Love Story: Couple Makes Sweet Music for Valentine's
By C.K. WOLFSON
Jacob Weissman, 89, gingerly joins his wife, Nikki Langer Weissman, 80, next to the large Steinway and softly asks, "Do you think I can still do it?"
She shifts to make room beside her on the bench - "Of course you can."
With no further preamble, Nikki, all expertise and dramatic flourish, Jacob, with restraint and technical authority, lift their hands in unison. In an instant, a Schubert sonata ripples through the second floor living room and hums underfoot. Sitting straight, trusting each other for rhythm and beat, for beginnings and endings, they create music together.
Something perceivable, something apparent in the tender nonchalance of their dialogue and the familiar way they move around each other, signals their thoughtful regard. Yet neither remembers exactly when, after living together for more than 15 years - "a long engagement" - they married. "Once I got [academic] tenure, I didn't want any more commitments," Nikki says, explaining they were always very happy. But then, almost on a whim, they quietly married. She says it was for the grandchildren: "It made things less complicated."
Theirs is a 35-year, matter-of-fact romance; two strong, accomplished individuals who take pleasure in the measure of their fit together. She still glances at him as she talks, as if to check the facts with eye contact and he, insisting he is not the romantic sort, still describes her as a "startling vision," to which she responds with a girlish smile.
Their home, a converted, 100-year-old, picturesque Chilmark barn, is an expansive dreamscape of antiques, art and personal collectibles - as cozy as it is elegant. "The doing is mine," she explains, "the appreciating it is his."
They sit side-by-side on a couch in the sunroom addition, Jacob calm and composed, filling in the details as Nikki, with a flutter of gestures, weaves the chronicle of their partnership. He thinks their meeting was a lucky accident; she thinks it was fate.
"May I tell it?' she asks Jacob. "It's a wonderful story." She recounts how they first "began to talk" in 1967 when the Long Island Railroad strike forced them to carpool to Hofstra University together - he lived at the 5th Avenue Hotel in New York city and she lived in the Village. She was divorced, an associate professor in psychology. He was separated, a professor of law and economics. Yes, she loved his obvious intellect, but she adds, "He was the only one on campus I knew who wore Brooks Brothers suits and I thought he was just enchanting."
And Jacob thought she "was a very fascinating person." Chuckling, he adds, "I became a persistent nag. I wanted to see her all the time."
They were the talk of the faculty, Nikki, the Bronx-born radical sympathizer, Jacob, the conservative chairman of the economics department, living together. They laugh at the idea that they were somehow scandalous, although she says it was their living arrangement that kept Jacob from being named provost.
The meager list of differences Nikki tries to compile includes things like thermostat preferences, eating habits and, "I always get the New York Review of Books and he gets Commentary."
Jacob had a privileged childhood that included sailing around the world - "and those are the things I'd love to talk about," he says. His wife, an expressive speaker, smiles, "One of the things I fell very much in love with was when we'd lie in bed together and he'd tell his stories. And his voice was so melodic. There was something about the way he related things that gave me such pleasure, I can't tell you."
Jacob says Nikki makes him feel secure rather than anxious. "I finally met someone who was sturdy and sensitive, and I wouldn't let go of her."
Nikki says, "I really don't need anyone else."
But there are the respective children, grandchildren and a great-grandchild - and Nikki, with effervescent pride, gathers their pictures, books and photographs from table tops and shelves to share. Jacob's son, Stephen Weissman, is a well-known rare book dealer in Britain; Nikki's daughter Elizabeth Langer, married to a Georgetown University law professor, is a Washington, D.C., attorney; son Kenneth Langer, married to Jennifer Smith, is an environmental scholar with a doctorate from Harvard in Sanskrit. And in a world that sounds close to perfect, she bemoans their not being in proximity.
The Weissmans first came to the Vineyard as a couple in 1969, "a marvelous, marvelous summer," says Nikki. Their winter routine is, she admits, very self contained. Jacob describes her projects as being creative, "energetic," and his own as administrative, "passive:" the hospital board, the up-Island Council on Aging and the occasional lecture.
To illustrate his detail-oriented nature, he asks if he should tell the story about one of the photos she's taken out. Yes, she says, knowing he's about to tell about the Investment Company of America stock he bought in 1929. He was 16, about to leave for the University of Michigan, when he bought the stock from his summer earnings at his father's spring manufacturing company. And he keeps it still. The photo Nikki holds is from the company's annual report, which featured him. "And I still have a little ledger book in which I keep entries going back to 1929," he says.
Ah, but she wants him to tell his golf story, and he explains he regularly played at Mink Meadows, but each consecutive year, his golfing partner died. "I took my clubs to the council on aging and said, ‘I'm never playing anymore. I'm just killing off all my partners.'"
When Nikki says she thinks she knows everything there is to know about him, he laughs. No, he says, he does not think he knows everything about her. "I don't have that kind of imagination," he says. "You have to have an imagination to follow her."
They are the great loves of each other's lives. But how to explain the success of the partnership?
"I think that we respect each other's strengths," Nikki says. "That's very, very important. He says, "I'm a generalizer in a way, whereas Nikki has many more specific experiences . . . so we've kind of given to each other a different style."
"I'll tell you what I would tell my young students and my own children when they would say something about being in love with someone," Nikki says. "I would say, take him, this young person, and go to dinner with the people you respect and honor most. And if you're proud of him, that's okay. But if you have to make excuses or explain - oh, he's this or that - then don't do it. The test is, can you sit back and be proud of him?"
She looks at Jacob carefully, then says, "I am very proud of him."