I had a strange conversation last summer with my daughter. We were driving home one afternoon. My son, then four, was napping in the sun. My daughter was watching the scenery out her window, and we were both listening to the music playing on the radio. We hadn’t talked for several songs, just having a mellow car ride home. Then all of a sudden, a propos of nothing, she tells me in a dreamy voice, “Mommy, I love Ferdinand.” This is a boy in her class. (Please note, Ferdinand is not his real name.)
“You do?” I asked, thinking this was something to investigate, but not freak out about, not yet.
“Yeah, I do.” She was wearing the kind of smile I could imagine the Mona Lisa wearing, if she had been struck with pleasant infatuation at the age of six and had just eaten a chocolate bar.
“That sounds nice,” I said, trying to figure out how to evaluate what she meant by “love.” I decided to abandon subtlety. “How do you know you love Ferdinand?” I asked, keeping my voice even, light, relaxed.
“Sometimes I just feel like he’s here with me,” she said with great contentment. “Sitting next to me, talking to me, taking a nap with me during movie time.” (The sleepover phenomenon had just started among the kids in her grade, but not boy-girl ones, thank you very much.)
She hadn’t seen this kid in a couple of months. “And do you like to imagine he’s here with you?”
“Yes,” she said, that same sweet smile still gracing her lips.
“So…what about him makes you love him?”
She flashed a really big grin at me. “He’s really funny. He makes me laugh.”
This is a good start, I thought. “That’s an important quality in someone you love,” I said. “And does Ferdinand love you, too?”
“Oh, yes, he adores me,” she said with the kind of self-assurance most adults don’t have when they answer this question.
“That’s very sweet.” I smiled at her in the rearview mirror. “Has he said that to you?”
“No,” she said peacefully, undaunted.
“Then how can you tell he loves you?”
“Because when he sees me, he gets this really big smile on his face that he doesn’t get for anyone else.”
I was struck by the simplicity of her answer, by its grace. I did not freak out. She was beaming, and in this moment I was hopeful that these two children really did have such a genuine affection for each other. I was immediately reminded of Linda from Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried and the instincutal affection Timmy and Linda have for each other at the age of nine, a fondness they don’t have the vocabulary to explain and yet somehow, don’t need in order to feel or express it.
“We should tell Daddy about him when we get home,” I suggested, and she nodded her head and continued smiling out the window at the scenery.
I wondered whether Daddy would freak out. Considering he started grumbling at boys he saw walking down the street as soon as we found out I was pregnant with a daughter, I guessed he would. But, I wondered, should he?
Something of the self-assurance my daughter exhibited in the car that day gets lost between childhood and adulthood; I think it’s probably burned away in the crucible of adolescence, and unfortunately, young adulthood doesn’t do much to replenish it for most people — or at least, most of the people I’ve known or observed. How horrible. And I say this without too much irony. Even I, in my rock-solid life filled with blessings and a happy marriage, haven’t completely regained that sense of confidence, at least not 100% of the time. Sometimes I wonder if I ever will, or if my brain just isn’t hard-wired that way. It’s a conundrum.
I’ve been thinking lately about love and what it makes us do, how it makes us feel, and how much I desperately wish everyone in the world could experience it on a daily basis.
One of the most important things I learned when I had children was that one’s capacity for love only increases. Exponentially, in fact.
I worried when I was pregnant with my son that my and my husband’s love for each other and for our daughter would be divided when our son was born. Mostly I was worried that my husband’s affection for me would diminish down to a slice of his attention as he lavished all his emotional wherewithal on the kids. He’s such a good father that I didn’t see how it would be possible for him to focus on all of us at once, or together. I sat on this anxiety for too long, and when I finally, tearfully, expressed my fears to him, he smiled and put a gentle hand on my swelling, kicking belly and explained to me in the most loving terms possible that I was a hormonal, raving lunatic.
“That’s just not the way it works,” he said. “Why on earth would it be?” He reminded me that I didn’t love him any less just because our daughter had come along. He asked whether I intended to reduce my affection for him once our son was born.
“Of course not!” I sputtered, indignant.
He shook his head indulgently. “Then why are you worried?”
That, I didn’t have a good answer for, and in the absence of clarity, I just kept my stupid thoughts to myself.
My mother is ten years older than my father. After he graduated from high school in 1970, he went to a business school, and she was his computer programming teacher. She had been a programmer, working in the industry, for a while and hadn’t been teaching long.
He was smitten from the first moment he saw her. He was young and she, beautiful and confident and in a position of respect and authority in a male-dominated industry. In the early seventies, that was a really big deal. He was smart enough to recognize that.
My dad comes from a produce family. They owned a grocery store which boasted some of the best produce in this part of the country (along with pretty much everything else). He brought her an apple every single day and repeatedly asked her to go out with him.
She was downright rude in response. “Absolutely not,” she told him. “Go sit down and leave me alone.”
On the last day of the term, he asked her out one more time. He told her, “After today, I’m not your student anymore.”
I like to think my mother rolled her eyes at him, although I suspect she was too straight-laced and proper to do such a thing. Finally she said, “If I go have coffee with you, will you get off my back about it?”
“I sure will,” he assured her.
She grudgingly agreed. A couple-few years later, they were married.
Love makes us do silly things. Wonderful things. I think about my early twenties, when I got to witness some of these stunts firsthand. That inner joy for humanity made Steve buy a motley collection of exotic flowers and go around on Valentines’ Day handing one out to every girl he saw. (Mine was a bird of paradise.) It made Jason dress up in a cloak like one of the Three Musketeers and go deliver a CD of the soundtrack to his friend’s favorite TV show, wrapped in comics and adorned with a red rose, to her while she was working the dorm security desk in the middle of the night, just to keep her company. It made Konstantin slough off his stern demeanor long enough to let me paint his fingernails black with silver glitter.
“Look, Konnie, it’s the night sky,” my roommate Amber and I told him, laughing, while he grumbled in Bulgarian, then when that didn’t deter us, in Russian, which also failed.
And then he even let us take his picture, even though he and we all knew his students (mostly ten-year-old girls who were also math geniuses) would tease him about it the next day.
Lately my daughter, who is six, has been giving me folded pieces of paper on which are written, “I love you. From: ?” next to a cartoonish sticker of a smiling, heart-shaped cupid. She hands these notes to me as if I were meant to believe that she has just discovered them somewhere, mysteriously, with the intuition that they must be for Mama.
Obviously she has made these love notes but wants me to believe otherwise. Her sly grin and hopeful dark brown eyes encourage me to play along.
“Oh, I must have a secret admirer,” I say each time.
“Yep!” she always replies, as if newly discovering what those words mean.
I thank and hug and kiss her. I tuck the love note away in a box full of special cards and letters. It will be only a couple of days before the next one comes.
I adore love notes. Writing them has become, sadly, a lost art, and I’m pretty sure I can blame the rise of email and other electronic communication for that. Remember when we all wrote actual letters to each other? I had one friend in college who slipped into formal, yet passionate, Nineteenth Century diction when he composed his. Those letters were something to see.
You should write a love letter this year. Go ahead. It’s not that difficult, actually. Just pretend you aren’t going to send it, and then it’s much easier to write. If you’re feeling really inspired, write a poem. You’ve got a week to do it. Go on, get started.
Happy Valentines’ Day.