(In case you want to check out the movie: http://loveetcthemovie.com/ )
My parents know I’ve been seeing someone (I’ll call him “John”). Immediately after my divorce, they were the drivers of the “Cougel needs to find another husband” bandwagon, but that was almost four years ago, and since then I’ve had my share of bungled dates, breakups, and experiences that seemed to have stemmed their concern. Or rather, they’ve seen me navigate the single path and grow, and at this point, they just want me to be happy.
Note: For those of you that don’t have a Jewish mother, or parents to whom their children and grandchildren fill their days, thoughts, and hearts, you might think I “worry” what my parents think waay too much. That dedicating a post to their involvement in my love life is immature or misdirected. That’s okay. But if you do, I hope you keep reading.
My parents’ trust in my decisions shows. They take my lead. I’ve mentioned John in passing, when relevant, but mostly, unless I bring it up, they don’t ask. By “they,” I really mean Mom. She’s done a 180 as far as the nudging goes. And for a Jewish Mother (especially mine), that’s huge. I’ve been busy and immersed in my new job so I haven’t actually had the opportunity to talk about him to Mom, but also, I’m taking things with him day by day. I’m not forcing my future or collecting people’s support as forward momentum.
I haven’t been quite ready to have John meet my family anyway. My family is a lot. There are many of us, yes, but we are all close, break into Hebrew randomly, and talk over each other. There is a lot of hugging, complimenting, hair touching, and eating. It’s no small feat for someone who cares what I think, and what my family thinks of him – not to mention him being culturally and religiously different – to meet them for the first time. I’ve been home for countless Sabbath meals since John and I met, and bringing him with me wasn’t a consideration.
Until this past week. Something shifted. Our relationship is growing, as all things should with time. My mother planned a BBQ dinner in honor of my sister’s birthday. I didn’t ask anyone what they thought about my inviting John – if it was too early, or what they felt about it. I just asked him to come. He was pleased. We didn’t make a big deal about it. I didn’t feel like it was a big deal. If I did, then I suspect I wouldn’t have invited him in the first place.
My dad called to ask me if “The Him” was coming to dinner (translated from Hebrew: “Ha-hoo”). It basically means “the guy” but with less weight. My father is notorious for “forgetting” the names of his daughters’ significant others, until they become truly significant. I laughed, “Yes, Dad. I’m bringing The Him.” And then he surprised me by asking me to spell my boyfriend’s first and last name for him. (His real name is more complicated than ‘John’). “What do you need his last name for?” I said. “I’m sure Mom already Googled him.” (I know for a fact that she has but I wasn’t sure she told my dad.)
Dinner was great. John had plenty of things to talk to my brother in-laws about (by things I mean, I overheard phrases like “interest rates” and “economic reform”). My nieces didn’t flinch when introduced to him, which I had been worried about. Just last month my 2.5 year old niece asked me where “the boy with the black T-shirt was,” referring to my ex-cub. This time, she interrupted the mortgage rate conversation to look me and John in the eye and ask us, “Is there a baby in your house?”
When we checked the NJ transit schedule, we realized we had ten minutes to get to the station to catch our train back to NYC and scrambled to get our coats. Every time I see my parents, my mother asks me to send her a list of things I need. I can easily get all of these items in NY (almonds, avocados, advil, socks), but I send her the list anyway, because it makes her happy.
Mom was thrown by our abrupt departure. “But wait! Cougel! What about your things? I didn’t have time to collect them for you!” She ran to the cabinets, opening the refrigerator to toss coffee and muffins into a bag. I told her it was OK – that I’d get everything in the city, no problem. On my way downstairs she pushed a ziploc filled with ibuprofen into my hands (Mom only buys generic).
Goodbyes and thank yous were exchanged amidst the flurry, and John and I, along with my cousin and his girlfriend, packed into my dad’s car in the garage and got ready to pull out. And then I saw Mom. She was standing at the car window holding a four-pack of toilet paper. “You need some?” she asked, pulling a roll out and holding it up to me.
I don’t know if I felt worse rejecting the forlorn roll of toilet paper, or my mom, so I took it.
The train was pulling up as we got out of the car, and John turned to thank my father for the lovely evening. I overheard him say: “You have a beautiful family…and a beautiful daughter.”
“You’re welcome. Nice to see you,” My dad said.
And then my father called my boyfriend by his name.
This is a common question. Many books have been written about it. But I wonder if the question is open ended and its answer varies for everyone.
Some therapists claim that a woman who marries a man like her father probably had a difficult relationship with him (or he was absent) and she spends her life looking for someone who can fill that vacancy. Others say that a daughter’s relationship with her father is naturally more complicated than the relationship she has with her mother, and that dynamic informs her choices later.
