Jeff Rosenberg is still trying to solve a “52-year-old mystery” that haunts him: Why did his coworker, Jill Van Grembergen, agree to a second date?
The two met as teenagers at the Big Apple supermarket in Westbury in the late 1960s. Jeff, a freshman at SUNY Farmingdale, worked in the dairy department, and Jill, a senior at Queen of the Rosary Catholic Academy, was a cashier.
Whenever the store was busy, the manager would recruit employees to help the cashiers bag groceries. “I would always try to get to Jill’s lane first — she stuck out from the others,” Jeff said, recalling her red hair and freckles, which she still has.
Eventually, he got up the courage to ask her out, but was too nervous to be alone with her. So they joined two other couples at the movies. Jeff had dated one of the girls, and she confronted Jill in the restroom to admit she still had feelings for him.
Without reading reviews, they chose to see “The Fox,” a film that explored lesbianism and which, in retrospect, “was certainly not first-date worthy,” Jeff said. Then, the group dined at a cheap, cafeteria-style restaurant, where Jeff treated Jill to a what he remembers as a “second-rate” meal.
“I’ll never know why she let this disaster slide and even be forgiven,” Jeff said at the couple’s vow renewal last month, “but somehow we went out again.” In May, the Rosenbergs, of Bellmore, will mark their 50th wedding anniversary.
A long-distance love
From Farmingdale, Jeff went on to Ohio University to continue his education. At this point the two were dating each other as well as other people, but “there was always that tie” that kept them together, Jill said.
Because of some tension between their families — Jeff is Jewish and Jill’s mother is a devout Catholic — Jill would call Jeff at college using a pay phone across the street from her house. “We used to . . . collect rolls of quarters and communicate for hours,” Jeff recalled.
“I really felt lost without him,” Jill said. So, in January 1970, she visited Jeff at school, and they eloped to Elkton, Md. She said, “We went there because you didn’t need parental permission . . .”
“. . . or brains,” Jeff continued.
That Valentine’s Day. Jeff hitchhiked from Ohio to Long Island to surprise Jill and break the news of the elopement to their families. He and his roommate hit the highway at 10 p.m.; Jeff estimates that it was 43 below that night.
Their parents, while shocked, were ultimately happy with the news, and planned a “wedding without the ceremony,” Jill said, at the Holiday Manor in Bethpage on May 30, 1970.
A new beginning in Bellmore
Married life for the Rosenbergs began in a Forest Hills apartment with a roach problem and a leaky roof. There they had their first daughter, Kristie, but also financial troubles. A longing for home brought them to Bellmore in 1978; they moved into a house just down the street from Mepham High School.
Jeff was a project manager at Met Life and Jill a travel services manager for AAA. Jill was also involved in the Bellmore-Merrick Mother’s Center, the Newbridge Road School PTA and the Mepham PTA. Jeff’s PTA participation began when their youngest daughter, Jaime Copeland, enrolled her son, Michael, at Newbridge.
Copeland had Michael when she was 18, and raised him in the Rosenbergs’ home. She explained that her parents were like “a second mom and dad.” Jeff “was the hall monitor, the PTA dad, the secret reader and would go on the trips,” she said. “They did everything with him.”
While Valentine’s Day gives Jeff an opportunity to woo his wife with gifts or surprises, Copeland said he could accomplish this on any given day. “My dad never did anything small,” she said. “Everything had to be a surprise and a big presentation.”
Copeland recalled one Christmas when her father gave Jill a “puke-green” coat and pocketbook set. As Jill offered weak pleasantries, Jeff implored her to check the coat’s pocket — inside was a beautiful necklace. A few years ago, he surprised Jill with a new car. “It showed how much love he gave her,” she said.
For her 60th birthday, the Rosenbergs dined at the French restaurant Sage Bistro in Bellmore — a welcome change from their first date. At the end of the meal, Jeff gave Jill a trinket-sized Eiffel Tower and told her they’d be spending her birthday in Paris . . . Tennessee. Jill smiled fondly at the gag.
“Those are the kind of things — the little, little things [are] what makes us last,” Jill said.
The likely answer to the 52-year-old mystery of the Rosenberg’s love story lies in their dueling personalities. Jill is spirited, talkative and ruled by her faith; Jeff is pragmatic and logical. But their relentless commitment to each other has helped their marriage last — it’s something they work on “every single day,” Jill said.
“There’s always going to be disagreements, and you’re always going to have words,” Jeff said, “but whatever you’re trying to work through, you do it based on what’s happening now.”
“We solve things as a team,” Jill said. “I’m very lucky to have found him.”