What Love Is

I still recall the dress I wore to my first dance. It was black with wild roses – pink ones - on it. The empire waistline tied in the back with grosgrain ribbon and the deep, square neckline was trimmed with white lace. My date gave me the most beautiful corsage: pink sweetheart roses and baby’s breath.

I kept the ticket and the corsage for years on a bookshelf in my bedroom. I’m not sure why. Perhaps because it seemed the sort of thing that should be remembered. I don’t think I missed a dance in school and I kept each corsage I was given; even the ugly ones.

Not every boy who asked me out was as adept as that first young man at matching flowers to my outfit and personality. But that didn’t matter. To tell the truth I never really liked corsages, even in high school. They were awkward and clunky and the pins had a nasty way of poking you in the shoulder when you tried to dance or stood up on your tip-toes for that long anticipated good night kiss. But they were tangible reminders that a young man had taken pains to please me, just as I had gone to a great deal of trouble to look nice for him, to make his evening pleasant. Memorable.

And so I kept them, every one. All my yesterdays, pressed between the leaves of my mind like wildflowers from some long forgotten ramble down a country road on a summer’s day. As they slowly faded in their allotted spaces on my bookshelf, they somehow managed to retain traces of their former loveliness; giving off sweet memories of being courted, cherished, of feeling - for the space of few moonlit hours - like a princess in a fairy tale.

Thus it is with some sadness that I wonder: what on earth do today’s would be princesses have to look forward to?

Last month, a boy asked my 16-year-old daughter to his school's homecoming dance. She agreed to go, bought a new dress and made a hairdresser appointment.

The boy never bought tickets to the dance. Neither did his friends. They decided that attending homecoming wouldn't be cool, and instead planned to just dress up that night, go out for dinner and then hang out with their dates at someone's house.
My daughter was disappointed, as were her girlfriends. They would have loved to have been taken to the dance, to show off their dresses, to see and be seen.

At 6 p.m. on the night of the boycotted dance, about a dozen of these girls and their dates gathered in one boy's backyard so a mob of parents could photograph them. I found it dispiriting. My heart went out to those girls -- all dressed up with no place to go.

I live in suburban Detroit, but this phenomenon is playing out elsewhere in the country, too -- a telling example of the indifference with which young people today view dating, chivalry and romance.

Studies, of course, show more young people skipping romantic relationships in favor of "hooking up." As teens socialize in packs, forgo one-on-one dating and trade sex nonchalantly, it is no stretch to find that boys are asking girls to homecoming and not bothering to take them there.

When I was a young girl I recall hearing a song by Peggy Lee on my transistor radio.

“Back in the day”, as my boys are fond of saying with rolled eyes, you couldn’t just summon up a tune any time you felt like it. We didn’t have iPods, playlists, or personal CD players. When it came to that special song that made you dizzy with delight, you were at the mercy of the DJ down at the radio station. You had to wait, sometimes for what seemed like ages, for your favorite song to come onto the airwaves and thrill you to the very marrow of your bones. That’s what made it special: rarity, and the knowledge that you couldn’t hear it any time you wanted to. If you were really, really crazy about a song you might save up and buy the 45, or even the LP. But that took a while. And in the meantime there was the agony of suspense.

I wonder, sometimes, if that is what is missing from modern relationships: the ache of wanting; the knowledge that someone isn’t there just for the taking, the thrill of finally gaining your heart's desire after long uncertainty, a series of delays? Of knowing you might never have had them at all? What happens to our sense of wonder when we take everything for granted, when we are never deprived, when we never take pains?

When nothing is special anymore?

There is something to be said for anticipation. I carried my little transistor radio everywhere, glued to my shell-like ear. I must have known the words to a million songs by heart – I repeated them over and over in my head while waiting for the next time my favorite song would come over the airwaves. I still do. Who does that now? The song was called, “Is that all there is?”

I hated that song with a passion, even then. It asked that question - “Is that all there is?” - about love. It was too cynical and worldly wise for me then and it still is today, forty-odd years later, because no matter how long you walk this earth, you never stop discovering the unending wonder of loving other people, and you never quite do come to know all there is to know about life.


