When I was a little girl, my father came home on Valentine’s day with two single roses for my grandmother and me. Each rose was bright red and accompanied with a tiny teddy bear the size of a rose petal. Our gift came protected by shiny clear plastic that would never be protective enough to overpower the nature of a rose’s death, but it was still pretty enough to cause hope and a smile.
This is Valentine’s Day as a I remember it. My father, his mother and me.
Years before we moved in with my grandmother on Herkimer Street, my dad and I were my grandmother’s neighbors. My mother and father had a short marriage, one that I remember only in bits and pieces. They were both beautiful together. My mother- young, curvaceous, vane and beautiful. So beautiful that when she walked on Myrtle Avenue one day on her way to her job as a travel agent, a man she did not understand recruited her to model his store’s clothes at a street fair. She barely understood him but skeptically accepted, too young and naïve to understand that this could have actually been a scam. It wasn’t. She showed up the day of the street fair and took his direction by paying close attention to his body language and the few English words she understood. At the end of the day, the combination of her beauty and risk-taking wonder got her hundreds of dollars in cash.
Physically, they were the perfect match. My father went to the gym and lifted weights even though his job as a construction worker did more for his body than a trainer could ever do for him at the gym. His smile was as big and as infectious as his personality. Together, my mother and father were eye candy for strangers to stare at as they walked down the street. Eye candy for people to smile at and admire when together they lifted me, their toddler, over a puddle, each holding onto one of my hands on our walk home from the subway.
That was my first family as I remember it. My father, my mother and me.
Aside from my parents helping me avoid stepping into a puddle, I cannot remember much they ever did collectively. Sometimes, we would sit on the couch in our living room and the sun shined brighter into our apartment than the love they shared for each other. I yearned for their love to shine as bright as the sun.
I wasn’t allowed to watch novellas as a small child but in Ecuador, my grandmother watched them all of the time so I had an idea of what love should look like. I knew it was two people staring into each other’s eyes telling each other “Te amo” and kissing each other because they just couldn’t help it. My one memory of my parents showing affection to one another was a scene from my own production, probably inspired by some novella I shouldn’t have been watching. I smiled at them and mischievously said “okay I’m going to leave the room so you can give each other a kiss!!” I hoped the only reason they didn’t kiss was because I was in the room. I peeked and they gave each other one small peck. I forced a smile of triumph but even then I knew that they probably just did that for me. They did that to instill in me a small ounce of false hope that everything was okay.
I might have convinced myself that everything was okay if I had not seen my mother hysterically crying on the bathroom floor after a shower, covered by a towel that could dry the water on her body but not her sadness. I might have believed them if I hadn’t heard them yell at each other at the dinner table, always disagreeing about whether I needed to finish my plate of food or not. My mother insisted I didn’t have to eat what I didn’t like but my father thought otherwise. “She cannot waste food!”
My parent’s divorce was finalized in 1996. I was six years old. At that point, my dad received full custody of me during a very ugly divorce. Each of them confidently asked me to say their name in court when the lawyer asked “Who do you want to live with?” The day I was scheduled to go into the courtroom, my grandmother picked me up early from first grade but they didn’t let me go in. I still don’t know why.
By the time the divorce was final and the custody battle settled, my mother had fallen in love with somebody else. He is the man she would later marry and eventually have three boys that would begin towering over her in height way before they even reached puberty. She found true love in marriage and a family.
My father would go through occasional flings, having one meaningful relationship that ended when I was in college. Today, he spends half the year in Ecuador surfing his heart out, seeing his friends and the other half of the year working in New York City as a construction worker making enough money to spend half of the year in Ecuador and the other half in the house he bought in Queens where his mother lives. He found true love in life.
I would go through life trying to figure out how to love and failing miserably many, many times.
I had my first crush in kindergarten. Even then, I was able to imagine what I wanted in a relationship. I wanted affection. I wanted to be happy. I wanted to be a team. As I grew up, I daydreamed about my crushes and I dancing in the kitchen while cooking dinner. I imagined staring into their eyes and giving them a peck that wasn’t just for show. In my relationships, I imagined the opposite of the only relationship I’ve had right in front of my eyes-my parents short and painful one. I wanted one filled with love. I found them. I found relationships filled with love but in addition to that love, I had a very undeveloped and immature understanding of what love actually means to me and what it looks like.
Throughout the past year, I have worked on truly understanding my patterns in relationships and why. I’ve worked really hard on naming the negative and extremely hurtful behaviors I’ve had in relationships and have taken active steps to smash them down. I’ve read books on how to love in healthy ways and watched videos on how to fight in healthy ways because conflict is inevitable. I’ve also realized that while many of us have incredible examples of what healthy love and fighting looks like, so many us just don’t. For me, the love I grew up with after my parent’s divorce wasn’t unhealthy but it was the love between a grandmother, her son and granddaughter. The only example I had of lasting marriages and relationships came from the movies and distant relatives.
This all has an impact on the way we view and enter relationships. So today, as we celebrate this day of love, I challenge you to take a look at how you love and how you fight. I believe that is what makes the difference between a love that lasts and a love that doesn’t. And, I want yours and mine to last.
Happy Valentines Day, especially to every person who has ever challenged me about the way I love and the people who have loved me while I figured it out.