To their many mutual friends, it seemed impossible that Lisa Tatum Anderson and Leland McLaughlin had never met.
They’re both alumni of Tuskegee University’s small, close-knit veterinary school and although they graduated six years apart, there had been many chances for their lives to intersect at reunions and conferences.
In October 2010, they became Facebook friends after commenting on the same post. McLaughlin, who lived in Charlotte, was a divorced father of a college-age son; Tatum Anderson had been divorcedfor two years and was living in Columbia with her young son, Tatum.
For the next few months they traded occasional pleasantries on Facebook. The following March they were both online at 11 p.m. and began sending messages back and forth before McLaughlin, who is not a speedy typist, asked whether they could talk by phone instead.
After introducing themselves, McLaughlin mentioned he was straightening up his vast collection of Carolina Panthers gear. Tatum Anderson excitedly told him that her son had been a Panthers fan since he’d fallen in love with the football team’s logo as a toddler.
Two days later, a package of Panthers swag arrived with Tatum’s name on it.
She asked if he could help her get tickets to a Panthers home game against the Redskins. McLaughlin, a season ticket holder, said he could.
At the time, Tatum Anderson was casually dating another man, and McLaughlin’s six-year relationship was on the rocks. By October, both were single.
McLaughlin, now 52, invited Tatum Anderson and her son to stay at his house. After consulting with her mother, Tatum Anderson accepted. When they met at the airport, McLaughlin was immediately struck. “I said to myself, ‘Oh my goodness, she is just gorgeous,’ ” he recalls. “She’s beautiful.”
The conversation was easy. “It was as if we’d always known each other,” she says.
They visited the stadium before game day. “It was heaven— her and this kid were running around taking pictures,” he says. “And just to see how happy she was to see how happy he was did my heart wonders.”
When they parted ways so Tatum Anderson could spend the afternoon with a cousin, she surprised McLaughlin with a quick goodbye kiss on the lips. “I just felt so comfortable with him, and I guess I was starting to get a little smitten,” she says.
They reunited for dinner, but when McLaughlin made a call to a female friend in the middle of the meal, Tatum Anderson felt dejected. When she brought it up later, he feared he’d blown his chances.
“He just had the saddest puppy dog look. . . . It was like I saw his heart,” she says. She leaned over and kissed him again. At that moment, he says, he knew he would marry her.
After the game, Tatum Anderson and her son flew home. “It was bittersweet,” she remembers. “Here was this incredible man, and I would love to get to know him better and start a relationship. But how in the world is this possibly going to work?”
The next day, Tatum Anderson told McLaughlin it was the best weekend she’d ever had. But, she added, “I live in Maryland and you live in North Carolina.”
“Don’t say another word,” he replied. “There is absolutely nothing keeping me in Charlotte. If this is God’s will, then I will leave. I feel a connection to you that I’ve never felt with anyone.”
They talked, texted and e-mailed often and changed their Facebook statuses to “in a relationship,” surprising friends who didn’t know they’d finally met. Two weeks after the first visit, on her birthday weekend, she returned to Charlotte by herself. She worried that the dynamic would be different. “But it was just great being back with him,” she says.
They stayed up all night, talking about families and past relationships and hopes for the future. They found that they shared the same values and sense of optimism. At Thanksgiving, they met in Savannah, Ga., to attend a wedding. Standing on their hotel balcony, they began to talk about marriage.
“My favorite movie is ‘Sleepless in Seattle,’ ” says Tatum Anderson. “And the Tom Hanks character says he knew when he touched his wife’s hand — it was like magic. And that’s kind of how it was.”
When McLaughlin visited Tatum Anderson in December, they went ring shopping. On New Year’s weekend, he asked her parents for their blessing.
They were on the phone a week later when McLaughlin said he was going to the movies in Charlotte. Hours later, Tatum Anderson’s doorbell rang in Columbia. She opened the door and found him on one knee. “Will you make me the happiest man on the planet and be my wife?” he asked.
McLaughlin’s son, Jeremy, whom Tatum Anderson had never met, was waiting in the wings. They celebrated the engagement with their two boys.
McLaughlin moved to Columbia on April 28. On May 19, they gathered by a babbling creek in Thurmont, Md., and exchanged vows. Their sons, Tatum Anderson’s parents and McLaughlin’s friend Jarrett were the only guests.
“Everything we’ve been through in past relationships and past marriages has made us who we are today and brought us together,” says Tatum Anderson. “We’re so incredibly compatible.”
“We know we’re a match made in heaven,” added McLaughlin. “My friend would say, ‘Man could not have done this. It had to be God.’ There were so many signs all the way.”
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