Over 20 years ago on the platform of the uptown 1 train at Manhattan’s 59th Street, a then 29-year-old Rodney Epperson spotted 22-year-old Lisha Epperson waiting for the train. “I looked over, and there was this beautiful girl,” recalls the fashion designer. Not only was she striking, Lisha’s choice of outerwear instantly raised her stock way up. “She was wearing this great Yohji Yamamoto trench coat that caught my attention.” 

Lisha, a ballerina at the time, was smitten… but not by Rodney. Well, not at first. Her gaze was fixated on his female companion’s hair. “It was a crazy rainy day and everyone had messy hair. I was admiring her hairstyle,” explains Lisha, who thought the well coiffed subway female rider, Rodney holding a bouquet of flowers, and the little boy with them made a beautiful family. But she sensed something was off. “He kept looking over at me and I thought that was weird.”

The woman with Rodney was his sister, and the boy, his son, Emoni.

When the train approached, Rodney and Lisha got on in different cars. “I’m 21 and feeling adventurous, so I crossed over to his car, and it was obvious he kept looking at me. I just felt something, some sort of connection,” says Lisha. While she was trying to read Rodney’s stares and figure out “the deal with him and this woman,” Rodney was working up the courage to approach her.

“I took one rose out of the bouquet I was carrying to a birthday party, and I walked up behind her. When she turned around I just introduced myself, gave her the flower and she just lit up. It was as if there was music playing, and it was just us on the train. It was intense,” explains Rodney. “We talked the entire ride, and I even missed my stop,” says Lisha.

She thought Rodney was “really dashing, tall and fine.” Although the coveted oversized overcoat Rodney was so impressed by turned out not to be a Yohji original but a vintage number from her mother’s closet (“He thought I was fabulous like that but really I wasn’t,” says Lisha), it was really Lisha’s captivating smile, which he likens to a bright light, that truly captivated him.

“She was mad intriguing. I didn’t know anyone who danced ballet,” expresses Rodney. “I fell in love with [ballet] at 7, but my parents couldn’t afford to send me to classes,” says Lisha. She taught herself dance steps on the banister in the hallway of her Brooklyn building until she was able to take professional classes at 16. “Which is super, super late. But I was still able to carve out a career by the grace of God,” she adds. “I loved the strength behind the beauty.”

Lisha won a scholarship to the Dance Theater of Harlem and stopped dancing when she was 30. Ironically, a week before Rodney laid eyes on Lisha, he told his sister he longed to meet a beautiful ballerina. “She wore her natural hair in a ballerina bun. She traveled the world, and she knew what she wanted and was great at it at a young age. I never met anyone like her,” confesses Rodney.

And Lisha hadn’t ever come across anyone like Rodney either. On their first date, the Project Runway alum with a bag full of clothes picked her up for dinner at the restaurant where she was working as a hostess. “Who would do that? It was really cool, different and sweet,” she says, still amazed at the stylish gesture. “I now get unlimited access to his clothes, and that’s great.”

For as long as he can remember, Rodney has been enamored with beautiful clothes. While his brothers hung pictures of cars all over their bedroom walls, he decorated his room with fashion images ripped from Ebony magazines. “Each time I design something, I feel like a part of me is being shared. It’s a gift that God blessed me with, and Lisha was blessed with the gift of dance.” 

In addition to their enthusiasm for the arts, the church and their mutual spiritual development have always played a significant role in their relationship. Prior to dating Lisha, Rodney was on a spiritual journey of self-discovery. “I was searching for myself and God. I wanted her to experience what I was going through,” he explains. “Part of his whole courting me was taking me to church with him. I embraced it immediately,” says Lisha.

The connection between Rodney and Lisha was instantaneous, and their relationship took off very quickly. Following their first date, the pair were inseparable and started dating exclusively.  “With her, it was love at first sight. She makes me make sense. I lean on her without even realizing it,” says Rodney. Having lost his mother, also his best friend, at 14, Rodney jokes that Lisha is not only his wife but also his mother. “She’s that missing link for me.”

For Lisha, Rodney’s playful demeanor has taught her to loosen up a bit. Laughter abounds in their household. “She calls me the corniest person, and she has the kids calling me that too. It’s important to laugh and remember those happy times, because that’s what’s gonna move a relationship forward,” says Rodney.

In 1989 after two years of dating, Lisha thought it was time to take their relationship to the next level. She asked Rodney to marry her as they were sitting across from each other in a restaurant. “I wrote on a napkin, ‘If we are this close a year from now, will you marry me?’ ” To her surprise Rodney replied, “no.”

