The Look of Love

Buenos Diaz! I’m putting this post together on Valentine’s Day, a perfectly lovely day that I spent most of at a secret solo sanctuary away from home. I read and wrote in a Harry Potter t-shirt with a bottle of wine and snacks of all sorts. Because I forgot to bring a glass to drink out of or any kind of cutlery, I drank the wine straight from the bottle and took bites of cheese straight from the block. I am nothing if not the picture of classiness.

Today is supposed to be about love though, so earlier I joined some of the people I love most for breakfast – my parents and brother. We noshed at a favorite Mexican spot where the tortillas are made right there in the restaurant and are as thick as the hips they go straight to when I eat them. My favorite element of the meal was that for once, we weren’t approached like we usually are by a camera-toting female offering to take a free photo of us. That “free” photo is tiny and plastered with the restaurant logo, clearly meant to be a gateway to prettier, higher-quality prints costing $15.00 each. It’s uncomfortable enough to have to refuse the accompanying sales pitch; it’s super f*cking awkward to have to let the chick know that my brother and I are indeed siblings and not the “cute couple” she keeps referring to us as. This is what happens when you look nothing like your brother and he’s a good looking dude.

Keeping with the trend of surrounding ourselves in love, we made our way as a family over to a place near and dear to our hearts: Costco. After picking out a gorgeous arrangement of roses and lilies for my brother's fiancé (plus one for my mom - dad wasn't going to be upstaged), we walked towards the back of the store and approached the aisle containing the camping gear. My dad has had his eye on a dome tent, a model that boasts a 60-second setup and can accommodate five or six people, for at least a year. He has longed for that bad boy, excitedly explaining how useful it would be for trips to the park or beach or for toting around the grandkids, should my brother and I ever get it together and actually decide to produce any. He’s caressed the damn tent lovingly while walking away from it each time though, whispering “Someday!” to it the way I do to pricey rings, private libraries or travel ads to the UK. The tent was only around $80 but this amount has never been justifiable to my retiree father, who’s always been frugal and not one to indulge his fancies.

This time though, he decided it was time to treat himself – well, almost. My brother and I overheard him telling my mom that with his next pension check, he’d finally pull the trigger. My brother quickly chimed in to remind us all that he was the only one of the group with a Costco card, so he was going to pay for everything anyway and had no problem spotting my dad the cost of the tent. He and I will likely end up splitting the cost anyway as a present; it’s not that my parents can’t afford it, it’s that they feel guilty spending money on themselves.

I can’t help but look back on my childhood here. My parents put both my brother and I through private school as kids, a feat my parents struggled to afford but figured out as best they could in the name of giving us a solid education.  At one point, the financial burden forced them to evaluate whether they could continue to keep us in Catholic school. This caused my parents a great deal of consternation; the part of town we lived in didn’t boast a particularly stellar public school system but did have the advantage of being $Free.99.  When they sat me down to tell me that I might have to switch schools, I cried my freckly little face off. I begged and pleaded with them to let me stay with my friends, as though they were exacting an unjust punishment and not trying to keep their heads above water. I was breaking their hearts without a clue that I was going so.

So they continued to make it work, taking advantage of every possible tuition break available: endless volunteer shifts at every carnival, gala and bake sale, helping out at the school itself, signing us up to sell a ridiculous amount of those World’s Famous Chocolates or any other item the school asked us to hock. When it came time to pick a high school, I can only imagine my parent’s horror and simultaneous relief when I asked to be sent to a public school. My dad loathed the idea of me going to the local high school for a variety of reasons, insisting he'd find a way to afford one of the two Catholic high schools that were the natural next step for the majority of my classmates. Still, the idea of a free education held significant appeal; my parents sure as hell didn’t have a five-digit sum of money to fork over every year, not by a stretch.

One night I walked by my parents’ bedroom on my way to bed, and through a sliver in the mostly closed door, I saw my dad wringing his hands through his hair. Even if we hadn’t just discussed my educational future at length over dinner, I wouldn’t have had to think too hard to guess the source of his agony. I was starting to get it at the tender age of 13, to grasp the enormous weight that accompanies the making of choices that affect your children’s futures. He was stressing over me, over what to do with me.

The following morning, I formulated a plan: I’d file a request with the school board to be allowed to attend a high school outside of my district. The process took several weeks and involved multiple interviews with counselors, principals and board members. plus carefully written letters and presentations with graphs and fancy pie charts. The school I’d selected after careful analysis of the entire district's AP curriculum, graduation rates and college acceptance ratios was already significantly over-populated; I heard a lot of "no" during the process, an already daunting one for a kid of my age.  Imagine my family’s surprise and collective sigh of exuberant relief though when we got the call informing us that my request had been granted. Something about a pre-teen in her best clothes and a giant portfolio with big dreams must have won someone over. Thus was born the story my dad would tell about a thousand time in the years that followed. He was so proud of me, and elated that he could send me off to high school in peace.

My parents’ sacrifice was far from over though. Attending a school out of my district meant a longer commute; this meant that my mother had to pick up and drop off her two children in different parts of town every day, a challenge even before factoring in the many sports practices, dance rehearsals, study groups, volunteer shifts, etc. Then after high school, both my brother and I decided to pursue education at private universities. The scholarships and grants helped but weren’t enough; my parents took out loans to help afford the cost of our education. They held on to cars that badly needed replacing but managed to help my brother and I get cars of our own. They never took a single vacation or bought themselves one nice thing for themselves. They put their children above all things always – and what’s more, they were happy to do it.

The thing about all of this is that 98% of the time, my parents hid their struggle. They rarely let on to the fact that making ends meet was a challenge, never made my brother or I feel like we owed them anything or like it was all a lot to manage. Instead they celebrated every good grade, every victory, every performance. They made us feel special and treasured and important and unstoppable. They loved us every day, unequivocally, unwaveringly.   

So as I stood in line at Costco with my successful, educated and soon-to-be-married brother and my goofy, affectionate parents, I felt pride. I’m proud to be the daughter of a man who has brought his wife flowers every Valentine’s Day and anniversary as far as I can remember, the first man to bring me flowers and to put a ring on my finger. I’m proud to be the daughter of a woman who is loved by everyone everywhere and who leads always with her heart. I’m proud that, though a little bit lost and a lot of a dreamer, I am still deemed worthy of their decades of enormous sacrifice; they remind me of this fact every chance they get. To them, it was all so worth it.

To get these people a Costco camper then seems a little anti-climactic, especially with no cute offspring to load it with and sweeten the pot. “Thanks for all the self-denial, folks! Here’s an $80 camper thing to even the score!” Still, look at the man’s face, the sheer, unbridled joy of a wish made reality. This is the man that taught me how to love, folks. May you all feel this kind of love in your lives today and every other day.