Long legs and bad knees necessitate my husband Burton’s flying business class. On my own, I choose Economy Comfort. I meet the most interesting people. Recently, on the way to my sister’s birthday cabaret, I sat next to Karen Raff. We became instant BFFs. It was love at first flight.
From Milford, MI, Karen and husband Gil, a cardiologist at Beaumont Hospital, Royal Oak, MI, were on their way to meet their son, Evan. He was graduating from USC’s radiology residency training program. (Older son Adam also graduated from USC’s Keck School of Medicine.) Karen shared a story emblematic of an era. A story filled with adventure, travel, and a circuitous romance. And the faith of a more trusting time…
It was 1975. Karen Laib Lewis and Nancy Hanrahan, from Lexington, KY, had just graduated from the U of K with nursing degrees. Karen sold Nancy on traveling to “far off and exotic places.” They sought to leave their “old fashioned Kentucky ways behind and strike out into the world.” They drove north to Montreal, “eager to shed our denim skirts and Birkenstocks for the haute couture of a sophisticated, metropolitan city.”
They got jobs at the Royal Victoria Hospital. Seeking an apartment, they stayed in a hostel. Turned out Montreal was hosting the upcoming 1976 Winter Olympics. Housing was scarce and unaffordable. An advertised one-and-a-half meant “a studio with a kitchen in a closet.” Next problem: Montreal was nationalizing the French language. Neither jeune fille knew French.
“Disappointed but undeterred,” they got back in their car on a Sunday and headed south on US-91 into Vermont. They looked for blue hospital signs along the highway and found one in Burlington. They took the exit. The nursing office was closed on Sundays.
They continued driving south. The next blue hospital sign was in White River Junction. By then it was Monday. They were hired on the spot at the White River Junction V.A. Hospital, for the night shift. “Always the night shift,” Karen says.
Nancy worked on the medical floor; Karen, the surgical. Karen says, “Our plans for an interesting life outside Kentucky seemed to be working.”
But winter was approaching. The New Englanders they met “tended to keep to themselves. We felt isolated. And we were chatty girls from Kentucky. To be happy, we needed more friends.”
Taking a silk-screening class at a local community college, they created a “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” invitation. They sent it to “the only five interesting people we’d made friends with in the last few months.”
The invitation instructed recipients to meet a total stranger on a particular day and invite him or her to a dinner party that night. “We were always thinking up crazy ways to have fun, and this sounded like a real adventure.”
The night before the soiree, they went to work at 11pm. They’d be done by 7:30am, head home to sleep, then start cooking for the dinner party. (They’d prepped earlier.)
Around 7 that morning, Karen was writing up notes at the nursing desk. “A rather young and sleep-deprived doctor came up and asked for a patient’s chart. Back in the day, nurses handed doctors their charts. Today that request would be met with: ‘Get it yourself, doctor.’”
An intern from nearby Mary Hitchcock Hospital (affiliated with Dartmouth), the doctor was seeing a pre-op patient to approve a surgery.
Yawning, the doctor asked, “What’s the date today?”
“September 17th,” Karen answered.
The doctor knocked his forehead with his hand. “He said, in a foggy, been-up- all-night daze, ‘Oh geez. It’s my birthday.’”
Carpe M.D.’em. Karen seized the moment.
“How would you like to come to a dinner party tonight?”
“’Sure,’ he blurted out, as surprised to be asked as I was to have asked him. This is going well, I thought. Only 30 minutes before I go home and I’ve found my stranger.”
As the sun was coming up, Karen met Nancy in the parking lot. Karen told Nancy about her invited stranger. Who had Nancy asked?
“No one. Everyone on my shift was someone I knew.”
“We have to find someone,” Karen said. On their way home they’d detour to a market or the airport and seek out a prospect. As they drove, a thunderstorm struck. The motorcyclist ahead of them veered to the side, pulled out a blue plastic tarp and slung it over himself.
“’There’s your someone!’ I shouted to Nancy. He looked like a perfectly normal hippie who needed something good to happen. And boy was he in luck.” Nancy rolled down the window and invited him. He followed them home to Queechee about 20 miles away.
Weren’t they worried that inviting a perfect stranger into their home was asking for trouble?
Karen says, “We trusted in the goodness of human nature and the universe. We were trying to add some positive karma.”
As I said, it was a different time…
The cyclist had been camping for weeks in the White Mountains. They showed him where to shower and wash his clothes while they slept. Later, all five invited friends brought their strangers. “The party was a success and we made a group of new friends.”
As for Gil, the doctor she’d invited, Karen was “a bit intimidated.” Nancy spent much of the evening with him. Over the next few months, Nancy and Gil’s relationship deepened.
Meanwhile, Karen became involved with Ken Johns, a “super handy” transplanted Californian, one of their first five invitees. “Ken taught us how to be Vermonters,” Karen said. He showed them how to buy block heaters for their cars and plug them in at night so their radiators wouldn’t be frozen when they needed to drive to the hospital for their night shift. They lived on a hill and required 3 long extension cords to connect the heaters to their cars.
Ken moved in. He and Karen were enjoying what she considered “a close, loving relationship.” But… “One morning Ken said, ‘Karen, I need to tell you something difficult. Thank you for teaching me how to love. But the truth is, I’ve discovered I love Nancy.’”
Karen’s story is too good for shortcuts. To learn how she handled Ken’s revelation, tune in next week…