“It scared the hell out of me! I never had anyone love me that much,” remembers Rodney. “I definitely wasn’t ready for it. This was serious, and if you go into something like that and you are not ready, you can’t expect it to work.”

While today Lisha can look back and admit that she wasn’t ready for marriage either (“we probably would have gotten a divorce”), back then her heart was broken when Rodney turned down her proposal. “From that moment on, things started to go bad. He started to pull away. We broke up and it was painful,” admits Lisha. “I felt awful and there were seconds of regrets. But I knew it was for the best at that time,” says Rodney.

During the two and a half years they were separated, Rodney moved to Paris and started modeling before returning to the states and devoting his time to designing and taking care of his son. Lisha was living in D.C. performing with a dance company and dating someone new. “I cared for him, but he wasn’t Rodney. I loved Rodney,” says Lisha, who would often run into Rodney while out with her boyfriend on her many visits back to New York City. “I was always thinking about her,” says Rodney. At one of their many run-ins, a confident Rodney told Lisha, “I don’t know when, but we are gonna be back together.”

“My mom said to me as Rodney walked away, ‘You are still in love with him,’ ” says Lisha. “All of a sudden it clicked in me. I thought, ‘what am I doing? I want to be with Rodney.’ ” 

In order to get back where they left off, Lisha and Rodney worked on rebuilding their friendship. “We were friends first, and that played a big part in our relationship. We had something to fall back on,” says Rodney. “The time apart made me appreciate what I lost.” In 1995, it was Rodney’s turn to propose. He asked Lisha to marry him at the subway stop where they first met. Their outdoor wedding took place in the summer of 1996. Lisha walked down the aisle in a gown designed by Rodney. “It was amazing and just what we imagined that day would be like,” declares Lisha.

But what came as a devastating surprise was the infertility struggles the couple would have to endure for many years. “All I wanted was to have a baby. It took me a very long time to get pregnant and then we had a late loss,” explains Lisha. During this “very, very dark” time in their marriage, their faith was tested. “We had to trust that God knew exactly what he was doing,” asserts Rodney. “I had a son and I wanted us to experience that together. What was difficult for me was that I just couldn’t make it right for her.”

As they continued to try to have a child, the couple turned to adoption. Lisha and Rodney had always discussed adopting even before their fertility obstacles. “That was always part of the plan, and I know this was my path,” says Lisha. They adopted their 12-year-old son, Lichai, at 10 weeks old, and 10-year-old and 5-year-old daughters Ila and Chailah at four months and six weeks, respectively.

“You can get so lost in wanting to carry a baby that we miss the opportunity to be parents. Do you want to be a mom or do you just want to be pregnant?” asks Lisha. “For me, being a mommy was the goal and adoption was a dream come true.”

Lisha and Rodney become adoption advocates encouraging women to consider adoption. Lisha and Rodney say they were saddened by how grossly underrepresented African-Americans are when it comes to opening our homes to needy children. “Other people are adopting our Black children. We should be more involved because adoption is a beautiful thing. People of color just don’t get it,” states Rodney. They are often met with stunned expressions when they reveal that their children are adopted.

“Traditionally in our culture, adoption is informal. Somebody in the family gets pulled into your family, and you raise them. We all know of such stories. There is just no paperwork involved like in adoption,” offers Lisha.

Through adoption, the Eppersons have been blessed with their dream family. When Lisha was 45, their faith gave birth to their first and only birth child, Adé. “You see how amazing that is? God promised, and I tell you He delivered. I didn’t see it coming. We are so blessed,” Lisha says. Rodney believes everything that happened in their relationship led them to the life they’re living. “It’s crazy to think if we both weren’t waiting for the train that day, we would have never met and been married now for 17 years.”

The Coolest Black Family in America is an EBONY.com original series: an ongoing look at the intricacies, layers and compelling beauty of African-American family life. Of course, The Coolest Black Family is not one family but many. In fact, we’ve found that there are as many Coolest Black Families as there are versions of cool. Also consider: family doesn’t always mean mother + father + kids. What defines family is connected hearts and supported souls. Ride with us weekly as we crisscross the country in search of kinfolk whose cool is so palpable and real, it comes second only to their love. Think your cool fam qualifies? Email us at [email protected] (with Coolest Black Family in the subject line)!

Alexandra Phanor-Faury is a Haitian-American writer living in Brooklyn, New York with a slight (OK, major) addiction to fashion and pop culture. When she’s not up in the middle of the night filling her online shopping carts and catching up on style blogs, she’s writing about fashion and entertainment for a number of websites and her blog, Fringueuse.