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Everything old seems new again

  • AL ZAGOFSKY/TIMES NEWS Helen Van Pelt and Steve Hlavka are back together. They were married for 14 years and divorced for 24 years. Here, they play together with cat, Zsa Zsa.
    AL ZAGOFSKY/TIMES NEWS Helen Van Pelt and Steve Hlavka are back together. They were married for 14 years and divorced for 24 years. Here, they play together with cat, Zsa Zsa.
Published December 28. 2009 05:00PM

There is a proverb, "If you fall off a horse, get back on again."

For one Jim Thorpe couple, the horse they fell off was a 14-year marriage. They were off that horse for 24 years. Now they are back in the saddle together.

Steve Hlavka and Helen Van Pelt own the Opera Square Giftique and Antiques at 11 West Broadway in Jim Thorpe. Steve bought the shop in 2000 to turn his dabbling in antiques into a business. Now that the love of his life has returned, his antiques have been moved to the back burner as Helen has transformed the shop into a showcase for her handmade crocheted ponchos, scarves and pocketbooks.

Helen grew up in Clark, N.J., the daughter of immigrant parents.

"My mother was from Austria and my dad was from Hungary," she said. "They worked in the New Jersey garment industry."

Both Steve's grandfathers worked in LC&N's Greenwood coal mines in Tamaqua.

"Mom and dad came from Coaldale," Steve said. "She was Russian. Dad was Slovak. They didn't know one another in Coaldale."

There was no work in Coaldale except the mines. They each had left Coaldale to work in New York City. They met at a New York City social club.

In mid-1970, Steve, 31, and Helen, 23, who were both divorced with children Steve with three boys and Helen with one girl were neighbors in a Linden, N.J. apartment house.

"We probably opened the door and saw each other in the hall," Steve said. "There was chemistry."

"There was an attraction," Helen agreed. "I thought he was crazy when I first met him. He was wild, like a hippy."

"I was," Steve replied. "Still am."

"He played loud acid rock music all the time on the stereo," Helen said. "He had an Afro-perm."

"She was gorgeous," Steve said.

They started visiting one another.

"After a while we decided why do we need two apartments?" Steve said.

Steve, Helen and their four children moved in together.

"We combined forces."

The children got along but Steve and Helen began drifting apart. Steve had his moods, and Helen, then seeing many opportunities through her sales career, was wanting her independence. They divorced after 14 years of marriage.

They each formed and broke relationships. Every now and then, their paths would cross, and if they were between relationships, they'd date.

"It was the same old, same old," Steve said.

Steve had a window cleaning business and, in 2000, returned to his Carbon County roots looking to retire. He found a house on the main street in Jim Thorpe and bought it, hoping to start an antiques business. He continued to return to New Jersey to take care of his aging father.

The funeral of a mutual friend's mother brought Steve and Helen together after being apart for 24 years. The chemistry reignited.

"Everybody at the funeral said, 'Oh my God! They're together. What the heck is going on here,'" Helen said.

"We had a history," Helen noted, "but after 24 years apart, we were both different people."

"I always cared for Helen," Steve said. "She haunted me, and the other women I dated knew it. I would tell them about how I'd like them to dress or wear their hair. They would try to please me but they couldn't. They weren't Helen. For all those years, I couldn't live with Helen, I couldn't live without her."

If time heals, 24 years is a lot of healing. What was once "same old, same old," eventually became truly desirable as they became older.

"We used to think there was something better," Steve said.

Together, they moved to Steve's home and shop in Jim Thorpe. Asked if they are getting married again, Steve rolled his eyes, indicating that they seem to be happier not being married.

Steve reads while Helen crochets as she watching soap operas. She's been making stock for the shop.

"Helen's work is great," Steve said, "but she's so busy, she's never made anything for me. She won't even darn my socks."

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