This is what it looks like

Wednesday, February 12, 2020 - 12:11pm

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Courtesy of Emily Stillman

In Hebrew, the word for “to love” has the same root as the word “to give.” I’ve always admired the way an ancient language is woven together with purpose, the way the words hang on to each other, collide, twist into webs of meaning that say more together than any word could alone. 

To love and to give. This is what it looks like:

After six decades, my grandparents argue over what year they got married. One afternoon at lunch, they interrupt each other as they tell me and my sister about that cold February, a month of love, a night in the stained-glass chapel. My grandpa emphatically swings his corned beef sandwich in the air and insists it was the winter of ’58, a year of recession. They tell us about their first place together, a small townhouse on Westbrook in Detroit, near Six Mile. When my grandfather was in the Navy, my grandma wrote him letters every day. We talk about school and how my mother works too much. When we walk them to the car, my grandpa opens the passenger door and ushers his wife inside. 

In home movies, you never see my dad — he’s always behind the camera. On the day my twin sister and I were born, he points the lens at the two babies in my mother’s arms and says “Hi, girls” just like he did this morning on the phone. As we sort through old photo albums, I find a picture of him playing a baby grand piano — the gift my mom bought him when they got married. There are two babies in walkers on the floor — me and my sister — and our dog is perched at the window. I imagine my mom behind the camera, capturing in that instant what must have been everything: the sunlight, the music, the husband, the kids and the dog in the house they built to raise their family. I think of them now in the living room, sitting in quiet contentment at the end of another long day at work, wordless over the hum of the evening news of tragedy somewhere and cautious peace somewhere else. They are warm and together and lucky under the same roof.

How lucky am I to know what love looks like: the dreamy kind, the waterlogged and dusty wedding album, the woman in a delicate white lace dress and the man in a black bowtie, wide-eyed, gazing at the camera. I know the hard kind, too: The day my grandma swears she can’t live without my grandpa, tough doctor's appointments and decisions to sell the house. The giving of everything — for better, for worse, till death do us part, he will make sure she gets home safely. Hundreds of letters sent back and forth, hundreds of phone calls. Maybe they sacrificed a lot, maybe she can’t stand the way he leaves toothpaste in the sink, and he hates how she bites her nails. Maybe it doesn’t always feel like love, when we let each other down, when we break a promise or forget to say thank you. Maybe we don’t love hard enough, or easy enough or right enough. 

But look at us, learning how to do it anyway. On midnight at the rundown diner, I sit across from my best friend. We share a plate of fries and talk about our weekends. When I say we talk about our weekends, I mean we talk about the way we felt when he walked us home and didn’t kiss us goodbye; the way it’s been years since he called us a bitch but we still miss him; the way we felt euphoric and horrified at the idea of anyone seeing our naked bodies, our faces without make-up or reading what we might have to say about love. We lick the grease off our fingers and say whatever we can: forget about him, or go for it, or I’m so sorry, or you are beautiful the way you are and that is not what love is, it can’t be. 

We talk about our parents and our sisters and our family dinners where everyone fights and then makes up. We talk about the aging love of our grandparents and the fresh love of a newlywed sibling. We remind ourselves we orbit around planets of this love, the unconditional kind, the kind we feel like we don’t deserve, the people who give us everything without asking for anything in return. 

What do we have to give? I want to give love as fiercely as I’ve received it. I wonder what it takes to sustain half a century of marriage, what it means to see the man across the room and smile, to fall in love gently, if there is such a thing. Sometime when I was young, I learned you should love your neighbor as you love yourself, and at some point since then, I must have forgotten that means you have to love yourself first. 

That’s always been the hardest part, hasn’t it? Loving ourselves? My mom thinks I have bad taste in guys; I think I just can’t figure out how to look in the mirror and love the way my body curves, the way my lips form words, the way my hand curls around a pen to write, the way my mind shifts into bouts of worry, the way I’m silent in a crowd, the way I’m sometimes cruel, sometimes reckless, sometimes ungrateful for the love that is given to me. I hope that I’ll love better when I love myself. I hope that what I have to give will be enough. 

Right now, though, there is something so palpable about the love around me, something so promising and so heartbreaking. Across the table, my grandpa wraps his hand around my grandma’s fingers, and my sister kicks me under the table as if to say look at that, that’s love. We eat our sandwiches in comfortable silence, and I think of the shaky lens of a home movie, the camera zooming in on a younger version of my grandmother holding her newborn granddaughter, what a life it’s been, what words could never capture, what’s been given and taken and lost and loved. 

Emily Stillman is a senior in LSA studying Organizational Studies and is a Statement Deputy Editor. She can be reached at erstill@umich.edu.