1. Love, not "like."
I began this interview with the intention of asking my grandparents about lessons they wish they could share with my generation, but every lesson came back to what loving looks like because at the end of it all, to love is to live.
My grandmother was engaged once before she was married to my grandpa, but she broke it off a week after the proposal. This story always stuns me because my grandma looked into the face of a seemingly healthy relationship and the prospect of security that we all long for and knew — this wasn't the love she wanted. I know it's a cliché, but apparently, it's true because my grandmother says, "When you know, you just know." She said, "You can care for someone and not love them… We had a 'nice' relationship, but at the end of the day, it has to make sense in your heart, not just your mind." My grandpa added, "If you're uncertain, it's not the one."
My grandparents' story is a testament to the age-old adage: "If it's meant to be, it'll be." After she broke off the engagement, my grandma decided not to go back to the school where her ex-fiancé attended (something she still lists as a regret) while my grandpa enrolled for that following semester. But fate didn't let them off the hook. When she visited that next year for the college's homecoming, she met my grandpa. This time she "just knew," and one thing led to another that led to three generations of families raised in love. I asked my grandpa how he knew that she was "the one," and he replied, "When I had to go back to college after visiting her all summer, I realized that I didn't want to not see her every day and that I had to do something about that."
2. Bend, don't break.
We see love enacted by highly paid actors on brightly lit screens and hear it sung in carefully crafted lines by our favorite artist and see it filtered and framed by iPhone portrait-mode on every social media platform. But this version of love is surface-level deep. It's nothing more than scenes and production and minutes on the radio and seconds of snapshots that only have to be sustained for the duration of the audience's attention span. We're only made aware of the shiny, finished product and are led to believe that that is the entirety of love and become sorely disappointed when it's not the fairytale we were sold. "It's not a fairytale," my grandpa said. "I love her more than what they show on television. Our love is real." But he revealed, "I thought it was going to be automatic and not require a lot of work. I was wrong."
Both grandparents advised taking time before committing. In a generation that places value on the speed of results, we often rush a relationship into looking like what we perceive love to be, rather than taking our time getting to know one another and figuring out if we truly want to invest all of our emotional energy and potentially spend the rest of our life with a person. My grandma explained that the difference between relationships today and her and my grandfather's is the value placed on commitment. "When you got married back then, it was for a lifetime. There was no other option. You think everything is going to be hunky-dory and then you realize — this is not the person I thought I was marrying. You have to learn to bend."
3. Better, not bitter.
In 1964, my grandparents had their first child. In 2014, my grandpa was diagnosed with cancer. One of these life phases most exemplifies flashing red lights that blare "trial," but both of these — and many more — are instances in which my grandparents admitted they had to grow together. My grandpa talked about learning to be more considerate in the first years of their marriage. He acknowledged the innate quality raging in all of us that finds its comfort in doing things our own way at our own pace, but in marriage, convenience must learn to bow to consideration.
Having children only highlights the need for consideration and in ways those inexperienced might not expect. "You have children. And here's your husband who wants all of your attention, but you want to give all your attention to your children. it's hard, but you have to set a balance… it's a learning process. You don't want your kids to come between you and your husband," my grandma said. It's during this time that you understand that when you choose love, you must also choose to recognize that your life encompasses not just your own needs, but also those of a family that needs your arms and hands as much as you do.
2014 marked a year in my family's lives where we all felt the reality of mortality sink in a little deeper. We all grasped a little tighter at the ties that bind and relished the times we could be together because cancer makes you realize that those times cannot always exist. My grandfather is made of brawn, grit, determination, and perseverance, and served in the 101st Airborne for his first several years of adulthood. He raised a legacy of families that fought for what they valued and taught them that nothing held more value than family. Science tells us of the devastating havoc that sickness can wreak on a person, but personal experience tells stories of the perseverance of love. It's a choice to do better than what the diagnosis entails. My grandfather has been fighting this battle for four years now; and standing by his side, my grandmother has been there, fighting with and for him, surrounded by the legacy that they have raised. My grandma said, "As we got older, and when he got sick, we just realized what we meant to each other." They didn't let it tear them apart. He chose to do better. She chose to do better. They became better.
Love is not for the weak of heart. It isn't a band-aid to apply at someone else's expense. It isn't a 45-minute episode spent in the background of a love song. It requires strength of will and a shared determination to see it through to the end. And my grandparents taught me that through showing me that.