For Art Jay and Patti Cunningham-Jay, their first try at romance didn’t take. It was 1990; both were divorced. He was the beloved music teacher at Brookside Elementary School in Ossining; she worked for a real estate developer. Patti’s son, Joe, was Art’s third-grade student. “I thought she was terribly attractive,” says Art of Joe’s mom. He called to ask her out. Patti is a dedicated walker, and Art used to see her walk past the laundromat early in the morning. Their first date was a brisk walk at dawn.
“It was in the winter,” Patti recalls. “The morning of the walk, he called me to tell me it was very cold and that I should wear a hat. This may seem really silly, but, as a single parent who was responsible for 100 percent of everything, to have someone else worrying about me… I almost dropped the phone.”
At first blush, Art and Patti seem an unlikely couple. Art is a composer, cerebral with a dry wit. Patti is high-spirited, spontaneous, and, in heels, taller than her husband. Her divorce was a messy split that left her with three young children to raise on her own; his was a quiet ebbing of affection, a mutually agreed-upon parting of the ways after his twin sons left for college.
Art and Patti dated for a year or so, but “there wasn’t any chemistry on my part,” she explains. “He’s so smart and caring and loving and wonderful—and he cooks! On paper, I would consider myself a fool to say no. But I wasn’t in love with him. And besides, he had two boys who never gave him a lick of trouble, while my life was crazy. I was thinking, This would not end well.”
Art agrees. “The stars were not aligned,” he admits. “I lived quietly; my kids were never a problem. It was cakewalk compared to what she had to face. I don’t think I would’ve handled it well.”
They went their separate ways. Art started a children’s opera and got a write-up in the New York Times. Then he retired and moved to France to open a bed-and-breakfast, a bucket-list item. Meanwhile, Patti’s life was all drama, all the time. Her son, Joe, came home from high school one day and announced he was going to be a father. Soon thereafter, he was almost killed in a car accident and spent months in the hospital. Her middle child, Kelly, battled an autoimmune disease for six years. Her youngest, Kim, struggled to find her place in the world.
For Art’s part, France wasn’t all flaky croissants and joie de vivre. Running a B&B was more work than he’d anticipated. His first grandchild had been diagnosed with cystic fibrosis and autism. Feeling the need to be closer to home—“There was a lot of stuff I shouldn’t be on the other side of the world for,” he says—he decided to return to Ossining. Remembering that Patti sold real estate, he asked her to help him find an apartment. He flew back in the winter of 2003, and they looked at places. “It was strictly business,” Art insists. Funny thing was, they had a great time doing it. “We were on the same page, and it was so much fun,” Patti recalls. “He made me laugh. I noticed he was more relaxed, not wound so tight. We found this unit, and we both said, ‘This is it.’”
They got along well enough that Art even offered Patti the use of his Honda Accord when he returned to France to wrap things up. That summer, she used it to drive Kim to college in Philadelphia. The next morning, she left Kim to drive home—but the car was nowhere to be found. Art’s Honda had been stolen.
Back in New York, Patti was petrified to give him the news. “I was staring at the subject line in the email, thinking, How am I going to do this? I wrote ‘Car Stolen.’ I was waiting for the computer to blow up.” But Art didn’t care about the Honda; he cared about her. “As long as you’re okay. It’s just a used car,” he wrote back. For Patti, it reminded her of “the hat thing, and I was like, He’s so sweet.”
Art hadn’t dated much, but Patti had done the online dating thing, seeing men who were amusing but not keepers, who offered red roses and romance and then never called—which was fine at first. “I didn’t have the energy for a relationship,” says Patti, who had also started her own real-estate business by then. “It was all I could do to do my job and take care of my kids.” Art had accepted the idea of being single for the rest of his life. “When we were apartment-hunting, I told her I’d resigned myself to being alone for the rest of my life,” he says. Patti says that when he’d told her that, “I felt heartsick that he didn’t feel he would eventually spend his life with someone.”
In the summer of 2004, nine months after Art returned to Ossining, he invited Patti to a dinner party. He was having two other couples over and “needed to fill out the table.” She sat and let him take care of everything. She liked his friends, and she liked him, the guy who worried about her. When it was time to leave, she didn’t. They sat on a bench near a brook outside Art’s apartment complex, looking at the night sky, when something clicked—or maybe it was the sound of stars sliding into place.
Kelly heard the stardust in her mom’s voice the next day: “Her voice was sing-songy, happy, calm. I heard that old happiness and joy. That’s the moment when it started.”
A week later, on a date at the Jacob Burns Center in Pleasantville, Art gave Patti a key to the apartment she’d found for him. “Had I known I’d be living here with him, I would’ve found him a two-bedroom,” Patti quips, “with a bathtub!”
Now they can be philosophical about their big break. “The best thing for us in the long run was that we didn’t get together back then, because I don’t think he could’ve handled all the chaos that went on around my kids,” says Patti. “There was a lot that I had to deal with. It would have been so much stress on our lives. And I evolved. I grew up, in the respect that I realized Art was the kind of man I needed as opposed to the kind of man I thought I wanted.”
Art evolved, too. He had accepted that life could be messy. As Patti puts it, “It’s a testament to him how he has adjusted and acclimated and embraced the craziness of me and my life. When I moved here, my son was bringing a bureau upstairs. Art said to him, ‘I hate chaos!’ Joe said, ‘Mr. Jay, if you hate chaos, why do you want to marry my mother?’”
They were wed in Pleasantville in 2005 and celebrated their 10th anniversary this past October with a trip to Europe. Patti works for the Town of Ossining, and Art is working on his second novel. He also cooks and spends time with his 12 grandkids. “We have a wonderful life,” Patti says, clearly content. “I could not be happier. I knew my prince was coming, but I never thought he would be Art. He’s the best thing to happen to me, besides my kids.”
As for the Honda, it was found abandoned, minus its airbags and bristling with parking tickets. The car was towed to New York and repaired, and Art drove it for several more years before trading it in. So the car got a second chance, too.