In my favorite class with my favorite professor (all my friends are groaning as they read this — Yes, Lil, we know already, you’re obsessed with Meredith Ward), Love & Film, we spend our weekly meetings discussing the pertinent questions of love: Why we do it, what we desire in someone, what that says about us…
It’s probably the first class I’ve ever taken in which I am praised for talking about my feelings. Some people might cringe at this, but I can’t get enough of it.
And that’s because, to be honest, these discussions have been some of the most thought-provoking and eye-opening dialogues of my life. They’ve made me think about myself, my values, my family and what I want out of life and the people I share it with. It’s a class but it’s kind of also my life coach.
In the beginning of the year, in the first of many introspective class sessions, we talked about Love & the Family. We read an article about “The Family Courtship Story,” a.k.a., that age-old phenomenon where your parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles just can’t get enough of talking about their glory days and, in particular, how they fell in love way back when.
My parents’ courtship story isn’t something I think about much, but after this week of discussion, I realized it’s always been an ever-important part of my life saga, even my identity.
I remember the first time I heard their story. It was at a dinner party (one of the rare times my mom dabbled in the “classy hosting domestic goddess” role), my parents had invited three other couples, and my brother and sister and I sat around the table nibbling at the greatest mixed berry crumb pie my dad had ever made while distractedly listening in on “grown-up” conversations. Suddenly, the topic turned to dating, and my friend’s mom shouted, “Jackie, tell the story of you and John again! It’s my favorite!”
My eyes darted up. Suddenly, the pie was a lot less interesting. “What story?”
“We’ve never told you how we met?” said my mom. “We must’ve told you before!”
“Noooo!” My older brother and older sister chimed in. “No, you haven’t! Tell it!”
And then, after the room grew quiet with anticipation, my mom told us for the first time our very own “family courtship story.”
It feels strange to repeat it here, as if without the pomp and circumstance and dramatic vocal inflections I can’t do justice to this romance. I guess that this serves as further proof of how highly we regard these stories as the roots and foundations of our families. Without melodramatics, my parents’s meeting goes a little something like this:
My dad was just out of law school, working at a law firm in Cincinnati. My mom’s job as a chemist for Kraft Foods had just promoted her and moved her to their headquarters in Cincinnati. At my dad’s law firm, his friends and coworkers poked fun at him for his sad excuse for a dating life: He was a workaholic and claimed “no time” to fully invest in putting himself out there and meeting new people. But his friends were obstinate.
They introduced him to their chosen method for finding females, putting an ad in the local paper. They’d write things like, “Tall, scruffy, devastatingly handsome soon-to-be-billionaire looking for a spunky girl he can have fun with,” or similarly vague requests for sex.
After much protestation, my dad lamented and wrote an ad, but on his terms. He’s not much of a talk-himself-up kind of guy, so his went along the lines of “Workaholic with a love for goofy jokes, friendly competition, spontaneous traveling and cooking looking for an adventurous, witty woman he could take out to dance and hike with. And maybe sip some piña coladas and get caught in the rain.” (Yes, he steals his best lines from songs.)
You know what happens next, my mom replied.
My dad claims he got 10 or more replies ranging from the mundane to the desperate, but my mom’s, because she was snarky and genuine and interesting and because she quoted song lyrics (hers were from The Who) right back at him, stood out.
They started writing back and forth. At first, for three months, they wrote little cryptic, fun back-and-forths, and my mom — who says in retrospect she was wary of meeting someone she’d found through the newspaper — tried to leave out personal details.
About three months in, she slipped up. She accidentally mentioned the name of her favorite restaurant, a little Spanish tapas place in downtown Cincinnati. My dad immediately recognized the restaurant and told my mom: Um, this might sound crazy, but I think we’re in the same city.
Since my mom still felt slightly apprehensive about meeting in person, she gave my dad a plan: They stay as pen pals for three more months just to talk, get to know each other and then, after they’d known each other for half a year, they would meet at the Spanish tapas place for their first date.
They followed the plan. They talked, they discussed life and literature and music and doubts and goofy jokes and philosophy, they got close. And then, six months in, once they already knew each other’s language backward and forward, they started dating. The rest is history.
My parents’ love story informs so much of how I look at the world. I remember it, and all the old feelings rush back: pride in their romance, nostalgia for a time I hadn’t known, hope for a time in which my own life will align in the same way.
I think Meredith Ward, my quasi-life coach and idol, was definitely getting at something when she said that courtship stories “teach us what we want from love.” This one (at least to some extent) taught me.