For anyone who's almost given up on dating and the idea of living with someone happily ever after, the story of Leni Cohen Wilson's marriage may provide some hope — and validate the proverb that love comes when it's least expected.
Cohen Wilson is a beloved 38-year-old first-grade school teacher in the Howard Beach neighborhood of the New York City borough of Queens. In her off-time, she is also a seductive belly dancer with a sensual smile and smooth moves, known as "Eleni."
Staring down her 40th birthday, she was still a single woman. "I always imagined some day I would get married; I think every little girl imagines one day — you know … put a dress on your head and pretend it's a veil."
Cohen Wilson had been looking and looking, but couldn't find a guy who would commit. Even her mom was starting to give up hope. "I really didn't think I'd see the day," said Glenda Cohen.
Then one day, she told her friends she would be taking a one-year sabbatical on dating.
She missed working on her crafts projects and belly dancing. She felt she was spending too much time "going to singles parties and hanging out in bars — and going to hardware stores and waiting for the right man to come down the aisle and find me."
True to the cliché, as soon as she stopped looking for love, it found her.
Surprise Behind an Oud
After spending more time in the dance studio, Cohen landed a gig with a live band. Scott Wilson was playing a Middle Eastern lute, called an oud — and he spent the night eyeing her.
Wilson is creative, quirky, almost eccentric. At 48, he had been divorced for almost 15 years, and says he had a hard time finding a woman who could live with the open-eyed delight of a first-grader.
"As I found out Leni teaches first grade, I said 'It's great! We can be children for the rest of our lives!'"
It was a match made in heaven. They became soul mates, enjoying hopping around the city, playing music in the park — and making arts and crafts.
"I knew I was not going to let Leni get away," Wilson said. He says he told himself, "'I have to marry this woman.'"
He proposed, she accepted, and in six months, they hoped to have their dream wedding.
An Unusual Ceremony
Wilson said he had an idea that he wanted to be married outside — "in a garden where there were flowers and nature, at least for the ceremony."
That might have been the only conventional part of their wedding plans.
"We didn't like the idea of having a wedding planner create a cookie cutter wedding for us, so we turned all of them away and did everything ourselves with the music and the flowers," Wilson said.
For example, instead of paying hundreds or thousands of dollars to florists to make centerpieces, Wilson had the idea to have the guests build centerpieces out of toys.
Then, Cohen Wilson said, "we could donate it to the school I teach in afterward — for the children!"
And while Cohen dreamed out the dress and veil as a child, as an adult, she didn't find it as important: a month before the wedding, she just bought it off the rack at Macy's.
Her mom was mostly thrilled, delighted and relieved — but she still feared that her daughter's enthusiasm for belly dancing would make it into the ceremony.
"Frankly I was never too thrilled with the belly dancing," she said. "I never really cared for it."
But it was not to be. The first dance would be a belly dance, and "honored" choreographer would be none other than her future husband's mother.
It All Comes Together
For Cohen Wilson, wedding day was full of worries. Because it was an outdoor ceremony, she feared it would rain. By 8 a .m., she had checked the weather 10 times.
She also was worried about how her hair was turning out. It was curled in tiny, tight ringlets. When she looked in the mirror, she said, "Oh, this is not what I wanted to look like."
And there was a pang in her heart. Her father could never know she had found true love at last. He could never walk her down the aisle. He died six months before she met Wilson.
But Cohen Wilson thinks he was there in spirit anyway, "because it was supposed to rain that day. And because it didn't, we think that that was my dad's doing."
The sun was out when the ceremony began, and Cohen's curled were finally relaxed. The first-grade teacher who had given up on love was getting married at last.
"I remember walking down the aisle and I remember tears coming down my face when I was walking down the aisle. I don't really know why. It's not because I was nervous," she said.
"I was happy. I was excited. I mean this was what I always wanted."