I meet Marsha and Tom Skinner in their Lexington home on a snowy Thursday afternoon. Empty ceiling-high cabinets and glass cases that housed collectibles and trinkets from their lives lie dormant in preparation for their move to a house that’s more practical for the years ahead.
In the living room, Marsha and I sit at either end of a long, plush sofa. She looks around the room and says she wishes I could have seen their house in all its glory. Tom sinks into a leather recliner. Outside, the back garden is divided into two parts: Tom’s English garden, Marsha’s Japanese garden. Along the boundary that divides the precincts is a row of toy soldiers that Tom stuck into the ground to halt Marsha’s flora from encroaching into his side.
Marsha is 71, Tom 77. They have lived many lives by now. Between them, they tally four marriages and have lived on three different continents. Marsha sits poised, wearing one of the 300 or so hats that she’s collected over the course of her life. Today it’s a black beret.
“My daddy always wore hats. And my mother wore hats when she was younger — big, beautiful ones,” Marsha says. “If I don’t have a hat on, I feel naked.”
Tom has the deep voice that is earned in life. They gesture for the other one to start the interview, to get the ball rolling. They are trying to decide where to start. Marsha goes. She starts at the beginning.
Marsha met Tom when she was only 19. She was already married and living in Lexington with her husband Harry and their daughter Marla, who was three and learning to balance on one foot and walk up and down stairs on her own for the first time.
“Well, I got pregnant, so we had to get married. We did it because it was the thing to do,” Marsha says. She’s matter of fact about things.
And that’s how Marsha and Tom met: through Harry. Harry would come home talking about this friend “Skinner.” Skinner this, Skinner that. So, Marsha told Harry to bring him home for dinner one night. Harry and Tom were doctoral students at the University of Kentucky in January 1969. Tom was back in Kentucky after two years of active duty in Vietnam, dragging his duffle bag behind him.
“I came to class still in a buzz cut and a uniform,” Tom says. “You can’t imagine what that was like with the hippies all around.”
“The first time we met, we just loved each other,” Marsha says. “Not sexually. Just friendly. Friends,” Marsha says.
The rules of engagement were clear. Friends. It wasn’t until nearly 40 years from that first dinner that they had their first kiss. Tom describes himself as old school. He admits he was in trouble when he first met Marsha.
“Here’s my buddy she’s married to,” Tom says. He holds his head in his hands then holds them heavenward. “What you gonna do?”
Marsha, still beautiful, thinks back on herself then: “I really looked pretty then. And young. Tom was very sexy; he had long hair. Everybody loved him.”
The three were fast friends. Tom and Harry ran around town, hanging out in taverns, the racetrack, poker games.
“Poor Marsha was home with the baby,” Tom says. “I kinda hated that, but what could I do?”
Tom became a fixture in Marsha’s life.
Toward the end of Harry’s doctoral tenure at UK, Marsha and Marla flew to Thailand, where Harry did research for his dissertation on the relocation and distribution of slaughterhouses in northeast Thailand.
“Or he was in the damn CIA,” Tom says.
When they came back around 1972, Harry decided he wanted to move the family to Colorado, where they had some friends living.
“They were real hippies,” Marsha says. “No running water, living in the mountains.”
It took three months for Tom to call with a business pitch for Harry. He was working as a teacher in a community college in western Kentucky. Originally from a farming family in Providence, Ky., Tom defines his father as an entrepreneur in the old-fashioned sense of the word. Tom figured that’s what he’d do himself.
“I guess in the back of my mind, everything else was just killing time until I went back and farmed, ran the farm. I’d been looking around for something to do. I do not know how it came to me to go into mobile home sales.”
Tom wanted to make some money. He wanted to be closer to Marsha and Harry.
Marsha had been working in a bank. So, Marsha and Harry moved back to western Kentucky after only six months in Colorado and joined Tom in the mobile home sales business. They stayed in it for about a year. Then change came quickly for the three of them.
