One of my mother’s favorite films is the Hallmark Channel’s 19th-century period piece “Love Comes Softly,” starring a fresh-faced Katherine Heigl. The story centers on a pregnant widow who finds herself stranded out West during the winter and forced to live with a widower and his daughter on his farm. At the outset, the couple hates one another of course, but slowly they cultivate a mutual understanding and respect, and ultimately develop a passionate and deep love. At one point in the movie, her neighbor — a slightly older woman who has perhaps picked up on the chemistry between the two — tells Katherine Heigl that sometimes love isn’t fireworks; sometimes, love just comes softly.
This is the lesson my mother is constantly trying to drill into my head. As Angela points out, we live in a world overrun by romcoms and romance novels and we expect immediate spark and love at first sight. We are a society built on instant gratification, and it’s not all that surprising that we want the same from our relationships.
According to my mother (and Hallmark) these expectations are just not always realistic. We shouldn’t make snap judgments on a first date. Sometimes we have to be patient and give love a chance to grow and bloom. We have to give people a chance to open up to us, to show us their true selves. Because sometimes, love just comes softly.
Although I haven’t always been a pilgrim of this philosophy, there have been times I’ve tried to follow my mom’s advice. On several occasions, I have known in my heart of hearts that someone isn’t right for me, but in an attempt to be open to the quiet and elusive arrival of Cupid, I have gone on two, three, even six dates with people that had zero appeal to me.
One such gentleman peed five to six times on every dinner date. Awkwardly, I went out with him three times. It is possible I spent more time waiting for him to return from the bathroom than I did actually getting to know him. It remains unclear if he had a small bladder, IBS, a coke habit, a fear of germs or a fear of me.
Another chap couldn’t kiss a woman to save his life. He attacked my face every time he tried. There was tongue and teeth and stubble and saliva. A lot of saliva. I put up with it for several months and considered buying stock in Oil of Olay.
Another dude refused to acknowledge we were dating. After three months, I introduced him at my birthday party as my “friend of the romantic nature.” He reprimanded me, in front of my friends, and suggested that I refer to him instead as my “colleague.” But wait, here’s the kicker: We did not work together.
I also dated a self-declared man-o-rexic. We went out twice. He detailed his daily caloric intake to me, twice. And I went home hungry — nay, STARVED — twice. And then I housed a salami and mortadella sandwich. You know how I do.
All of these experiences leave me wondering: How many dates is enough? How many is fair? How many dates constitutes “leading someone on”? How long until loves comes softly? How long until I’ve made my point? Sigh. I still don’t know.
It is ironic that my mother has adopted this “love comes softly mindset” because for her and my dad, love crashed into them with a brassy boom. It was ostentatious, bold and wouldn’t be, couldn’t be ignored.
My mother moved from Puglia to Queens when she was 11 years old. However, her parents didn’t fall in love with the concrete jungle and never fully assimilated. By the time my mom graduated from Bayside High, Rosa and Giuseppe were packing it up, packing it in, and heading back home to Corato. Her four older siblings all stayed stateside, but since my mother was the youngest and unmarried, she split her time between Italy and the United States for years.
It was just before Christmas in 1979 when my mom made her first bus trip to Boston to visit her friend Mary. Little did my mom know, Mary bullied her cousin Vinnie (played not by Joe Pesci, but by my wonderful dad) to accompany her to South Station to pick up my mom. As you may have guessed, Vinnie was not enthusiastic about the trip downtown, nor about meeting this Italian woman. It smelled like a set-up, and he had been around the block enough times to know that set-ups never went well. It didn’t help that Mary had mentioned several times what a great personality Angela had, that she was so kind and warm and funny. Vinnie knew what this was code for: ugly. Come on, this wasn’t his first rodeo.
You see where this is going, right?
Angela sashayed off the bus toward Mary and my dad in tight jeans, high heels, and enough swagger to impress Mario Ballotelli. She was (and is) gorgeous, of course, and she took Vinnie’s breath away. In that moment, he knew. I’ll skip the metaphors of cupid’s arrows and fireworks and the swell of an unseen orchestra playing “Nessun Dorma,” but just so you know, they are all there in my head when I imagine the moment they saw each other. Essentially, it was love at first sight for both Vinnie and Angela. Even though my dad was busy with work (he was an oil man and it was January) they spent as much time together as possible during my mother’s visit.
