Three years ago, after my parents died and Shayne was lost, I found myself in a movie theater all by myself. I just needed a break. A few hours of escape. The movie was Ricki and the Flash with Meryl Streep. The movie was no Oscar winner, but I was transported by the music and laughter and Streep’s ability to make everything so real and true. I walked out of the dark theater and felt like I had new energy to face the craziness in my life. After that, going to the movies became kind of like a tonic for me, and whenever I just needed a break, I’d find solace in the big screen of the theater. This past week has been a tough one. I haven’t written about the anniversary of my parent’s death, or the death of a relative who meant the world to me, because I am trying very hard to not write about sad shit all the time. There are so many echoes of hard times for me right now, that keeping it together has become my full time job. So I guess it’s not too surprising that I ended up at the movies this week.
I went to see Book Club, which was the perfect kind of film for me–funny, light hearted, a feel-good kind of experience. And it was sort of interesting seeing Jane Fonda looking amazing on screen. She could be the poster child for plastic surgery and the artistry of Hollywood make-up and cameras. And the movie was well-written enough to make fun of that very thing. But the movie wasn’t really about a book club, it was more about four strong women who were looking for love in their already pretty amazing lives–not because they needed men, because they wanted them.
The movie made me think about a conversation I recently had with a friend that touched on the whole idea of “needing a man.” It made me reflect on what I grew up thinking “romantic” love was. On the surface, my mother and father had a pretty stereotypically gender role relationship. Dad went to work everyday and at home he did the outside stuff–gardened, chopped wood, fixed stuff. Mom cooked and cleaned and drove us to swimming lessons and gymnastics practice. I had a pink room filled with dolls. My brother had a blue room full of Lego and toy guns. When I was little, I was the kid who was always caring for my younger cousins, or neighbors, always lugging a toddler around on my hip. I thought I’d grow up and marry a fireman or a cowboy and have a big, old, white house with dogs and horses and a bunch of kids. And for a long time, I didn’t have much more ambition than that.
Even if my mom thought she was teaching me how girls were supposed to act, she also provided me with lots of contradictions. She was opinionated and outspoken. She could stand up for herself and call people on their bullshit. She lived in a world where girls didn’t go to school past eighth grade, but she was the best speller and read books, and wrote in her journal every night and she took pride in the fact that I could read a book in a day, and sent me to a private school filled with strong women going places, even though we could have used the money for other things. She had strong friendships with other women and I saw her take a puff of my aunt’s cigarette, or have a glass of beer on hot summer day with her bestie and I heard their bawdy jokes and laughter. I took in all the stories about my mother coming to America and my dad leaving for Viet Nam and how she learned to drive and cook Mexican food and worked and wrote to my dad everyday. I learned from those stories that mom was plenty independent and sassy, even if that’s not what she presented at my dad’s side in church on Sunday. And my dad never once told my mom what to do. He was not above scrubbing pots and pans or running the vacuum cleaner and he could cook just as well as my mother. He grew roses for her because he loved her. She ironed his shirts because she loved him. They didn’t need each other; they wanted each other. I learned that a woman could be all things, and love in all its forms, could only make life better.
I heard on the radio one time that women of happily married couples sometimes struggle in their own love connections because they have such high standards. That always resonated with me. A guy I dated one time told me that I measured men by my father and no one was ever going to come close to that, because dad was about as perfect as men came. And maybe he was right, because I did tend to be attracted to men who were like my dad. My big problem was that I also expected men to not hurt me like my dad. And I got to this place where it was hard for me to trust. Sometimes I’d joke with my parents that it was their fault that I was still single, they were too good of an example. Mom shocked me one time when Shayne was like five or six and she said, “We think you should have another baby. We’d like a girl.” I remember almost choking on my toast, and finally getting out, “What are you talking about? Are you crazy?” Mom said that she liked that I was single and I shared Shayne with them. I just shook my head. I didn’t explore that idea with her, although I did kind of wonder how she thought I’d go about having another baby, you know, being single and all.
I wasn’t looking to fall in love when James drifted into my life. I had found art again in my life and had a solid group of girlfriends and my family was happy and healthy and I didn’t need a man really for anything. Kinda like the women in the movie–Book Club. However, there James was in his long sleeved T-shirt and ball cap looking all boyish and summery. He had dogs and a garden and could build things and cook. He was smart and funny and when he pulled me close to him in front of the fireplace one winter night, I suddenly got what being in love really was. My parents loved James. They were impressed that he gardened and cooked and could make jam. They were happy he could fix things and had a job and was nice to the kids and good to me. They never asked me dumb questions like “when are you getting married,” or “do you think it’s going anywhere?” They were completely accepting of our relationship in whatever form it took. All they ever wanted was for me to be happy.
Mom and Dad always made love look so easy, but they had fifty-four years of practice. My relationship with James isn’t Hollywood-conventional and it isn’t always perfect. I get scared sometimes of being so in love and I make mistakes and hold him at arms length. But the truth is, James has been there for me in ways I never expected. I might not NEED him in my life, but I WANT him in my life. And I guess I realized as I chased the devil duckling around hoping I could save it from getting lost and perishing that I sometimes I am afraid that I’m going to lose James or someone else in my life. I will get another phone call that rips my life apart. Or another tumor will pop up somewhere unexpected and I won’t get off quite as easy. I can see how fear can paralyze a person into not loving or living. I’m doing my best to not let that happen, even if it takes everything I have, every damn day.
As much as I like to escape into a movie, life isn’t camera angles and scripts. It’s more messy and hard and honest and brutal. There are no retakes, or airbrushes, or editing tricks. I’m still unsure of how this story I’m living will end, but I am grateful for my leading man and all my supporting friends and family.