“I stayed in the business a little longer after they had a little marital problem,” Tom says.
“We got a divorce,” Marsha says. “Harry just one day says he fell in love with my friend.”
“I am still not in that part; nothing to do with me,” Tom says. He wants me to be sure about that part.
Harry called Marsha up a few months later—she’d learned that Harry had been doing yoga naked in the mobile homes. He wanted to get back together again.
“I always loved him, but I couldn’t be with him after that,” Marsha says. But they remained friends.
Marsha was born in Henderson, Ky., 30 miles from Tom’s hometown of Providence. Her father was a doctor, who paid his way through medical school playing the trumpet. Marsha says that he once beat the famous Harry James out for a gig. Her mother was an artist, which is where she gets her sense of fashion and home décor. Much of her mother’s artwork is in storage, she says while pointing to vacant wall space around the room. Marsha is a middle child to three brothers: one older, two younger.
After the divorce, Harry went back to Colorado while Tom sold the leftover inventory from the mobile home business while. They remained friends despite the failed partnership.To supplement his income, Tom found odd jobs as a mechanic, teaching a class here and there. During this time, Tom was voted the best teacher at the school where he was working.
“He’s a great teacher,” Marsha says of Tom. “I got to see him teach a couple of times at UK.”
Tom remembers his teaching days fondly too.
“I really liked it. And was liked. I did a good job. But I looked out the window more than the students; in economics; that’s a lot.”
When Marsha came back to Lexington after the divorce, their lives began to move in opposite directions. Tom’s life moved fast. He followed his entrepreneurial inclinations while keeping things together on the farm in Providence, where they grew corn and soybeans.
“1,500 acres,” Tom says. “Which is big in Kentucky; not this hill stuff.”
Marsha worked full-time at the hospital on UK’s campus as a unit clerk. Marsha held high standards for her daughter and made sure she was involved in school activities. They grew up together, and they visited family in Henderson often.
All the while, Marsha kept in touch with Tom.
“Every year I would send him a Christmas card and a birthday card,” Marsha says. “He’d call once in a while to see how Marla and I were doing.”
Marsha married Frank Bode in 1983 and left her job at the hospital to stay home with Marla. Frank worked for IBM, who at that time employed over 6,000 people in Lexington, the second largest employer only to UK. Marsha remembers Frank as intelligent and fun-loving.
“Frank made me laugh! He always wanted to do something fun,” Marsha says.
About 10 years into her marriage with Frank, Tom called her up and said he needed to visit. By then, Tom was married to Rhonda with whom he’d had a daughter named Katye.
“I really didn’t think he’d ever get married,” Marsha says. “I was so happy when he had a child. I never thought he would, because he was really kind of a wild man.” Marsha notices Tom’s empty glass and drains a can of Yuengling into it and hands it to him.
Tom and Rhonda visited Marsha and Frank at their Lexington home, which sat on about 10 acres. Tom admits he wasn’t initially fond of Marsha’s husband.
“I never trusted anyone who worked for IBM. Big corp.”
They ate dinner and then Marsha and Tom took a walk out to the barn. They shared a friendship older than both of their marriages combined; they remember the suspicion it roused in their partners at the time.
“Hell, they were peering out the window at us,” Tom says. “They felt it!”
“They knew that we loved each other. They watched us. We didn’t stay very long.”
The visit grounded Tom but he realized something he couldn’t share with Marsha yet.
“I’ve got to stay away from her for a long time after that, look the other way,” Tom says.
Tom laid low for a while. He’d returned to teaching in the late ‘80s at a community college near Henderson. He’d quit corn and soybeans earlier because he didn’t trust the government would make good on subsidies.
“I was wrong about that,” he says today. “You can get rich farming! The young man now doesn’t need to be an entrepreneur, he just needs to study government policy, which sounds like socialism, which is what we’re moving toward and that’s great. Farmers have known that for a long time. You don’t fuck with farmers.”
