Valentine’s Day is just around the corner, and because I am a die-hard hopeless romantic, I thought I’d dedicate today’s post to love, that most noble sentiment.
I dabble with romance in my writing, and a good romance book or film can always boost my spirits. But as much as I enjoy the love stories that Hollywood and my favorite novelists can create, it’s the love stories from real life that affect me the most.
I didn’t always feel this way, but after my first (and, to date, last) relationship ended, I found myself looking at love in a completely different light. If there’s anything that I’ve learned, it’s that maintaining a relationship is really damn hard… but that it’s worth the effort, if the person you’re with is also willing to put in the work.
The older I get, the more I come to admire and understand the nuance of my parents’ relationship. As a child, I idolized their love story, the tale of a man and a woman from two different parts of the world meeting by chance in San Francisco, falling in love, getting married, and having a couple of kids.
I spent a lot of time looking at my atlas back in the day, tracing myself an imaginary line from the Philippines, where my dad was born and raised, to San Francisco, where he and his family moved when he was 15; from Ohio, where my mom was born, to Los Angeles, where she grew up, and up the coast to SF, where she moved in her early 20s. Add in the fact that my mom claims to have day-dreamed of marrying “a boy from an island” when she was 5, and you have the recipe for little Lena thinking that her parents’ relationship was written in the stars.
My parents worked in the same office in San Francisco, where dad was the chauffeur for the company president. As my mom tells the story, all of the ladies in the office had crushes on him, including all the fancy-pants executive secretaries… but somehow, he fell for her, the lowly receptionist. It almost reads like a romance novel: the plain Jane who wins the cute guy over all the other ladies. It was a story that I loved.
And yet, I knew very well the darker side of their relationship. Both of my parents came to their relationship saddled with their fair share of baggage, emotional and otherwise. To top it off, my dad had a nasty addiction to drugs and alcohol, which contributed to the fights and arguments, the cycle of making up, breaking up, and making up again.
The early years of their relationship were turbulent, and those problems only continued after they married and I was born. In my early memories, it was just my mom and me — dad was off elsewhere, carousing with the guys, too busy getting drunk and high to come home. And I even remember the day when everything changed, the terrible fight when my mom called the cops and had my dad arrested because his temper got so out of hand.
This is a story that, for so many reasons, shouldn’t have a happy ending. It’s a story that should have ended with a divorce… but it didn’t. Mom decided that she wasn’t going to take it anymore, kicked dad out the house, and told him he couldn’t come back till he was clean. And my dad hit rock bottom, decided that his life, his job, and his family were more important than anything else, and came back to us. My little sister was born shortly afterwards, when I was 5, and slowly but surely, we became a family.
Watching my parents grow together over the years has taught me that love is never easy, that it requires constant maintenance and cultivation, like a garden that must be tended each season in order for fruit to ripen and flowers to bloom. They have their ups and downs, the occasional argument and misunderstanding, but they are on solid ground with one another.
Now that my sister and I are both grown and more or less living on our own, it’s exciting for me to seem them enter a new phase in their relationship: two empty nesters who go out on impromptu dates, who have been together long enough to overcome some of the hardest challenges in their relationship and who now know each other so very well.
I think my proudest moment came last summer, when I watched them renew their vows for their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. Their story is still in the process of being written, but it is one that reminds me that real life love is rarely as simple or straightforward as in the movies.
I remember them today, especially because they have another anniversary coming up — the 28th anniversary of their first date, which, in a strange twist of coincidence, falls on February 18th, my 25th birthday. Congrats, Mom and Dad!
Because I am a music fiend, I had to give you all a couple of my favorite love songs to go along with today’s theme of “real life love stories.” These two, in my mind, capture the poignancy and uncertainty of love.
The first song, “Kissing You” by Des’ree, will be familiar to any of you who have seen the 1997 adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, directed by Baz Luhrman and starring Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio. It’s bittersweet and beautiful, and Des’ree’s voice never fails to send chills down my spine.
The second comes from John Legend’s first album, Get Lifted. No matter how many times I hear this song, I’ll never get sick of it. John Legend tells the story of the love that “ordinary people” face, one that is far more complex and nuanced than any Hollywood fairy tale can portray.
What are your favorite “real life” love stories? Any romantic songs that you can’t stop listening to?