“There’s a story to everything,” said John Alaimo recently when he and his wife, Holly, opened their home on Webaqua Avenue in Oak Bluffs to the MV Times. He stood over a pair of back-to-back Mission-style sofas in the couple’s light, bright, and beautifully appointed living room. “Holly saw these over 30 years ago in the window of a Goodwill shop down from where she worked [as a seamstress for the Boston Ballet]. The sofas were $15. Holly only had $5 in her purse, and by the time she returned to work, her boss had already purchased them.” The boss promised that someday they’d belong to her, and, sure enough, only 25 years later on the Vineyard, after she’d long forgotten about them, the former employer had the sofas delivered by van.
Indeed, the saga of the Alaimos’ life together unspools with the high adventure and changes of scenery of Dr. Zhivago, only without quite so much snow, and in this case, Omar Sharif and Julie Christie are still together.
It was back in ’65. John was a 25-year-old jazz pianist and Holly, 18, an aspiring painter and working waitress: They lived in the same apartment building, Holly on top of John, in Hermosa Beach, Calif., without actually having met. A mutual friend kept trying to fix them up, but Holly had plans to move, so no dice.
Destiny, however, was busy making other plans. On Holly’s moving day, she lugged her bags from the building, and tripped and fell on the beach, whereupon John gallantly appeared to help her, and soon they were hitchhiking up the coast together. And tumbling deeply into love.
At a bus stop north of Santa Barbara, a half-mad, homeless, itinerant minister married them, and although they organized a legal marriage some four years later, they have always clocked their anniversary to that bus stop ceremony, April 10, 1965, 50 years ago nearly to this day.
Another date required fixing: Holly originally told John she was 23, thinking he’d find her more adult at that age. On their first day thumbing rides, she said, “I need to tell you something. I’m really 22.” Each day, as he accepted the racking down of her age, she renegotiated another year less, until she arrived at 18. Even that he found acceptable. Conceivably the success of this 50-year marriage may be attributed to the innate amiability of both Alaimos.
From a room costing $18.50 per week in a San Francisco flophouse, located where the cable cars turned around (“It was very noisy,” said Holly), to a fishing-shack share with painters, musicians, and other assorted hippies in Larkspur outside Sausalito, Holly and John, before their peripatetic year was out, made their way back to the East Coast where both had grown up, to settle in Cambridge, where they gave birth in ’65 to son Naaron (“It’s a town in Scotland,” said Holly, “but I never checked the spelling,” to which John added, “When we arrived at the hospital, the power went out. It was the start of the big blackout that swept the whole eastern seaboard.”). Daughter Jessamin was born in ’71.
Holly kept working, in real estate, at bartending, and sewing for the ballet company, a job that included fitting Nureyev in his costumes. Meanwhile John, a piano prodigy from the age of 12 who lost four of his right-hand fingers in a machinery accident at the age of 19, had taken an executive position with Polaroid, though all the while he went on playing — on the West Coast with the iconic jazz keyboardist Hampton Hawes, in the East with equally revered drummer Bunny Smith.
It was Smith who lured the Alaimos down to Martha’s Vineyard, where the two musicians jammed with other band members at the fabled Sea View Bar. Holly said, “It was my job to clean and sanitize the rooms we stayed in upstairs.” It was also the only time Holly and John enjoyed vacations, their kids safely stowed with babysitters in Cambridge.
A longing for a Vineyard summer place took root, and a small legacy left by the death of John’s father made the acquisition of something none-too-pricey possible. One day Islander Sara Crafts sent the couple photos of an abandoned trio of shacks on Duke’s County Ave.
Holly said, “The place was a shambles. Ivy grew into the smashed windows, covered the floor, and grew up the other wall and out the opposite windows.” The price was, not surprisingly, low. They moved in on their anniversary, April 10, 1995. “Snow was in the air,” said John, and there was no furnace. Holly said, “The steps to the bedroom had collapsed, so we slept on the floor downstairs.”
Just when the cold and the horror of their surroundings began to overpower them, May appeared bright and balmy, and they discovered the joy of an outdoor shower. Meanwhile, Holly was a dab hand at painting even a broken-down shack into a place of whimsy, with royal-blue cabinets and pretty pots hung on colored hooks. What they hadn’t counted on was that, once installed, they dug in. The Vineyard was their new and permanent home. By that time their kids were established in the world, with kids of their own. The Alaimos sold the last of their mainland houses, this one in Lexington, and with the money began to fix up their hovels.
John said, “The odd thing that happened was that people kept knocking on our door or even barging in as we sat eating breakfast. They thought this was a shop. They were picking up on old Arts District vibes, and the building itself was chock-a-block with the street.” Holly decided to follow an old passion and open an art gallery.
And thus Dragonfly was born in ’96. “I’ve always had dragonflies land on me,” said Holly. “Once a dragonfly crawled up my leg and sat on my heart. I talked it down and out of the house and onto a birdbath, because we had tenants arriving.”
The Alaimos bought a beautiful wooded parcel in West Tisbury off Indian Hill Road, with a main house and a guest cottage, both designed with a Japanese flair. “We were always doing the Vineyard shuffle,” said Holly. “When the gallery was closed, we stayed there, renting out the West Tisbury places. Sometimes we simply lived in our garage.”
Nowadays, with the Indian Hill Road houses and the gallery sold in 2010, the Alaimos are comfortably installed in their Webaqua abode, with a rental unit next door, their back bedroom converted to John’s studio, presided over by his baby grand piano, the hallway transposed to Holly’s office/laundry room. “If you have good art, you can make a room out of anything,” offered Holly. There’s a skylight-lit storage loft and playroom upstairs, the entire home made perfect by Holly’s art-cultivar of an eye, blending color with old and new treasures. The jewel in the crown is cast-iron owls in the fireplace hearth, red flames glowing through avian eyes.
Perfect. Just like this 50-year marriage.