Love is someone saying I look nice in a $4 dress, and meaning it

During confirmation preparation in seventh grade, we had to ask our parents about love and marriage. Marriage is a sacrament in the Catholic church; it was pertinent, not prying.

I don’t remember the exact question or even, actually, my mom’s answer. But as our teacher asked us to share our parents’ responses, only a couple of us had answers.

“Why don’t more of you have anything to share?” My teacher was perplexed.

“They didn’t want to answer.” Her brows furrowed. “They said it was too personal,” someone else said. She hurriedly, angrily shut down the conversation; she hadn’t seen that coming. I’d say this was a group-think response to one person forgetting his or her homework, but I doubt it; lying during confirmation class seems an especially awkward sin. Maybe some students were too embarrassed to ask their parents; maybe it was just too personal for all parties involved. I’ve usually erred on the side of asking: I was the 10-year-old who, after her father said he’d never intended to get divorced from her mother, asked, “Well, then, why did you?”

I wasn’t too naive to notice my divorced mom answered the confirmation class question while most of the other (married) parents didn’t; I wish now I remembered her answer. Mom’s pretty steady, though, so I can guess it was a lot of sharing time; a lot of sharing joy and problems. Sharing, really. Mom’s love language is family time, and when she’s had enough family time, which is never, she feels rejuvenated with more family time.

I’m not really sure why other people felt that was too private to give that to their kids; we were in eighth grade. It’s disingenuous to pretend we wouldn’t start coming up with our own definitions of love, or weren’t already doing that. “Dawson’s Creek,” “Titanic,” and Seventeen magazine were filling in the blanks, I suppose — and for me, too. That couple-sentence description of love certainly didn’t fill in all the blanks. Still: I’m grateful Mom didn’t balk. She wouldn’t have: it was for homework. For my confirmation. For a grade and for my soul. My mom would’ve taken that very seriously.

When my girls ask me questions about love and marriage — “Why did you marry Dad?” — I take those seriously, too. I don’t want to be ambiguous. “I married him because he’s an artist. And he’s kind.”

A wedding last weekend found me grateful about this stuff, this love and marriage stuff. I love the way it can mirror our relationship with God; I love that God didn’t leave us where we found each other. Our story doesn’t have a very holy beginning, Dave and I, but to look at us now, God’s graciously kept the two of us growing in the same direction for a while, both of us taking turns leading during parts. After the wedding, we drove around Toledo and picked out spots where we began: the newspaper office where we met. Campus. Downtown. The art museum. It’s bizarre how God moved us just since then. In 10 years we’ve lived in three states, and it’s that. But it’s also, more so, the faith stuff.

Dave’s the one who found our church in Oshkosh; he went weeks before I agreed to go. And when the refugee resettlement team came up, I was the one who said yes without thought. But Dave was the one who taught me how to graciously drink a warm yogurty beverage as a sign of friendship there when all I could think of was food poisoning. I felt Michigan was calling; I practically felt the light go out as God was shutting curtains in Oshkosh, but Dave’s the one who got the job that moved us. I devoured Dorothy Day, Henri Nouwen, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, and started serving at a couple homeless shelters, and Dave said “Sure, me too.”

Our yeses complement each other. I find a lot of abundance, a lot of generosity in that. We’re awkwardly authentic, Dave and I; I wear a $4 thrift store dress and he wears one suit to any fancy occasion, and in the car on the drive to Mom’s after the wedding, I was thinking quietly about others’ flawless skin, red chevron dresses, shiny purses; livelier hair. I’m thinking with some dread about the career required to afford this, and how I just don’t want that all, except maybe the skin. And even in that, my mind’s wandering to how the stars are shining there, over the interstate. The dipper’s filling itself up now. In spring it’ll tip itself out, but this time of year, it’s catching. I notice this and I wonder about the good stuff I should be thinking about now, so I can pour out later.

So then I turn off the radio and we talk all the way back to Mom’s from Toledo, and he doesn’t mention the red chevron dress on that other lady, or the skin, even. We just talk about, well. Life, I guess. … That comfort – after this time? – that comfort’s a gift, and it’s abundance, too.

Love is a lot like that, I’ll tell my kids before their confirmation. It’s a lot like comfortable $4 dresses and someone next to you saying “You look nice,” and meaning it, and then talking all the way home.

Later that night Louisa woke at 5 a.m., and as I rocked her in the chair in Mom’s living room, I noticed another constellation (though I’m not sure which one; I don’t know my 5 a.m. stars). I thought about the times it wasn’t really easy: Dave and I are no good with new babies or too many bills. We’re no good when we’re tired, or we’ve lost the plot. But, ah, to be in a stage when we’re catching the good stuff.

 

But it’s not good for man to be alone, and it’s not good for me, either. Alone we’d dream these fantastical dreams and then procrastinate or reason ourselves into never doing them. Together, we model for the other how to begin, and carry the other along, too. We do best with a shared story and an adventure on the horizon.

 

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