I know that in my bones. There are a million kinds of love, and to me the saddest thing on earth is the cynic who asks, “Is that all there is?” because she has never experienced the delight to be found in pleasing others; who says “Let’s not bother…” celebrating special occasions because he has never been denied anything (and so sees every new experience through a lens of dreary sameness), who doesn’t understand that hooking up or casual sex, though amusing, can never be anything but pale substitutes for what happens when two people really love each other, when making someone else’s heart race a mile a minute is just as satisfying as feeling the earth move yourself. And sometimes more.

I wonder if these children will recognize (or would they be bored by) the quiet, peaceful Sunday morning comfortableness that sneaks up on you when you’ve been together for half a lifetime? When you fit neatly together as though you had been made for each other? That doesn’t happen overnight. It takes years of living, and sometimes years of ups and downs that I sometimes wonder if they will have the patience to wait for?

Love takes many forms. Love is having the faith and the courage to let go when your children need to strike out on their own. Love means trusting in their judgment (and your own long stewardship); it means recognizing that they are no longer babies, but young adults. It means releasing them gently, lovingly, gracefully; though every fiber screams they aren’t ready yet – that they aren’t listening to you, that they will screw things up if you don’t keep a hand on the old tiller. It means not saying “I told you so”, when you did. Again. And again. It means biting your lip, and your tongue, a lot. It means giving them the space to grow, as you did once. Love means standing a bit apart when they come home, though you long to crowd them with questions as you did when they were small; waiting for them to come to you. Loving it when they finally do.

Even though it took years. Boys are a slow crop.

Love means taking pride in the achievements of your friends, sharing their every day triumphs and tribulations, both great and small. Taking satisfaction in their talent, not knowing whether to laugh or cry when one of them writes something so poignant it could have been plucked from the pages of your own life:

Pre-deployment briefs.

Right before Lancelot went on his latest trip, he reminded me that the Dark Prince was coming home on Friday. I must have had a blank look on my face because he then reminded me why: Dark Prince's pre-deployment brief the following day. A brief that I would have to attend with my son without my husband.

Looking back, I'm now of the opinion that my husband planned to be out of town so as to avoid the whole nightmare....

For starters, my son is not very skilled in the social graces. Some might even assume that he was raised by wolves. Arriving at the brief, it began.

"Mom, I have to go talk to someone."
Me: "Oh, okay, I'll be right here."

This, in case you didn't know, is his way of avoiding even the admittance that he has a mom (let alone introducing her).

Nope, not the Dark Prince, he was hatched from an egg.

Love means thanking God for them when they aggravate you, and when they make you laugh, when they lift you up. What would we do without friends? They make the sun come out when all the world seems grey and cloudy. They say things that make you cry. And laugh out loud. Sometimes in the same breath:

A house isn't a home until you can write "I love you" in the dust. I just ask that you don't date it.

I like that. But for a military wife home can never be a place, really, or a time. Times change, and even the people we meet are often far less constant than they appear to be. But somehow, friends are a gleaming thread running through the hopelessly tangled skein of our lives. Pull on it, and everything suddenly slips into place effortlessly; all the snarled knots come untied. They know, without our having to tell them, certain things about us. We share, not everything – because no two people share everything – but the important things. A friend will be there to celebrate quietly with you those moments that mean something to you. And that can make all the difference, for then you carry home inside of you wherever you may roam.

Because home, you see, is the people you care about. A home is love.

I am sitting here in Georgia with The Burrito in my lap. He is one week old. My son’s house is full of light, and warmth, and love. The Burrito is mostly full of milk. His eyes are very heavy and he is making comical faces as he falls asleep in my arms. Across the room, my son is talking quietly to his wife. I like watching him with her. He loves her very much. I am thinking of what I will write to my husband in the morning. The scene around me is proof that families do evolve – they have so much more than we did, starting out. But then they are a good ten years older than we were when we had our first child. I am also thinking of ten years ago, when I was convinced the man across the room from me was a complete bonehead and wasn’t listening to a word his mother had to say.

He is a fine young man, a good father, and an even better husband. I am proud.

And The Burrito totally rules.

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