TARPON SPRINGS — Even before they met in person, Stephanie Collins already thought Greg Becker was an unusually patient man.
Maybe because as an auto mechanic he's attuned to listening for pings and grinds. Maybe from living with his ailing grandmother the last year of her life.
"It took him two months of chattering on a dating website to convince me to come out and meet him," she said, his perseverance noted.
A few beers and a bite to eat that night in January 2013 and neither wanted the evening to end. Greg kissed her goodbye at the Clearwater bar — her friend, the bartender, would become her maid of honor — and called her cellphone before he'd left the parking lot.
They talked for hours, "and every day since," said Stephanie, 27, a veterinary assistant at Southern Eye Clinic for Animals in Tampa.
Greg, 31, moved from Reno, Nev., to St. Petersburg in the fall of 2010 and works as an assistant manager for NAPA Integrated Business Solutions, facilitating auto parts for the city of St. Petersburg's utility vehicles.
Being near his grandmother, Margo Johnson, was a major draw. Their special bond — she was "like a second mother to me" — was especially meaningful given that he never knew his biological father growing up.
Their relationship reminded Stephanie of her closeness to her own maternal grandmother in Palm Harbor, who often pitched in for her parents. Both were musicians with nighttime gigs, she said.
The more time Stephanie and Greg spent together, the more she admired his attention to Granny. Greg felt the same way about her "amazing single mom" skills. Most dates were kid-friendly outings, like bowling and going to the beach, with her 7-year-old son, Carter.
In June, the couple drove to Kentucky to pick up her younger son, C.J., 6, who lives there with his father.
"He slowly warmed up to Greg on the way back to Florida," she said. "By the end of the visit, C.J. loved him, too."
The summer that began so promisingly took a drastic turn. Greg took care of Granny after a knee replacement in June 2013. The surgery went fine, but recovery left her weakened. She was diagnosed with cancer a month later. Greg said, "Just six months together and Stephanie was helping me take care of my grandmother," who lived through Thanksgiving, "telling us the turkey was dry, like her old, feisty self," She died a week later at age 72.
Sadness made the couple even more appreciative of each other. Greg took advantage of a family photo opportunity while his mother was still in town, taking care of Granny's affairs, to tell Stephanie how he felt with a diamond ring.
"We were all gathered in her parents' back yard in Tarpon Springs," he said. Suddenly, cameras were flashing, her brother was videotaping, and Greg was on one knee asking her to be his wife.
Planning commenced immediately for a June 28 wedding. But there would be no dress shopping.
"I always knew I would wear my mother's wedding gown," Stephanie said.
Out of the preservation box it came, as beautiful as she remembered.
But oh, so '80s.
"Puffy shoulders, long sleeves, cap veil . . . but it fit perfectly," she said.
Riverview seamstress Calista Thomas came highly recommended. She listened to Stephanie's ideas and added her own suggestions. In short: sleeves off, train trimmed, bling added.
The next time the bride stepped into the gown, a month before the wedding, the vision made her mother, Amy, and grandmother cry.
Pastor Mike Oliver and youth director David Bolton, who has known Stephanie since she was a teen, officiated at First United Methodist Church in Tarpon Springs. Guests proceeded to the charming 1910 Inn for the afternoon reception.
Something startling happened as the ceremony ended.
"Stephanie gave me a little pin with a picture of me and Granny on it," Greg said. "When I walked over to my mother and stepfather, it just popped off my tux. It was eerie, almost like she was sending us a message."
After the first dance with her husband, the bride slipped away to change into a short, white lace dress. "I didn't want anyone to step on the gown or damage it," she said.
It's packed away now, for a daughter she hopes to have who will wear it someday. "She'll probably say, 'Oh my gosh, you actually wore this? It's soooo 2014."
Contact Amy Scherzer at [email protected] or (813) 226-3332.