People move to the Northern Neck for many reasons. Claudine Jaquier Gifford moved from Orlando, Florida to escape her 17-year marriage. She arrived at a close friend’s home in Burgess last June, in a beat up van, with a pile of clothes and her dog.
Gifford, who is turning 44 this month, is a tiny woman at just 112 pounds and 5-foot 4. She has a quiet demeanor and, friends said, she likes her privacy and has been teased about it.
Chris Rockson has known Gifford since they were in their 20s living in New York. His family welcomed her.
“She’s just a sweetheart, she never wants help, she wants to do everything by herself,” he said, his native New York accent still strong after some 20 years in the Northern Neck.
Gifford was awed by nature, especially butterflies and the Northern Neck fulfilled that love. Her van is decorated with a butterfly sticker, and another made from Perler beads hanging from her rearview mirror along with a cross. Rockson said she got excited when she saw deer in the wood or when a butterfly came close to her.
Rockson’s grief broke for a moment: “I bought her a deer feeder…they never came to it, but lots of squirrels did, and skunks.”
She loved it here, said Rockson, but Claudine Gifford was very depressed because she had to leave her 15-year-old daughter behind in Florida. Gifford stayed with Rockson for about 6 months. Her dog died, which was a set-back. But then she found a job and began to make friends. After that she only visited on occasion or texted, Rockson said.
“It was about six or eight months that I tried to help her get her life back on track, she had fallen off,” said Rockson. “I’d done it for her before and I’ll do it for her again.”
Rockson said Gifford told him she wanted to bring her daughter to the Northern Neck.
After he talked with the sheriff’s department, Rich Gifford, Claudine’s husband, drove up from Orlando last Friday.
“We were just going through problems like married people do,” he said. “This is so surreal for me. I’m not real familiar with the area around here. I feel almost useless.”
Like Rockson, Rich Gifford has a thick New York accent. He and Claudine are from a small town that he says is very much like here. They married and lived there up until 2001 when his flooring work took him to Florida. They moved back to New York after the housing market crashed but he said his daughter missed her friends and school in Orlando. The family moved back so she could begin high school there. Gifford says his wife never told him why she came to the Northern Neck.
Claudine Gifford took a job at the Kilmarnock Inn around Labor Day last year. Susan Morris Page hired her and they became fast friends.
“She loved Susan,” said Rockson.
Page said they were a great team, waiting tables, ushering guests and cleaning rooms. She says her friend was very private, pointing to Claudine’s Facebook page that is adorned with butterflies and a picture of her dog.
Rich Gifford describes his wife as a very soft-spoken, stay-at-home mom.
“The gentlest person you’d ever want to meet and as far as being a mom, they didn’t come much better,” he said. “I’m praying for the best, I just want to take Claudine back to Florida.”
Claudine went back to Orlando for Father’s Day and stayed for about two weeks. Her husband and friends say she was being haunted by someone she had been seeing. Rich Gifford said she was making plans to return to Orlando permanently.
Meanwhile, her van and belongings remain at Rockson’s house in Burgess. He is still shaken by his friend’s disappearance.
“We all tried to get her to go down to Florida and work something out. ‘Just get back to your daughter because she needs you,’” Rockson said. “Get some money saved up and go to Florida and get an apartment. She was working on it, but it just didn’t happen.”