Tom and Rhonda separated in the mid ‘90s, and Tom got into the chicken business.
“I sort of had a deal with Tyson Foods,” Tom says. “They were in a hurry to get some chickens and build these houses. I jumped on it.”
The farm produced 3 million chickens a year until the year 2000, when Tom swiftly exited the chicken business.
Tom batted around with a little chicken money in his pocket and ended up going to Africa after a stint in Washington D.C. hanging around and meeting people, notably a Kenyan diplomat, who introduced him to the cashew business. His first trip to Kenya ended in Tanzania, where he worked in the import/export business of cashew production.
Meanwhile, Marsha heard about Tom’s adventures from Harry and other friends. Harry was working as a Financial Advisor for Franklin County Children’s Services up in Cincinnati.
“Harry would call and say, ‘Skinner’s got a chicken farm; now he’s in Africa,’” Marsha says.
She was married to Frank, but she was still friendly with Harry, despite their divorce.
Marsha’s husband Frank passed in 2005 after a battle with cancer. A couple of years later, Tom called and said he wanted to take her to lunch.
“I was grieving, and he wanted to put the moves on me,” she says. “I wasn’t interested because I was still mourning. I still am. When something like that happens it never goes away totally.”
In 2008, Marsha and Marla shared a booth at an antique mall in Versailles, KY, where they sold things like Bybee pottery, stain glass, copper, old quilts and Fenton lamps. Tom phoned Marla out of the blue and said he was coming to Lexington to see his daughter, a talented pianist, compete in Junior Miss. Marla was always fond of Tom; he was a part of her childhood. She saw him throughout the years, both with her mother and with her father Harry when she visited.
Marla told her mother that Skinner was coming to town, and she called him.
“What about me?” Marsha remembers saying.
“Well, sure I wanna see you,” Tom said over the phone. “I expected to see you.”
It might be the romance and reliving it all in the living room, it might be the half-empty bottle of Prosecco, but at this point in the story, Marsha begins to blush in two neat ovals on her cheekbones.
Tom got into Lexington on a Thursday night. But Marsha had a birthday party in Frankfort.
“You see where I stand in all this,” Tom says. “…second.”
So, they planned to meet at Marla’s house later that night. Marsha hadn’t been romantically interested in anyone since Frank’s passing.
“I think tonight’s the night,” she told one of her friends in the days leading up to their reunion.
But the birthday party ran late. It was almost midnight when she arrived.
I speak to Marla over the phone later that evening. Marla remembers the moment her mother and Tom reunited. She and her husband Laith had witnessed it in their kitchen.
“I’ve never seen anything like it. It was like electric lightning bolts. The energy in the room was so strong that our jaws dropped,” Marla says. “It was always a special relationship.”
After a while, Marsha invited Tom back to her house across town, where they talked until Tom admitted that he was tired.
“We went upstairs, and I said, ‘You can have this room, that room, or you can have this room which is my room,’” Marsha says.
I don’t have to ask which room Tom picked. “He took his shirt off; he has the most beautiful hairy chest. And I knew I was in trouble then.” She smiles at Tom from her perch on the edge of the sofa. Even in her seventies, Marsha has the robust posture of a lamppost.
The next night, Tom asked Marsha to join him downtown at the Hyatt for the second night of Junior Miss. She went. But at this moment in their story, Marsha recalls a bump in their relationship.
“I was sitting there, and Tom said, ‘Do you remember Mary Kathryn?’”
Marsha had known her from Tom and Harry’s time at UK. She was pursuing a doctorate degree in History and graduated around the same time as Tom and Harry and had had a relationship with Tom in the 70s. Tom had proudly put word out that Katye was a contestant in Junior Miss; Mary had the means to get a flight to Kentucky as easily as Marsha could drive across town, Tom remembers. He was in his late sixties, he marriage with Rhonda had come to an end, and Tom admits there was some romantic desperation in him as he headed into old age, which resulted in the romantic overextension on this occasion.
