Just before Jenny Sanford, the former first lady of South Carolina, became engaged to Andy McKay in December, she was crammed in a car with her four sons, ages 19 to 25, and a trunk full of Christmas presents. When she noticed her phone ringing with a call from Louisville, Ky., she picked up via car speaker.
It was Mr. McKay, and he wanted to see how her post-holiday drive was going. She and the boys were returning home to Mount Pleasant, S.C., after visiting her mother in Hobe Sound, Fla. After they each said “I love you” and hung up, the ribbing began.
“My son Landon started teasing me mercilessly, and then all of them were like, ‘When are you guys getting married?,’” Ms. Sanford said. “I turned bright red. It was like I was a little girl. They were all cracking up.”
No one, not even Ms. Sanford, thought a proposal was imminent.
The one that came just days later cinched a romance that righted wrongs flagrant enough to captivate a nation. Mark Sanford, the former governor of South Carolina and blazing political star, had been missing for days in 2009 and subsequently admitted to having an affair with an Argentine woman. (Aides had claimed he was hiking the Appalachian Trail.)
But since her 2010 divorce, Ms. Sanford, 55, says she has never been happier. Mr. McKay, an investment banker from Georgia who has been living in Louisville since 1996, accounts for a sizable chunk of that happiness.
“From the moment I met him, everything was easy,” Ms. Sanford said. “He was a godsend in some respects.”
That doesn’t mean he didn’t have to be pushed into dating her.
Mr. McKay was contentedly single a couple of years ago when a Louisville neighbor he was friendly with — Kathy Sullivan, who is Ms. Sanford’s younger sister — approached him with a proposition that felt more like a directive.
“She was like, ‘I’d really like you to meet my sister,’” said Mr. McKay, 61, a divorced father of four grown children who also has four grandchildren. “All the women in Jenny’s family are strong. But Kathy is a force of nature.”
The distance between Charleston, S.C., and Louisville is about 600 miles, and there are few direct flights. “Logistically it was difficult,” said Mr. McKay who, like everyone who follows the news, knew Ms. Sanford’s story.
He agreed to meet her, but “like most guys,” he said, he “dawdled and never got around to doing anything about it.”
But Ms. Sullivan kept after him, he said. “When she found out I go down to Hilton Head every year at the end of September on a golf trip with a bunch of guys, she asked me if I’d see Jenny while I was there,” Mr. McKay said.
In September 2016, he abandoned his golf buddies on a Saturday and drove north. “I said, ‘Guys, I’m leaving. I’ve got a better option than you two hours away in Charleston,’” near Sullivan’s Island, where Ms. Sanford lived at the time. Mr. McKay and Ms. Sanford met for the first time at Leon’s, a local restaurant. “We had a nice dinner and that’s how the whole thing started,” he said.
Well, not exactly, according to Ms. Sullivan, an artist who now lives in Vienna, Va. In her version of events, she had been plotting to set the wheels in motion for years, from the first time she met Mr. McKay.
“With Andy, it’s what you see is what you get,” she said. His honesty and straightforwardness seemed well suited to her sister. But Ms. Sanford’s social calendar didn’t allow for a long-distance setup, at least not at first. “Jenny had been dating and I wasn’t crazy about the people she was dating,” Ms. Sullivan said. “I knew it was going to take a special kind of person to make her happy.
“We all know the story of Jenny and Mark,” she continued, adding that she is still close with her former brother-in-law. “I wanted her to experience what it was like to have someone love you unconditionally. I don’t think she had ever experienced that.”
She was sure Mr. McKay, who had been divorced since 2013, could deliver. “He’s mellow, he’s very intelligent, he’s a family man, and he’s trustworthy,” she said. As for the 600 miles separating them, she convinced Mr. McKay that traversing the distance would be good for him. “I was seriously bullying him,” she said. “I told him, ‘Who are you going to meet in Louisville? You’ve already met everybody. You’re not going to find your person here.’”
Like Ms. Sanford, Mr. McKay had been in and out of relationships since his divorce, at least one of them serious. And like Mr. McKay, Ms. Sanford wasn’t actively looking to be fixed up. Dating, for her, was an afterthought. “I was working at home doing consulting, and it was manageable and my kids were all doing great after a lot of years of adjustment and healing,” she said. “I was in a good, easy, relaxed place.”
