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How to know if your parents are still in love

BY Lauren DePino

9th Sep 2022 Life

How to know if your parents are still in love

One writer shares the moment she knew that her parents were still in love, in a world where lifelong love can feel like the preserve of a lucky few

When I was growing up, I could never tell if my parents were wildly in love or careening toward divorce.

I awoke some mornings to the noise of their voices climbing, straining to make out their words from two rooms away. Other times I’d catch them planted in the middle of the couch watching Moonstruck, their hair back then ink-dark like Cher’s.

“I can’t understand why you people just can’t get along,” my Sicilian grandmother would scold when she saw them fight.

Getting to know your parents

As I matured, I began to understand that, since they had married young (my mother was 18, my father 24), they were still forging their identities independently of each other.

Early in their marriage, they juggled teaching full-time and working toward higher degrees while raising my sisters, 10 and 14 years my senior. Their relationship was bound to have its cracks.

It wasn’t until my late 20s when I started spending a week with them every winter in Florida that I learned that the foundation of Cathy and Andy DePino’s 57-year marriage is anything but a fixed layer of stone. It thrives with fluidity and motion, like dancing.

Trip after trip, year after year, night after night, my mother would don a flowing skirt and sparkling costume jewelry and say, “Let’s go to the dance!” Translation: Let’s go to the bar with the live band and dance until they kick us out.

On my latest visit before the pandemic, it was almost 9pm, and even though my parents are both close to four decades older than me, I was the tired one.

It had been one of those family vacations with every hour accounted for—swimming, eating, beach-walking, eating, and more eating of mostly rich Italian dishes and sundaes for dessert.

"Since they had married young, they were still forging their identities independently of each other"

At “the dance,” all the windows and doors were open, and “I Love Music,” by the soul group the O’Jays, had people disco dancing on the sidewalks and in the streets.

Sticking to the beat, my mother shimmied her way through a sea of bopping “old people,” as she kiddingly called her peers, to snag prime space on the indoor dance floor.

Once we were near enough to the speakers that we could feel the bass in our chests, my mother raised her arms, and let the funk rhythm take her. My dad grooved too, his stiff hips loosening as the music drove on.

My mother momentarily left her reverie to point out that, in the spot where we stood, “the craziest thing happened.” Two “old men” had tapped my father on the shoulder and asked if they could dance with her.

“Dad told them off,” Mom shouted over the music. “He said, ‘My wife wouldn’t give you a second look,’ and then the men slithered away.”

“Nobody dances with my wife but me,” Dad said to us, joking. Or was he serious?

Finding contentment together

Senior couple dance on rooftop lit by fairy lightsFor DePino, her parents enduring love for each other became obvious when they danced together

Just then, the band’s bluesy version of “At Last” swelled, and like a spell, it dissolved the crowd in twos. My father clasped his arms behind my mother’s back; she wove hers around his shoulders.

It took no time for him and my mother to see each other as the only ones there.

"It took no time for him and my mother to see each other as the only ones there"

My father smiled, his lips hardly apart, the way he does in moments I’ve seen him truly happy. Like the morning his first grandson was born. Like the August afternoon at the shore when the power went out and we stared at the periwinkle clouds with bright pink cores, a sundown undeterred by artificial light.

My mother was relaxed and happy too, which isn’t the easiest state for her to reach. Her impossibly large eyes were soft. I’d picked up on that same softness earlier that evening on the pier, when we saw the sun fall beneath the sea.

“There it is,” she’d said. “There it is.”

Love is steady yet ever fluid

As I witnessed my parents dancing, I felt a weightless understanding between them that I never knew before.

I’ve seen them at the height of distress and at the fathoms of despair—when they lost their own parents, when my father lost his younger brother. I’ve heard them yell and blame and slam their doors.

And I’ve seen them release it all for that soft, familiar look they find mid-slow dance, never looking away.

Recently, I began to see that my discovery had nothing to do with the tangible details of the moment, nothing to do with the dancing or the music.

"They’ve learned if you bend and you move, the person you’ve been looking to all your life does the same"

I could tell that my parents were in love because what I saw in their faces was a live memory, a living promise, a life-giving leap—that they could always, always return to each other and know the other would be completely there, completely present.

They’ve lived a half of a century together. They’ve learned if you bend and you move, the person you’ve been looking to all your life does the same. Sometimes it takes something as simple as a slow dance or a sunset for a lifetime of love to become incandescent.

During my visits, I took videos of the afternoons my parents and I watched the glowing, tangerine sphere disappear into viridian blue, bordered by crowds of people, all of us bearing witness to the mortal moments we ache to hold on to.

I reverse the camera to see our faces together. The light breathes through us, encasing us in rose-lit gold. It bounds our hair, theirs bronzed with age, mine ink-dark like theirs once was. We are outlined, immortalized by flame-colored light.

I turn the camera back toward only them, their hands entwined.

There it is.

There it is.

This piece was originally published in the New York Times on January 23, 2021.

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