Is the notion that we are looking for a man like our father something we women adamantly refuse to accept, or think we can get away from? I know many women – myself included – who when they embarked on that search for their future spouse (usually in their early 20’s), refused to give this conceit much thought.
I know I did. Looking back, my ex-husband’s character was nothing like my dad’s, nor was his physique. I wondered, even after we divorced, whether the fact that he was the opposite of my dad, and the men that I was surrounded by growing up (my somewhat macho, tall, strong and silent Israeli uncles and cousins), played a large role in my choice to marry him. Rebellion? Attraction to someone “different”? Or an adamant refusal to acknowledge that deep down, I needed someone with the wonderful qualities that my father possesses? What did I know, as a twenty one year old girl thrust out of college and into the real world, about what I really wanted? Or what was really good for me?
I’m one of three girls – no brothers. My parents are happily married (still!) and I wonder if my dad being the only male, surrounded by four women, intensified our impression of him as strong and omniscient, and reinforced the male imprint he had on us. It might have been diffused had I had brothers. I will never know. But does it matter?
My friend asked me the other night how things were going with my new boyfriend, and said he wondered whether I was with this guy because he “checked all the boxes” for me. I found that question odd. “No way, I said. It’s the opposite. He’s nine years younger than me, not Jewish, and figuring out his path career wise.” This is not the obvious or optimal check list for a career-driven Jewish divorcee in her late thirties. And on the surface, it’s the opposite check list that my ex-husband possessed (age appropriate, Jewish, nice Jewish family, etc).
But I no longer concern myself with such things. Check lists, at least for me, are now about character. Does the guy possess inner strength, patience, kindness, ambition, and a propensity to be a leader? In assessing the traits of my new boyfriend, the answer is a resounding yes.
Does he fit the bill physically? Well, he looks nothing like my father (that would be creepy), but he is tall – not just taller than the guys I’ve dated, but as tall as a basketball player. I can sit in his lap. I get to feel like Carrie did with Aidan. When my best friend from high school heard how tall my boyfriend was, she texted me: “Cougel, it’s about time. I remember how you used to say you wanted to date a manly guy… tall and strong like your Israeli relatives.”
This dawned on me yesterday (and consequently inspired this post), when my new boyfriend, on a beautiful Saturday afternoon when we could have been outside brunching and drinking, helped me set up a system of organization for my new job, which requires thorough record keeping. I’m a techtard, and have been anxious to get the appropriate methods set up that work for me. My new boyfriend understands this. With my computer in his lap, and excel open, he morphed into a teacher, before my eyes. He asked me what I needed, and then walked me through Excel-hell, step by step. I got frustrated and impatient, not knowing exactly what I needed and wanting to get outside. I felt like a little girl. I went back in time to when I was in the ninth grade cramming for a math test (I sucked at math), and sitting with my dad in the dining room as he tutored me (he was an accountant). I would throw little “I don’t want to be here” fits, which my father didn’t indulge.
Just like my boyfriend.
I think that us women, in some small way, like to feel like little girls with the men we are dating. We don’t want to be the boss – even though we act bossy. We want a man who takes charge, who can teach us about things we don’t know (or have the patience to learn), because sometimes they know what we need better than we do. I don’t care if this sounds anti-feminist. I think that women are wired a certain way, as a result of how we were raised, and it’s just the way it is. Rather than rejecting this – which might lead to poor choices (ie. partnering with the wrong guy), don’t you think we should embrace it?
It’s not important to over analyze it, or attempt to track back the exact thing about our fathers that we want or don’t want in a man. It’s not going to be obvious. It’s going to crop up in random moments and interactions, when the man we are with does something that just feels comfortable and familiar, in all the good ways.
It just feels like home.
Is he claiming his territory, or is it just a stubborn refusal to concede? If the third roommate was eliminated, well then what? Would another problem, perhaps the real issue, surface in its place? My friend should just hire a cleaning lady. “These things are fixable,” I said. “You’re lucky in this case – you can just throw money at it.”
I wanted it to come from him.
I suspect we all have that thing in our lives. That thing that causes us to triangulate, that divides our attention and obfuscates the underlying issue. It’s much easier to talk about, and to, the third roommate – blame it for all our problems – instead of confronting the scary shit hiding under the dirty laundry. And the towel, like all laundry, no matter how many times we tend to it, keeps coming back.
It’s still too early with my new boyfriend to identify our third roommate, or if we’d even have one; we don’t live together yet, nor does he even have a key to my apartment. But regardless, our communication is excellent. Oh. Wait. There are those stubborn string cheese wrappers that reappear stuck to the counter and floor…