By Laura Jean Moore
Feb. 11, 2015
My grandmother used to tell me that Southern men were best. She said I should marry a Methodist, someone who understood where I came from. I could not tell her that I was raped by a good Southern Methodist boy when I was young, and so instead I stopped listening to her advice about men and about what I should do in general.
It wasn’t until she died that I realized all those years ago she was really trying to tell me: I want you to be loved the way that I was loved. I want you to know what it is like to have a partner who is strong, and kind, and knows that love is something we choose in the morning and again before we sleep. That she wanted me to marry a Southern Methodist man was just her way of telling me how to find someone like her husband and my grandfather; Southern and Methodist remain his most public qualities.
Love is a word that people use when they don’t know what else to say about the feeling that has grown between them. Infatuation, desire, obsession, lust, adoration, limerance, devotion, passion, want, need, hope, fear, dedication, care—all have been called love, or a part of love, at some time or another. I have used the word to describe infatuation so many times that I couldn’t tell you how many people I have said it to.
I sometimes wish I could take it back.
A friend told me once that his ex-wife looked at him one afternoon and said: I don’t love you. I don’t think I’ve ever loved you. He said that in that instant she erased every past happiness between them. Every breakfast. Every picnic in the afternoon. Every evening meal.
It is embarrassing to write about love. Love is one of those subjects that can make people roll their eyes, as though any mention of the subject invites saccharine swooning or exaggerated romance. To be a serious writer, you are supposed to write about violence and identity, maybe history and the hollowness of lust. Hell, Henry Miller made a whole career out of cunts and coffee. Write about love, though, and you tempt being dismissed as an amateur outright. But love is the favorite subject of many writers’ first words because it is the first and deepest felt passion, not because it isn’t serious. Still I think: tread carefully here. Much has come before.
I told an ex-boyfriend recently that love and care are 10% a feeling and 90% a practice. We were walking in downtown Brooklyn, trying to find a TMobile store so that he could pay his cellphone bill before we went to the movies. He asked me why no one had taught him that, and how had I learned that that was what love and care were. I said I had learned by watching people love each other. He said that was why he didn’t know.
My grandmother wanted us to wash our hands and set the table before every meal. My grandfather would get the iced tea and lemonade and ask everyone which one they wanted before pouring each or both mixed together at everyone’s place setting. You sit there, my grandmother would say. She would get testy with my grandfather if he bumped into her in the kitchen or if he took the food out of the oven in the wrong order. They moved around each other and spoke with the familiarity of people who do not have to fear the loss of the other. They were free to be honest.
Before the meal we would all hold hands and my grandfather would say grace:
Kind Father accept our thanks for these and all thy blessings, we ask in Christ’s name, Amen.
We would eat our food and talk about how delicious it all was. We would listen to stories about the people in my grandmother’s world, and whether they had had surgery or their children were back home. After the meal was over, we would sit with coffee and dessert, and then my grandfather would take us for a drive around town. Or we’d throw the football around in the yard.
My grand, grandchildren he called us once.
He called her babydoll, my grandfather to my grandmother, without a thread of condescension. He called her doll.
My sister says that love is being willing to be inconvenienced for another person. That love is what we do when we don’t feel like doing. She and her partner live in an RV in coastal Oregon while they save to buy their own land. They have a generosity with each other that sustains them through what is scary or boring. She tells me about their conversations, about the future, about children and property and what kind of life they both hope for, and sometimes those conversations are easy, and sometimes those conversations are hard. I listen. I watch. They teach me as they teach themselves.
When we were little, my mother would sometimes make dinner of macaroni and cheese, hot dogs, and canned green beans. If there was any macaroni and cheese leftover, she would give it to my sister and me to eat. In my adulthood I wondered how many times she had not eaten more for our sakes. When I think about her love, this is the first memory. The second is how she would get down at eye level to adjust our coats and collars in the winter. I do not know why this, too, reminds me of love, except that she was strong and careful then, and looked us in the eye.
Parental love and romantic love, the love of friends, the love of pets, and perhaps—if they are there—the love of grandparents and great-grandparents and aunts and uncles. These are the loves that count to me. If I assigned each a color, I would say: blue and red, green, orange, and yellow for the rest. I want to call parental love a pier in the ocean, and romantic love the warm hand that holds yours in the cold. I want to call the love of friends the eye of a hurricane and the love of pets the burst of light that fireworks make against the dark sky. And the last, the love of great-grandparents and grandparents and aunts and uncles—that is the stillness of a forest, with all the calm and dangers that live in the trees.