But that first date with Mr. McKay kicked up sparks. She wanted to see him again. Mr. McKay, who left with a kiss and vague murmurings about keeping in touch, didn’t pick up that signal.
“I thought there was a connection, but I wasn’t sure she felt the same,” he said. He had been slightly intimidated on their date. “She was described to me as a very smart, fast-talking girl, and she lived up to that. It’s fair to say I was nervous.”
Ms. Sullivan prodded him to visit Ms. Sanford a second time in October. She used more coercion. Ms. Sullivan was getting married in November 2016 and had planned a small wedding in Charleston. “I told him, the only way you’re getting invited to my wedding is if you bring Jenny,” she said.
Ms. Sanford recalls a second date a month before her sister’s wedding that turned into a weekend of beach walking and bike riding around Sullivan’s Island. “It was the kind of thing where I thought, What am I missing? When am I going to find out the bad part?” she said.
If trust requires a confident relationship with the unknown, Ms. Sanford was getting there. “There’s something about having such a public spectacle — it’s not fun,” she said. “You ask yourself, Can I love again? But the better question is, What happens if I get hurt again? At the end of the day, you have to be willing to take the risk.”
Mr. McKay proved risk worthy. Not only did he accompany her to her sister’s November wedding, he steered Ms. Sanford through a new heartache the next year. In March 2017, her father, John Sullivan, died in Hobe Sound. By then, Mr. McKay was flying back and forth between Charleston and Louisville regularly, and Ms. Sanford was becoming familiar with Louisville. Days before Mr. Sullivan’s death, Mr. McKay was in South Carolina when Ms. Sanford got the news that Mr. Sullivan was gravely ill. They jumped in the car and headed south.
“I didn’t even know how fast I was going, and Andy looks over and says, ‘You know you’re going 95, right?’ I liked that he was so calm about it,” Ms. Sanford said.
Both say a calm communication style set them on a course for love. After their first few dates in 2016, Ms. Sanford gave Mr. McKay a copy of “Staying True,” the 2010 book she wrote about her year in marital hell. “She said if you’re going to date me you should read this,” Mr. McKay said. But he didn’t need to. “It only takes five minutes with her to know how strong she is,” he said. “She’s not very big, but she can hold her own with anybody. What I didn’t know — what I was finding out — is how deep her goodness runs.”
On Dec. 29, a few days after Ms. Sanford’s sons heckled her on their holiday drive home, Mr. McKay was in Mt. Pleasant and her boys were visiting their father, now a South Carolina congressman. They had a weekend and a waterfront condo to themselves. “We were having a conversation at her kitchen counter, and I basically said, ‘I want to marry you,’” Mr. McKay said. “I didn’t have a ring, I didn’t get down on one knee.”
Ms. Sanford didn’t care.
“We hadn’t even talked about marriage. But at this age and stage you don’t spend time traveling back and forth to see somebody if you aren’t thinking long term,” she said. After a stunned but instant acceptance, she said, “I spent the next few days almost giddy.”
On March 31, on a friend’s private dock on Sullivan’s Island, Mr. McKay and Ms. Sanford were married before 90 friends and family by the Rev. Leo O’Donovan, a Roman Catholic priest. Father O’Donovan had been a lifelong best friend of Ms. Sanford’s father, and also had officiated at Ms. Sullivan’s 2016 Charleston wedding.
Ms. Sanford wore an ivory gown she bought for $190 at a Florida Nordstrom and a diamond engagement ring the couple picked out at Croghan’s Jewel Box, a Charleston shop. Mr. McKay wore a tan suit with a white boutonniere to match his bride’s bouquet of white roses and ranunculus. Ms. Sanford’s sons, Marshall, Landon, Bolton and Blake, stood by her side wearing matching khaki pants and blue blazers. Mr. McKay’s four children and their spouses stood by him while wrangling his grandchildren, none of over age 3, into listening to Father O’Donovan’s homily as sea gulls squawked in the background.
Just before the wedding, Ms. Sullivan indulged herself in a little gloating. “I told my husband when they first met that if I could get them to a second date, they’d end up married,” she said. Instead of rolling her eyes at her little sister’s I-told-you-so, Ms. Sanford embraced it.
“This is a real love and an active love,” Ms. Sanford said. “If she was a bully, I’m glad.”
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