“Be careful. Trust, but verify.”
Those were my mother’s words of advice when I asked her about dating and how to go about choosing a husband. (In the future. No one have a coronary.) We were sitting in the kitchen discussing Wendy Williams’ opinions on celebrity relationship gossip (and laughing about how she’s made a huge living doing it) when the conversation turned to more relatable relationships.
“That’s it?” I asked. I was somewhat disappointed. We didn’t really do this girl talk thing very often and I was excited to see where this road might lead. Neither one of us is particularly known for having a lack of strong opinions on an array of subjects, and I was expecting something more along the lines of her typical matter-of-fact mixture of brutal honesty, comedy, and wisdom.
“Yeah,” she said, continuing to face the counter, with her back turned away from me, slicing away at raw chicken cutlets.
I decided to fish some more.
“How did you and daddy start dating?” I asked.
My parents got divorced when I was about 7 or 8. So, I remember how it ended, but I was curious about how it had begun. I knew that my parents had met at work and had gotten married the year before I was born, but that was pretty much the extent of my knowledge. My mother basically repeated that refrain.
“Yeah, I know that,” I said. “But how did you start dating? Did he ask you out? Were you friends for a while? Did you talk at work?”
“I guess so. Honestly, I don’t really remember. That was more than 20 years ago at this point,” was all I got in return.
It was like rushing down to open your gifts on Christmas morning as a kid and unwrapping a handkerchief.
“You don’t remember how you began dating the man you married? The father of your only child?” I thought.
You might remember that I’ve told you about a fellow writer friend of mine whose blog I admire. Well, right now she’s in the middle of writing this amazing dating series in which she recounts many of her relationships and dating experiences and the lessons she’s learned from them along the way. (After you finish reading this, go check her series out. You won’t be sorry.) In these recollections, she describes everything from the first words the guy spoke to her to the melody her heart played when he walked away.
Granted, she is much younger than my mother and her encounters did not take place as long ago. My mom is also not a writer so she may not capture and catalog events and emotions in quite the same way that we do. Still, she was a woman with a catalog of her own and I was having a hard time believing that these were the extent of her memories and impressions of her early relationship with my father.
So I continued. “Well, what did you like about him? Did you think he was cute?”
“Yeah, I thought he was a pretty good-looking guy,” she offered, with the nonchalance of a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese added to a plate of fettuccine alfredo. “He had gone to school, was working, building a career, wasn’t running the streets, didn’t smoke or drink or anything like that.”
I remember when I used to try to get my mom’s permission to let me go somewhere or do something, particularly as a teenager. “Please?” I would beg. “I’m an excellent student. I do my chores, I don’t smoke, drink, or do drugs. I don’t have any children. I’m a good kid.”
She would give me a complex look mixed with amusement (at my sad attempt at negotiation) and indifference. “And?” she would say. “You want a reward for doing what you’re supposed to do? For not doing what you’re not supposed to do anyway?”
That is exactly the look I gave her as she listed her reasons for deciding to date my father. On the surface, it was a good list: education (check), job (check), no addictions (check), a lack of a criminal record (check), and kinda cute (maybe a check plus). I’m grateful that she managed to check those things off her list because I know that not everyone manages to do even that much. But I was concerned with more than just the surface.
Because I’m not entirely obtuse, it occurred to me that this might have been a sore subject for her. After all, how many people like talking about their former feelings for their ex-husband? But I didn’t get the feeling that she was holding back or being sensitive. As I thought back on her advice about how I should conduct my own search for a husband (“Be careful. Trust, but verify.”), I realized that that just might be her approach to relationships: practical. And in a world where so much of the information that we’re fed about relationships isn’t wise or practical, I think that practicality is absolutely necessary.
But I wanted to know if he had used a corny pick-up line. I wanted to know if she’d immediately liked his accent or was intrigued by his thoughts about Kant when he told her he’d studied philosophy. I wanted to know if he’d called when he said he would when she gave him her number or if she’d waited by the phone in anticipation (but knowing my mother, it probably wasn’t the latter). I wanted to know if she’d loved him. If she’d felt that he loved her.
I didn’t react the way that I’ve seen and heard that most children react to the news of their parents getting divorced. I wasn’t devastated. I remember getting a speech about them splitting up but that I should be sure to note that that didn’t affect their love for me (like something straight out of a TV movie). I wasn’t really fazed at the time. “Okay, okay,” I remember thinking. “Can I go watch Arthur now?” As you can probably tell from this post, I didn’t have any grand images or visions about my parents’ great love for one another that was suddenly ending. My mom had always been my main caregiver, and well, parent, and my main concern was that I’d be staying with her. For some reason, I had been aware of what custody battles were from watching TV. As soon as I was assured that there wasn’t going to be one of those, I was good. Honestly.
And right now, today, in my early twenties, I’m still not devastated. I realize that, in many cases, divorce is necessary and it was necessary for my parents. Yet, right now, today, and sitting at that kitchen table in my early twenties, I wanted to know that I had been the product of love. Because I remember how it ended, and even how it was, but I don’t know how it began.
Maybe it was never butterflies and horse-and-carriage rides through Central Park. I’m not that naive. Maybe nothing is.
Or maybe it was just what she said it was. And nothing more. And maybe that was love. Maybe it wasn’t.
I think of all the children who are products of affairs, one-night stands, broken condoms, or rape, and I wonder if it really matters. I wonder if I’m asking for too much. I wonder how I’ll know what to ask for if I don’t know what it looks like.
What if there is no love story? What if just we, as the children of our parents, as mere vessels of existence, are the stories, and that’s it? What if it’s up to us to write whatever other stories we’d like to read, even if it’s just from our imaginations?
I guess all we can really do is to be careful. Trust, but verify.