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Who Wrote the Book of Love?

We probably don’t know the answer, but maybe we can teach our kids to ask themselves the important questions

What’s almost as delicious–and unnerving–as falling in love?

Watching, as your child ventures giddily onto that shaky wire.

Because you know. You know that once they’re in the arms of Eros, they’re toast. If you witness dangerous missteps–like a partner who, your gut tells you, isn’t the best fit–you’ll probably be tuned out, just like you tuned out your parents’ clatter and drone. It takes many years to comprehend that parents, those clueless ancients, just might be women and men with epic love stories/hangovers/joneses all their own. Stories that might’ve saved an inexperienced youth a world of hurt.

“Why didn’t they tell me??” you may have wondered, those many moons ago, scraping your bloody entrails off the floor after evisceration by Mr. or Ms. Wrong. Well, probably they did, but the drumbeat in your heart and loins was much too loud. Or maybe they hailed from the “Hands-Off” School of Parenting Adult Offspring, where one is constrained from offering unsolicited advice. And then there was my parents’ school: harangue so loudly, make predictions so dire, that a stubborn, immature daughter will do just about anything–including hang onto Mr. Wrong–to prove them wrong.

Given that my own parents–bless their ferociously loving hearts–lacked boundaries, I fretted, as a new mother, about how I could possibly deal with… anything. Turns out that a perk of being an “elderly primigravida” (a super-sexy term employed during my amnios) is that you can learn a lot by observing how your peers, several jumps ahead of you in everything from toilet-training to dating rules, are muddling through.

Our first babysitter was a delightful young woman whose parents were unhappy about her choice of boyfriend. With the fascination of an anthropologist studying a newly discovered tribe, I watched how they handled it. Sans haranguing, they explained their concerns, assured her they loved her, that their door was always open and they would be gracious to all who entered. Then they took a step back and quietly let time (and the good sense they’d inculcated in their offspring) do its work.  I was amazed when the romance fizzled in a mere six months, sans the parent-child psychodramas and power struggles I still wince to remember.

It wasn’t that these parents were such skilled acrobats on the tightrope of love. In fact, several years later, their own marriage ended. It was, I think, that they spoke their emotional truth—respectfully–in the context of a parent-child relationship where this was valued and exercised from day one. This resonated for me, as it provided some sort of bridge between the lands of “no comment” and “no boundaries,” neither of which felt right for the family I envisioned.

Something else I observed, early on: parents’ stories (doled out over the years, in age-appropriate soundbytes) are usually more impactful than lectures shouted across the chasm when it’s already too late.

Stories like:

Jogging around Washington Square Park (the one time I, like, actually ever do this), I meet the cute grad student who’s moved into my building. Bill (not his real name) asks me to dinner, we click, and are remarkably open about our “intentions.” I inform him that I’m in my late 20s, ready to get serious, eager to have kids. He quickly points out that he’s his early 20s and marriage isn’t on his radar screen yet – or maybe, ever.

Three years later, when we break up, we’ll confess to having had the identical thought as we locked eyes that first night: “I really, really like you, and I can tell that you like me… so watch while I totally change your mind about EVERYTHING.”

Wrong.

Bad timing isn’t the only strike against us. Bill and I discover we have some differences in values – subtle differences, but in key areas, like about raising children. Probably because of our own very different upbringings.  My parents see Bill’s skittishness about “putting a ring on it” as a sign of insincerity, which it isn’t, and castigate me nonstop about wasting my fecund years with him.  Bill’s family – top-heavy with high-profile shrinks and multiple divorces – isn’t keen on me, either. Though they’re Jewish, they’ve pegged me -because I’m a daughter of Holocaust survivors and relatively observant – as irreparably scarred and “a mindless slave to archaic tradition.”  Which I’m not.

And so Bill and I persevere for years, determined to fit square peg into round hole, to show everybody.

Until, abruptly, everything changes.

In his apartment (he’s in the library, studying), I spot a letter addressed to Bill from his grandfather, a much-married, imperious analyst with whom he’s had little contact the whole time we’ve been together.

I hesitate only an instant before reading it.

Apparently Bill has confided in Grandpapa that he truly cares for me but is unhappy about our seldom-resolved arguments, interspersed with my marriage ultimatums. Grandpapa cautions Bill about their family’s poor track record. “What on earth could the two of you be thinking?” he writes in a shaky script. “Like the shoe-seller tries to convince the customer: ‘Go on,  just BUY the hurting shoes, and they will stop hurting!’”

The metaphor hits its mark like a laser. Reading these words, I literally cannot breathe. Years of murky, wishful thinking become meaningless vapor; I can see for miles. I can’t see my destiny, but I know it’s not Bill. This no longer terrifies me. Because I know now that the stupidest move of all would be “buying” what didn’t quite fit from the get-go, or believing that marriage somehow magically enables two people  – even decent, well-intentioned people – to generate sufficient light and heat to override their incompatibilities. I know now that I will never let this happen.

Brandishing the letter, I run through Washington Square in the rain. Right there, inside the library, Bill and I say our teary, relieved goodbyes.

Four days later I meet the man who will become my husband. There is no forcing of square pegs into round holes.  I see the light, and good Lord, I feel the heat; and the years ahead – 28 and counting – while of course not perfect, are pretty darn good.  And recently, “Won’t-You-Marry-Me-Bill” friended me on Facebook. Happily, he too has done quite well for himself and his family.

From the time my kids were little, I’ve relayed this story of the hurting shoes and others – in the hopes that when they’re in a place where they cannot hear my voice, they will still hear the undeniable rush of emotional truth, from deep inside their own hearts.

Did a few words of perfectly timed advice ever change your life – or teach you something profound, to pass along?

Vivien Orbach-Smith teaches journalism to undergraduates in NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, and co- authored Soaring Underground: A Young Fugitive’s Life in Nazi Berlin, her father’s memoir of survival.

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