July 15, 2013

What My Grandparents Taught Me about Love.


Pop is 87 and he’s losing his words.

We’re sitting at his kitchen table, eating bowls of corn flakes with sliced bananas. Mid-story he stops. He wants to say automobile, but can’t remember what it’s called. “That machine,” he says, “whatever the hell it is.” His chin lifts to gesture at the car parked in his own driveway, as if to say, “What does it matter? You know what I mean.” And he’s right. I always do.

With Pop, I know it’s not the words that matter. Nan was the talker, the one who spent hours each day bent over her copy of the New York Times, circling typos and filling out the crossword. For Pop, what matters are the things he can hold in his hands.

Pop’s vocabulary was never stellar to begin with. His speech is studded with slang and slanted by a heavy New York accent. Even before he dropped out and joined the Navy, he skipped school more often than he went, following his uncles and neighbors to construction sites and the boat docks. He studied small gears and arching wood beams, things he could puzzle apart in a tangible way.

When they first met he was on leave from his ship during WWII. Pop tells me they went for a walk at a party and he offered her his coat. Within days she’d tracked down his address and began sending letters, long ones full of her life dreams and daily activities. She was 15. He was flabbergasted. He was 17 and had never known someone to use so many words. Once, his buddies on the ship found one of her love letters in his bunk and broadcasted it over the ship loudspeaker, as a joke. Every few months he’d send her back a short postcard. He called her “Dimples.” She kept them all. Years later, while cleaning out the attic, we discovered that he’d kept her letters too.

For every family birthday and anniversary, Nan composed long poems on her typewriter. She would read them proudly in front of whomever was in earshot while Pop sat by, blushing and shaking his head. Pop, however, searched the aisles for a storebought card that he thought expressed what was on his mind and would simply sign, Love, Artie at the bottom.

I used to wonder whether Nan ever got frustrated. Whether she would have been happier with a man who could write her poetry, or at least recite it to her once in a while.

After Nan’s funeral, in the days when Pop was most exhausted and searching for his syllables, each word that he uttered held behind it all of those he couldn’t, in that moment, get hold of. She was a good woman, he said to me as we left the church and the casket had been closed. I marveled at how much those five small words could mean.

In the days before Nan died, when she was in the hospital unable to speak or open her eyes, it was her hands that did the talking. Pulling each of us close, bringing our fingers to touch the soft skin by her mouth, the rosary in her lap. Pop held one of them constantly.

She: searching for the finger on his right hand that is partly missing, a remnant from an accident with a car door in the late 1950s. He: fingering gently the soft underside of her wrist. I’m here, don’t worry, I’m here. It took us all a while to pick up on it, but soon it was obvious: Nan and Pop had a language between them, one which did not depend on words. Two sets of hands and the proximity of their bodies in a hospital bed were enough.

Nan and Pop’s relationship has always been a fairytale in my family. “Two peas in a pod,” the neighbors called them, a remnant from a simpler time, when kids fell in love in their teens and stayed together forever.

But this is what they taught me, during those last few days in the hospital: love is not a fairytale, it’s not a story at all. Love is a moment. It’s our ability to set aside all of the stories in the world, everything we’ve ever told ourselves about who we are or who we want to be, what we wish we could express, and just pay attention to what’s happening right here instead.

Relationships might be more complicated today. As a woman, I’m encouraged to be my own person, to be independent and find my own path in ways that Nan never was (and for that I’m grateful). We travel and move more often, have more information and responsibility competing for our attention at any given moment. But I’m convinced that love hasn’t changed all that much. Whether romantic or familial, or just between dear friends. I sit with Pop at the kitchen table and we eat our cereal. I piece together his stories despite their missing nouns and adjectives. He’s teaching me that in relationships, it’s not always about the words we choose, but the ways we find to listen.

For years Nan wore mittens in the house, a symptom of her poor circulation and chronic cold hands. Each morning before pulling them on, even during the summer, she would stuff two chemical hot packs inside. One day Pop, ever resourceful and puttering, decided to sew cloth pouches for the packs to shield her bare skin from the heat and plastic.

This is how I like to think of her: mittened and smiling. Inside of her gloves, I imagine Nana’s fingers moving like braille over Pop’s painstaking, clumsy stitching. He wrote love letters in his own way.


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