Thanksgiving two years ago I went home to cook the big meal for our family. My grandmother didn’t have the strength anymore and I knew if I didn’t do it, it probably wouldn’t get done. On the second day of cooking, I was tired, and I wanted a glass of wine. My grandparents are teetotalers, but I had convinced them to buy a bottle of white wine for cooking. I poured a glass in the afternoon and was sipping it when my grandmother came in to check on my progress. She took one look at me and said: Sometimes you have grandchildren that make you wish you never had children to begin with.
I took another sip and said, I know you love me. She turned and left the room.
At her funeral all her friends came up to me and said, are you the one that made Thanksgiving dinner? She was so proud of you. She couldn’t stop talking about it.
I used to think that love was something that happened when we said so, or gave presents on Christmas, or hugged each other or kissed. And it is in these things, but I think it is mostly in the chores and the daily care of each task that doesn’t get recognized. It is the thought when you are tempted that says, I am married and so I will go to my room alone even though I could go with a stranger or friend. It’s in the morning rise when your head is heavy and in the evening tuck-in that lasts a moment longer than it needs to. It is in the smallest ways that we make our partners and our friends, our children and our parents feel safe and good and cherished. There are no grand gestures that can make up for daily neglect. When we nurture the ones we love, we nurture love itself.
In this life, I have fallen in love with men and women, strangers and friends. I have fallen in love with hoped-for futures, and then mourned their loss with the same hurt that aches for past mistakes. Sometimes I think there must be a more efficient way to bond and create mutual responsibility—that two people could just say to each other I will be there for you, without all this emotional wrecking and deep vulnerability—but then I remind myself it is the messiness that makes love real and lasting.
Because without the mess, without the responsibility, what is love really? A catalogue of nostalgic kindnesses? A shallow glow of belonging? While a gentle regard might endear one person to another, I doubt its power to sustain them. Love is too expansive for ego’s boundaries. It crashes through comfort, feeding on the trust of everything that has come before. It holds the present like a gift. It reaches, slowly, for what might be.
When my sister and I were small and hyper, my grandfather used to take us to his woodshop to keep us out of the way while my grandmother cooked dinner. We would choose a scrap of wood from the woodpile and he would point out the direction of the grain. Together, we would stencil an animal on the surface and then we would set each of our wood pieces on the jigsaw. Our grandfather would put his hands over our own and guide the wood into the blade, tracing with the saw where we had traced with the pencil. The noise of the blade was loud and shrill. Cut wood pieces would pop away until we were left with a rough cut of our dinosaur or duck or whatever we had drawn.
It smelled like sawdust and his hands were strong. They are unusual hands, large and knobby from his years working on his parent’s farm. He can estimate distances with the span between his thumb and pinky. He can palm a basketball and fashion tables from rough wood. Liver spots dot the skin on them now.
For twenty years, those hands nursed my grandmother while she grew weaker and weaker from chronic bronchitis and pneumonia. I do not know the extent of his care, but I know that sometimes it involved IVs and sometimes it involved giving things up like leaving the house when he felt like it or buying things that he wanted. She went into hospice a few weeks before she died, and he sat beside her while she slept. At her graveside, he put his arm around me and asked: Have you ever seen the last breath? I said that I had seen my dog die, but I knew that this was probably different and couldn’t compare. He said that hers had been easy. After all those years, her last breath had been easy. There was astonishment in his voice, and awe.
Love is terrifying, and while I don’t know where it can be found, I begin, finally, to understand how it can be created. From disappointment. From honesty. It requires maturity and stamina. Above all: patience. The ability to calm yourself and wait. To find delight in chores. To give and to forgive. We fail ourselves when we believe love is a sign of sentimentality and weakness. Love is hard, far harder than most of us want to admit. You must be able to listen. You must be able to speak. You must be brave.
Laura Jean Moore is the 2014 winner of the Cobalt Review’s Zora Neale Hurston Fiction Prize. Her poetry, essays, and stories have been featured in [PANK], the Brooklyn Rail, and Corium Magazine. She holds an MFA from Columbia University and a BA from Reed College. She is suspicious of most things.
Want more of Laura Jean Moore? Read her essay “Each New Heartache is as Old as the First.”