It was the day we scattered my mother-in-law’s ashes in the San Gabriel Mountains, not far from where she had grown up. Diana had been an avid hiker and camped into her late 60s. Her daughter and one of her granddaughters created an altar out of flowers beside a tree where we honored the woman who loved us so well.
It was a good day, full of emotion. But kids are young and move on quickly. Adults? Not so much. As my husband, our two teens and I drove out of the mountains, headed for dumplings at Din Tai Fung to celebrate Diana with a family meal, the song “Romeo and Juliet” by Dire Straits came on the radio. Suddenly, tears were streaming down my face.
My daughter became confused. “What’s wrong, Mom? Why are you crying now?”
How could I explain that I was thinking about hearing this song so many years ago.
One of my best friends in high school was a 6-foot-tall, blond-haired, blue-eyed goddess. When Kristen went off to college, we kept in touch. In one of her letters, she told me about one of her (many) suitors, who had stood outside her window, strummed his guitar and sang that “Romeo and Juliet” song by Dire Straits.
I had been dumbfounded by this level of adoration. Who actually gets serenaded? I have to admit, I was also envious. I was 100% positive no one would ever sing anything like that to me.
As luck would have it, when my turn came to move out and go to college, I managed to become roommates with another fair-haired, supernatural beauty, Elaine. She always had a gaggle of young men in her congregation, come to worship her ocean-like eyes and cotton sundresses.
During the semester when we lived together, Elaine’s (incredibly hot) boyfriend made her mixtapes full of subtly romantic, eclectic music. Her favorite tape played often in our room and it included, of course, “Romeo and Juliet.” What was the deal with this love song? It seemed to be an integral part of courtship for romantic college boys. (For my generation, there was no clearer indication of affection than a carefully crafted mix of songs strung together on a cassette.)
By contrast, I never had a college boyfriend. This was arguably the height of my earthly beauty, and yet I felt neither beautiful nor lovable. I was raised to look pretty and serve the males in my life, never angering them. Have you heard of that book “The Rules”? Lots of Gen X women like me read that book and then tried our best to wear lipstick and skirts and never show anger, all in the hopes of attracting a mate. Barf.
After graduating with a degree in sociology — I love people and find us fascinating — I went into the real world. My first job was as a flight attendant. As I met more people from different places and different backgrounds, I began to understand my true strengths and my worth.
I may not have a symmetrical face, but I am good at encouraging people and making them laugh. The more people I met, the more I understood what I had to offer in relationships.
Then came one week in November 2000. The swing dancing craze was sweeping the nation (remember the khakis ad from the Gap featuring Louis Prima’s “Jump, Jive an’ Wail”?) I was going out nearly every night in Los Angeles and Orange County to dance to live swing bands. (I also took lessons, bought vintage clothes and curled my hair to look like the Andrews Sisters from WWII.) I had dates lined up for every night — with five actual men! My confidence had reached a height theretofore unseen.
That week of dates didn’t go as planned, though.
Jeff was semi-famous in the swing dancing scene because he was in most of the best bands as the alto sax player. And he could actually swing dance. He dated every pretty swing dancer in town and had no intention of slowing down.
Our first impressions of each other were off. He was prematurely gray and mannered as if he were from another generation. I assumed he was too old for me. He said I always had a goofy smile on my face. He thought I was too vapid for him.
One night after a live performance, we struck up a conversation backstage. He mentioned he was single. I said, “You’re single?! I think you need my number.” I swear I was trying to be coy.
Sure enough, later that night, he turned to me and said, “So, do I get your number or what?”
To this day, we debate which one of us asked the other out first.
So back to that week when I had dates lined up like planes landing at LAX. After my first date with Jeff — on that Monday — I canceled the rest of my dates. We went to a restaurant where we valet parked and he opened doors for me. Prior to this, I’d dated boys who were immature. Jeff was different. I just wanted to spend as much time as possible with him. By the end of the week, I knew I would never go out on another first date again. (And just as I was getting good at them!)
A year later, I went on a hike with Jeff to the top of a hill in Elysian Park where he had a surprise waiting. He had not only written a love song for me; he had four musician friends play and sing it for me in public as he proposed.
Jeff accepted my bossiness, my insecurities, all things that “The Rules” say I’m supposed to hide. He encouraged me to be open with my emotions and talk them out — something he’d learned from his mother. He encouraged me to cry in front of him instead of hiding it when I felt sad. This was a huge deal for me. I was raised to believe crying was weak, needy and, frankly, annoying.
And here I was, crying in front of my whole family! And my daughter wanted to know why.
So I told her.
Hearing that song always makes me cry because it reminds me of my old insecurities. The 18-year-old me wouldn’t even be able to imagine all of the love inside this car.
I couldn’t have dreamed up a boyfriend like the one I married: the most romantic, unexpected Romeo I never knew I could love. And I couldn’t have dreamed up a mother-in-law like Diana. Diana never judged me as a mother. Instead, she told me about the mistakes she’d made when she was raising her kids.
Getting to know Diana and witnessing her relationship with her children and grandchildren was an unfolding revelation. She played the piano throughout Jeff’s childhood and encouraged his interest in music. She taught my daughter how to crochet, to love books and to save plastic from blowing into the ocean. She played word games and puzzles with my son and was a huge fan of his card tricks and jokes. She was a feminist who’d learned how to manage her money from her father, a banker. She also gave freely to charities, was passionate about nature and skilled at finding the perfect gift. She loved soaking in her hot tub each evening with a drink.
Being a good mom doesn’t mean being a perfect mom, she’d taught me. Being a good mom means admitting when you’ve messed up and taking care of yourself so your kids see a model of a healthy adult.
I’m still a sucker for love songs. But a song can’t fully describe what Jeff and I have now, all these years later. We are growing old together, grieving the loss of his mom, raising children and figuring out the wonderful, hard parts of life.
They don’t write many songs about this kind of love. No one would believe them.
The author is the founding organizer and blog author at Get Organized Already, based in Pasadena. More of her personal stories can be found on Substack at “Notes from Nonni.”
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