days, Carl stayed with me,” she said. “He never even went home to shower.”
Always — maybe especially during the rough spots — they look at their life together and feel extremely lucky.
For most of the past 20 years, Susan and Carl have savored dinners out, cruised to many ports, and taken annual trips to the Poconos and Atlantic City. Since the COVID-19 pandemic started, there’s been a lot more quiet time at home — punctuated by the tiny woofs of their pandemic pooch, Sadie — named in honor of Susan’s mother.
“This sounds so hokey, but we look forward to being together, to holding each other’s hands. To watching a movie at night,” said Carl. “I love everything about her.”
“Carl supports me, he encourages me, he stands by me,” said Susan. “Even if we have a small tiff, we’ll just start laughing.”
Susan, who retired from Frankford High School in 2016, looks forward to feeling safe to travel again. “I would love to go on a nice cruise, on some sort of nice vacation together,” she said.
Carl, who stopped running Carl Alan Floral Designs last year, is gearing up to launch a new business with his friend, Joe Volpe, founder and CEO of Cescaphe: They aim to open the Delaware Valley School of Floral Design this fall.
“Can you imagine your retired spouse going back to business again at age 72?” he asked rhetorically. “But Susan just asked me, ‘Is this going to make you happy?’ and when I said it will, she said, ‘Go for it!’ ”