Love Lessons

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First Loves and Losses

Like the kids, I had a very idyllic first love for a few years in high school. But after that I went on to a series of long, short, and very short affairs. The '70s and '80s were dangerous times for a young woman driven by a passionate nature and doubts about her own lovability. For me "playing the field" was not really play -- if it was, I got a lot of sports injuries.

Perhaps this is partly why I was charmed rather than appalled when, upon moving to rural Pennsylvania 10 years ago, I realized how many people here are married to their childhood sweethearts. Hayes has one friend whose mom still wears a friendship ring his dad gave her in fifth grade. His other closest pal's parents were an item in high school.

My own history or views notwithstanding, it doesn't matter much what I think. Parental opposition to children's love affairs is impotent at best -- and at worst, creates a Romeo and Juliet situation. No way will I play Mama Montague, and Lea Zalowski, who seems to adore Hayes, is no Lady Capulet, though I am Jewish and they are Polish Catholic, and our family backgrounds have little in common.

As it turns out, Hayes and Dana were just the beginning of the "teen marriages" in my house. The same year they got together, my stepdaughter, Emma, a freshman at an arts magnet high school in Baltimore, fell in with a sophomore named Jason. Though they are bohemian artist types compared with Soccer Barbie and Golfer Ken, Emma and Jason stayed together through high school and made it work long-distance when he went off to an art institute in Chicago. She started at New York University the next year, and though they have faced various existential and social challenges to long-term love at their tender age, I've been impressed at all they have learned and become in the process of staying together and being apart.

And then there's Vince, my 17-year-old. Though he initially seemed frustrated by the hassles of having a girlfriend (the text messages! the gossip! the drama!), he settled into a groove with his own tall blond soccer player, Shannon McKenna, more than a year ago, solidifying an on-again, off-again thing that had been going on since middle school. Dana Junior, as we sometimes call her, is a peach of a kid. And though she and Vince will attend colleges far apart in the fall, she's made her appearance in the Fourth of July photo -- this family's gold standard for membership.

In counterpoint to my children's easy, untroubled love lives, and after years of difficulty and conflict, my husband and I separated earlier this year; though we are still trying to feel our way to a rapprochement, we could become one of those divorce statistics. After an ecstatic beginning, years that felt like a fresh start to both of us -- we had each just turned 40 when we got together -- the baggage of past hurts seemed to pop open and spill on our heads. As the children watched us struggle, I felt a sense of shame and failure. This was not what I wanted to show them about how to live with someone you love.

I'm sure that they looked at us as teenagers always look at their bizarre and gnarled elders, thinking, We'll never be like them. God knows, I hope they're right. I hope love stays clear and simple for them, and if it doesn't, I hope what follows is never this hard.

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, July 2008.


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