“Unrequited loves. Loose ends.
“Tom says she might be here in a few minutes. I couldn’t believe it. After all these years, he’s got this other woman coming,” Marsha says. “So, after about 10 minutes she walks in. I was glad to see her, but I had to leave.”
When Tom invited Marsha back to Junior Miss again the next night, Marsha lied and claimed she had prior commitments. Tom called her again Sunday and asked to come over.
Marsha told him she didn’t care who he had sex with, but she was nobody’s fool.
“I said, ‘Don’t lie to me, or we’ll never be friends again.’”
Tom waited a few days before calling her. When he did, he’d made up his mind: it was Marsha.
After that, Marsha and Tom saw each other as much as they could, splitting their time between Kentucky and Africa. She started spending months there with him. When they weren’t together, Tom called every day. She trusted him.
Marsha and Tom married in 2019.
“He never got down on one knee like I wanted him to,” Marsha says.
They’d been talking about marriage for a long time. Marsha didn’t want to, and Tom didn’t see the need. They loved each other and they trusted that. But Marsha confesses that she always thought it was tacky for unmarried people to live together.
“It was just the way he said it,” Marsha says. “I said, ‘OK, I’ll marry you.’”
They describe the New Orleans house where they had the ceremony as charmingly French with floor to ceiling bookshelves. They only invited close family.
Tom says he is off to Africa again soon. He and his investors wanted to do some good in the developing countries where they worked, not simply make a profit. That meant setting up infrastructure.
“There’s quite a bit of processing before cashews can be shipped to the big markets: Brazil, India, Thailand, Vietnam. These guys all have more processing capacity than they grow,” Tom says. “When they get done processing their own product, they come over and prey on farmers in Africa.”
Marsha asks Tom what locals call him in the African countries where he works.
“They call me a lot of things,” Tom says. He assures me that he could go to several countries—South Africa, Ghana, Kenya and Tanzania—and somebody would know who he is. “In a bar probably,” he adds.
“One time he was almost killed in Casablanca for being someplace he wasn’t supposed to be,” Marsha says.
“That was close!” he says.
Tom suffers with rheumatoid arthritis these days, but it doesn’t stop him from doing the stuff he wants to do. It’s part of the job these days for Tom: dealing with the getting up and getting going in the morning. While Tom no longer teaches, he is busy with his cashew production business in Tanzania.
Marsha keeps the home fires burning. She doesn’t mind getting old for the most part either, though some effects concern her more than others.
“I hate to get wrinkles. I’m vain; most people are,” she says. “It’s not feeling like you did. Not having the energy. Your body hurts.”
Later that evening, Marsha leans back into the corner of the velvet sofa. She recalls a safari trip when they witnessed the Great Migration of wildebeest and zebras in Kenya as something special, a once in a lifetime kind of thing, she tells me. Marsha thinks the most beautiful sight is a zebra’s backside, the symmetrical proportion of their stripes.
Tom pulls up a documentary video on YouTube. Herds of wildebeests and dazzles of zebra rush across a river, past a bask of crocodiles. It’s a thrilling flurry of life and death.
“It’s a miracle if you really get to see it,” Marsha says.
We sit in their living room, which is devoid of their belongings, packed into cardboard boxes and stored throughout the house. Marsha hopes to find a house that’s closer to Marla and her grandkids. They agree that they have exciting years ahead.
“When we look at each other it’s like we remember how we used to look,” Marsha says, looking at Tom, whose weather-beaten flat cap is pulled low down over his brow.
The sun sets into a neat orange line in the frame of the window as we watch the end of the documentary. Marsha is resting a hand on Tom’s. The two of them might be a miracle themselves, sitting together in the last light of a Thursday afternoon in Lexington, Ky.
A miracle of patience, of persistence, of love.