“Love,” my grandmother told me, “is a four-letter word.”
“She was beautiful as a young woman, and everyone wanted to court her,” her sister explained. “Our parents were heartbroken when she chose Charlie. Charlie was a farmer. She could have done so much better. We were city girls, you know. I don’t think she knew what she was getting herself into.”
“He could make me laugh,” Grandma said. “Played a damn good fiddle too, and he could dance. How we loved to dance.”
“When I think of my mother, I picture her standing over the woodstove cooking, always cooking, and crying. Seemed like she was always pregnant.” This from my mother, her daughter.
“Every time my fool husband hung his pants on the bedpost I was with child again. Carried ten to full term. Three of them died young.” She said it matter-of-factly, as if that is how life goes.
“Do you miss him?” I asked. “I mean, he died young, did you ever consider remarrying?”
“Hell, no! When he died, I started living. Took up drinking and smoking. I’d let a man buy me a drink, take me for a twirl on the dance floor, maybe walk me home, but that’s it. Let them in and they are only after one thing. They’re not getting that here!”
“Just don’t go putting the cart before the horse,” my mother advised me when I asked about love.
I knew she was talking about herself; I was born just three weeks after she married my Dad. I assumed she was telling me it had all been a horrible mistake.
“Were you in love the first time you got married?” Unwilling to give up on the notion.
“What did I know of love? He was handsome, drove a motorcycle and paid attention to me. Sure, I thought it was love, until I learned that he did the same for every other woman he met. I was the only one stupid enough to marry him.” She reflects for a minute. “Must have loved him, ‘cause I sure was crushed when he left me for my best friend.”
“It’s just as easy to fall in love with a rich man as it is a poor one,” my eldest sister cautioned, but I knew she was just cynical. She put the proverbial cart first, got pregnant while still in high school, married and was divorced two years later.
“Can’t imagine who would ever love you,” Mom told me often. “Men don’t like smart woman.”
Watched my sisters bounce from man to man, in and out of their beds without discretion, slandering the bastards for not respecting them. Knew I didn’t want to follow them.
Decided I wanted the kind of love that Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw had in Love Story. When it didn’t come along, I began to believe that love is meant to be unrequited as in all the great romantic classics. My heart ached with a longing I couldn’t control.
“You’re just waiting for your white knight to arrive on his trusty steed and scoop you up,” a school friend accused.
“Am not!” But she’d struck a chord. Maybe I was.
Married the first man who was willing to stick around (pretty sure it was me who asked him). Joined my sister in the divorcee lineup less than two years later.
Began to think my mother was right – I was not loveable.
Finally swept off my feet six months later – a man of my heritage, a man who wanted to make me happy, who made my heart beat with excitement. Disregarded the short courtship and fell in headfirst.
“If you really loved me, you’d take better care of yourself,” he told a bedraggled version of myself, pounds heavier after bearing three children in five years. If you really loved me, became code for you are not good enough. The point was driven home frequently.
“I never really loved you,” he told me seventeen years later. “I just stayed for the children’s sake.” He left me for a woman who bore an uncanny resemblance to my younger self.
I was certain that my mother was right. Love was an intangible notion unintended for the likes of me.
Love yourself. The message trickled through the airwaves. New Age, talk shows, psychobabble, it was all the same. Love yourself and love will find you.
Love myself? I was forty-years-old and had no concept of what that might look like, couldn’t even remember a time where I’d felt loved, actually accepted for who I was, without criticism or disappointment present. Knew there were no models in the ravaged hearts that surrounded me. Had to dig deeper.
I started with what it would feel like to be loved. Daydreamed about the feeling, experimented by buying myself flowers, doing things that made me felt good, cherished.
Learned that love calls for defined needs, and the ability to set boundaries – two things I had always denied myself. Recognized that in the realm of give and take, I was afraid of receiving, felt more comfortable giving (more in control), discovered the dark side of me.
Opened my heart once again and for the first time felt loved. Took my time, and
focused on the moment, not the long term. Allowed genuine affection to grow naturally, nurtured respect.
It’s not perfect – no relationship ever is – but it’s a start. We’ve been married ten years now, and love is still growing.
You see, love is a four-letter word (not the cursing kind) and works better as a verb than a noun. It is a process, an opportunity; not a static concept that passively sits by.
I think I am finally catching on.