For Valentine’s Day it might be appropriate to pass along some of the advice and wisdom that I got from my Dad as I was growing up on the topics of love, marriage and sex. Of course, we never overtly talked about sex, but it was regularly referred to in veiled terms that I didn’t really understand until years later. My earliest recollections of these “conversations,” which were really lectures or rants, had as their central theme the identification of man as just another animal “ruled by his endocrine system.” Pretensions to the contrary, in an attempt to make mankind out to be some sort of noble beast with an altruistic heart, amount to fuzzy-headed cant with no basis in biological reality. Everyone should study biology in order to understand this, and in doing so, would realize that we are at the mercy of our appetites and most basic instincts and drives. This was pretty heady stuff for a child or even an early adolescent to digest. At the same time, my mother, a nurse, would draw realistic diagrams of the uterus and Fallopian tubes and explain in very clear terms the mechanical functioning of the female reproductive organs. But, it wasn’t until high school Biology class that the interface between physiology and endocrinology became clear. Even then, I didn’t associate my father’s rants or his declarations that when he was young, he “couldn’t get enough of anything” with my own hormone-fueled obsessions and frantic fumblings in the backseat of a certain ’68 Chevy or with the premarital pregnancies that occurred among my classmates with alarming frequency. So, while my sisters and I (I can’t really speak to what my brother’s experience in this regard might have been, the old double standard for boys and girls being alive and well at that time) were raised with the oblique admonishment not to engage in premarital sexual intercourse, it was understood and expected that we would because we couldn’t really help ourselves and “Mother Nature is nothing but an old whore.” So, my parents just held their breath and hoped everything would turn out OK. Mostly, it did.
When I announced to my parents that I was going to get married, my dad’s comment was, “Why would you want to do that? Marriage is like a poor meal with the dessert first.” I’ve heard variations of that drollery over the years, and I know it’s not original to my dad, but that was the first time I had heard it. And, I thought it an awful thing to say to a young woman that was in love and anticipating a long and happy marriage with the man of her dreams. I still think it was a terrible thing to say, even though I recognize the small truth of the statement. Nonetheless, I have been married for 32 years and my parent for 57, and there is a lot to be said for endurance. Especially now, at the end of their lives, my parents are devoted to each other in a way that goes far beyond the ecstasy of young love and the instinctual human drive to find a mate and procreate. My dad doesn’t talk about this a lot, but it’s obvious in the way he has taken on the caretaker role, one for which he is not suited at all, in order to keep my mom comfortable and safe and with him. That’s what marriage is really about, the long haul. It’s not a single meal; it’s the sum total of all the meals that you feed each other, the rich and the poor, til death you do part.