Everyone has a favourite love story. Despite the urbane ‘modern love’ brainwashing we’ve subjected ourselves to via the likes of Sex and the City, ‘He’s Not That Into You’ and other pop-cultural tat, the human heart remains greedy, hopeful. You smile to yourself, because you know it’s true.
But classic love stories seem to relegate passion and ‘True Love’ exclusively to the young and restless. As if a blanket ‘Happily Ever After’ is all of the story that needs telling once the monsters have been vanquished and the wedding bells toll.
Or worse, that true love must hurtle to an inevitable mutual destruction; because real life, you Capulets and Montagues, can never hope to keep up. Romeo must go to work, Juliet must get the kids to school, they must grow old, bicker about money, suffer family dinners, grow thick around the middle…
It is quite an ordeal, this writing about love, in the time of a mid-life crisis, in iambic pentameter.
And yet… true love exists, even thrives. Amidst the gristle and grind of everyday life, you will catch lovers glancing at each other over their children’s screaming heads, elderly couples holding hands, a middle aged woman distractedly stroking the back of her graying, pot-bellied amour. These stories seem to transcend language, geography, culture. Stories of second chances and grief and joy. Just like your breath catches at fading roses… you cannot but be seduced. Everyone has a love story. You’re living it or it’s in the wings, waiting to happen.
I have a favourite love story. It is the story of my parents. My mother’s childhood was rough. When we’d ask her to tell us ‘old stories’, she’d begin by making us laugh at silly things, village things, stories of nesting pigs stealing wedding sarees and turtles eggs and Duffer the dog who travelled with her on the bus. But then, in the telling, it would slip out, the hungry little latch-key kid, losing her father at 10, her single mother exhausted, hard times, a little broken hearted. My father, the youngest of five, started working at 16. ‘Tipu Sultan’ my grandmother called him sarcastically. He had it pretty rough too. But those were rough days.
When my mother was 16 she caught my dad’s eye. “Oh I thought, this poor girl, I hope I can make her life better” my father would say slyly watching my mother bristle. My mother would say, “Well I thought, he’s alright, I doubt anyone better will show up.” They began seeing each other in secret.
When the time came to marry, my mother used to remember the fear she felt introducing my dad to her mum and her mum’s band of strict (unmarried) siblings. But “he just walked straight into the house” and that was that.
A job offer in Oman meant my parents had to pack away their lives in Bombay and leave for a brave new world, in the desert, amongst other expats who would become their family.
They had four children in quick succession and then twins years later. It was unquestionably hard but my mother maintains that the lack of familial infrastructure brought a blessing in itself, “we had only each other to depend on” and they were a crack team.
I remember once reading, “The best thing a father can give his children is to love their mother.” And this is the gift we were given. Theirs was not a peaceable, chocolates and roses sort of love. My dad loved to dance, my mum was too shy, my dad loves to be on the road, my mum was a homebody, my dad is the risk taker, my mum was a worry-wart. Intellectual equals (my mother will snort, she has always maintained Brains Behind Operation status) with a shared love of food and books and friends, they bickered, they fought, they despaired… But they also laughed and cooked and stayed up the night chatting and made life seem like a constant adventure. Which is great because in all these many years, we’d been on exactly one family holiday.
Almost a year ago, my mother struggled with a chest infection for a month. My father had just retired and was looking forward to ‘going on our first honeymoon’. But the rain came and my mother got sicker. The hospitals said she was alright. She sat down in my dad’s car, the heater on, feeling incredibly cold. My dad sang to her and she told him she loved him.
That night she passed away. Suddenly. His name was the last thing she said. She was not yet 63.
For a couple who never had a honeymoon, whose lives were been filled with working hard at everything, the romance was always alive. In their sixties, my mother still fancied my dad. She would constantly half-teasing-half-serious ask if he saw anyone pretty in church or accuse him of getting the best bargains at the fish market because the fisherwomen have crushes on him. We always thought my dad was more soignée. But on holiday, at a restaurant, when the massive, sweaty, swarthy Italian owner of the restaurant we were dining at started chatting up my mum, my father cursed all the way back to the hotel, “That b@$^@*# is a cheat! The food was awful. What a terrible evening!” We stifled our giggles in the back.
My father still carries pictures of my mum in his wallet: ages 19 to now. My mum saved every little note from him. He bought her tacky, funny presents from Archies and oversized birthday cards and flowers when they fought. She would cook something nice just for the two of them.
On what would have been their fortieth wedding anniversary my father decorated my mother’s grave and stood quietly. Alone.
In sickness and health, richer and poorer (mostly poorer), thin and thick (again mostly thick) they honoured their covenant in all seriousness with humour and pride and humility. If you’d asked them, they’d have said their’s is an everyday sort of love story.
Perhaps the best kind.