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FAMILY ALBUM / Shirlee and Harold Haizlip

A Marriage for All Time

The Haizlips' Memoir About Their 39-Year Marriage Is a Social History of Our Times and a Model of Hope for Those Seeking a Lasting Union

November 15, 1998|LYNELL GEORGE / TIMES STAFF WRITER

On this furiously warm Sunday afternoon at Georgia, the surreptitiously perched Melrose Avenue eatery, men and women en route to and from church pour into the restaurant's foliage-shaded patio. Dressed for fall in too-warm suits and long-sleeve dresses, they try to bring the temperature down a notch, sipping from generous goblets of iced tea.

But for Shirlee and Harold Haizlip, this is yet another golden garden party for the ages--camera-ready and gossip worthy. The edges of which, to be sure, are already being fit within memory's scrapbook-- alongside the rest, stilled and sun-drenched.

Though up until the day before, fall had seemed but an hour away, this out-of-nowhere summer blast is how life has often been for the Haizlips: That last-minute reprieve at the edge of disaster--large or small, like the couple's 25th anniversary garden party that was almost rained out entirely; like Shirlee's beloved father's passing that coincided with daughter Melissa's grand Sweet 16 fete; like Shirlee's mother's outdoor second wedding vows that had almost been drowned out by a downpour, the party miraculously granted a stay as the clouds parted, bearing the gift of sun.

It's this couple's enduring life metaphor: The hope that curls out brightly, blithely at the center of disarray. And it is that symbol that powers not only the marriage itself, but their memoir of the union, "In the Garden of Our Dreams" (Kodansha).

To hear them tell it, what began as a benign "study date" some 40 years ago, to their astonishment, took that fairy-tale bend in the road, into the land of love at first sight. And four decades later they stand smiling, Harold the Southerner, Shirlee the Northerner, the circle unbroken, telling the tale of their first meeting imbued with just-yesterday detail. Dressed not matching, but rather alluding to one another in black suits (his, trousers; hers, long skirt), with blue highlights (his, a tie; hers, jewels and trim), they trade flirtatious glances over the tops of their glasses. In their retelling, their voices fall in behind one another, the words a montage as vivid and telling as if the scenes from their marriage were flashing behind them on an old-fashioned movie screen.

"We don't have a perfect marriage," quips Shirlee, face aglow, her dark eyes flashing over the audience, the edge of her voice a clear girlish trill. "But we have a good marriage. On a scale of one to 10, I'd give it a 12."

A House Like Camelot

A week or so later, the Haizlips find a moment to pause, at the eye of a whirlwind of travel--Missouri, Tennessee, next stop San Francisco--to and from their fanciful Los Feliz home, the penthouse rooms once built and occupied by Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. As the story goes, the Haizlips went to Europe on their honeymoon, and she told him she wanted a house that resembled the castles she saw. "Thus," writes Shirlee, "the Trianon. Our building stands out 'like Camelot shining on the hill' "

No better place to set up a household for the last decade of their 39 years of marriage, which is, Shirlee underscores, a larger story, ". . . the story of the country as well."

Despite the hectic schedule, they appear unrumpled, amiable, full of a gentle sort of ribbing--sarcasm embroidered carefully atop a wide swatch of affection.

Long-limbed Harold folds into the booth-in-the-back-in-the-corner-in-the-dark of downtown's venerable Pacific Dining Car, thisclose to his wife. They drink in the drawing-room decor as stately and well-appointed as they are.

"What's been reaffirming is that by telling our story, I think it gives people hope," says Shirlee, who is author of a bestselling memoir of her family, "The Sweeter the Juice" (Simon & Schuster, 1994) about the fair-skinned members of her mother's African American family who "passed"--crossed over to the white world.

This story has its ragged edges but is not quite as poignant, says Shirlee.

"'So many young people aspire to a relationship," says Harold, "but don't know how to start. They need something to grab onto."

From the study dates and malteds of the '50s to the freedom rides and power movements of the '60s, to the afros and platforms of the '70s, and the excesses and pay-the-piper downsizing of the '80s, into the restructuring of the '90s, both Shirlee and Harold agree that "In the Garden of Our Dreams" is an ambitious undertaking. The book works on several levels, from social history to the politics of race, gender and religion--all of it folded into the conversational back-and-forth of a couple who know how to finish the unfinished sentences, who feel at ease in silence.

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