Unfortunately, a week later, my mother received the news that her own mother had passed away. Devastated, she immediately flew back to Italy. Since she was unmarried, it was understood that she would remain in Italy with her father and take care of him during the mourning period. It didn’t look very good for our star-crossed lovers. Sure, they promised they’d keep in touch, but it was entirely possible they’d never see each other again. Vinnie shook his fist at the moon, while Angela cursed the fates.
Okay, I made that last part up. But can’t you just envision Vinnie shaking his fist at the moon?
Obviously, the distance didn’t keep them apart or dampen their feelings. They began exchanging letters and racking up expensive long-distance telephone bills. My dad would watch “Days of Our Lives” on his lunch break and then call my mom and relay the day’s soapy Stefano-and-Marlena-filled drama. I’m not sure what their letters said, but I’m certain they were free of emoji and semi-colon wink faces, and full instead of romance and honesty. Imagine that?
On Valentine’s Day, my father arranged to have flowers delivered to my mother in Corato, courtesy of FTD. When the flowers arrived, my mother’s neighbors were flabbergasted. How did this man send flowers all the way from America? How much did such a thing cost? How were the flowers still fresh? How did he manage this feat? Gesu Cristo! This man was clearly some kind of wealthy warlock.
After months of long distance love, my parents got married in August of 1980 in New York, just nine months after having met. Why wait? When you know, you know. Love was screaming at them, banging them over their heads. Almost 35 years later, they are still happily married. Sure, they drive each other nuts sometimes, but the love that they found at the bus depot hasn’t left them, and by my prediction, never will.
Remembering their story makes me reflect on my own love life. Earlier this year, I was seeing someone and my feelings reminded me of something my favorite author John Green says, “I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly and then all at once.” Unfortunately, the relationship ended all too soon. And now I’m left wondering how love will come for me next time.
Will it arrive loud and blaring in the honk of a bus horn, repetitive and startling in the clack of high heels on tarmac, or in a graceful but overwhelming swell of a symphony playing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”?
(I’m not sure why I chose “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” but it just feels right to me,)
Or perhaps love will sneak up on me, all soundless and stealthy like a ninja, and claim my heart when I’m least expecting it.
Or perhaps it will be a combination of the two: slowly at first and then all at once.
I’m not sure. What I am sure of is that I’m ready and open for its arrival. Like the rest of us, I want to fall in love. I want to curse the butterflies that take up lodging in my stomach in the moments before a first date, and I look forward to silencing the same flutters with an awkward (but awesome) first kiss.
I want to hold hands walking down Mass Ave, and I want to fall asleep in front of the TV with my head on his shoulder. I want to fight over who gets to eat the last meatball and whose turn it is to take out the trash.
I want to find a partner in this life, someone who will listen to me vent ad nauseum about people who don’t follow proper escalator etiquette, and why Puss n’ Boots is the absolute worst, and who will in return confide in me about what grinds his gears.
I hope I find someone who will kill the spider in my kitchen, and reassure me that I won’t be abducted by aliens if I go camping. But if not, that’s okay too. I suppose we can kill the spiders together.
And maybe, one day, I’d like to get married. I don’t expect it to be like Angela and Vinnie’s fairy tale wedding, but nonetheless I’m excited for the sacrament and commitment, as well as all the joyful side dishes that come with the main matrimonial event.
I want to have someone awkwardly hold my dress while I break the seal. And I want my sister to nervously make a speech about the time that I slapped her in Basilicata. I want to dance with my mom as Toto Cutugno croons “Le mamme,” and with my dad as Laura Brannigan belts “Gloria.” I want to twist again. I want to shout. I want a wedding cake frosting moustache that could only be created by my soul mate. And most of all, I want to look in someone’s eyes and know.
I want it all.
But love — be it quiet or loud, sleepy, stormy or stealth — just hasn’t decided to stay yet. And most days, that’s okay with me.