My step-father loved to joke that I had a little neon sign on my forehead that flashed: “Assholes Apply Here”.

I’ve hit a few bumps on the road to True Love – or they hit me. It is humiliating to admit that a woman who prides herself on her intellect couldn’t tell the difference between a prince and a frog; a man and a monster. To describe my first two marriages as “abusive” would be like describing World War II a “minor conflict”. My two epic battles were waged on different fronts: one for my life and one for my sanity. Both blew my self-esteem to smithereens. But, in my defense, both of those men had agendas which had nothing to do with love. One needed a “cover” – a curtain of macho normalcy to hide a gender-confused nature. The other, a former military brat with a brilliant but drug-fried brain, had read manuals on brainwashing techniques he’d stolen from his Air Force father’s files. He wanted a “test subject”. Ironically, years later, I found one of the manual’s contributors listed on another government document: my birth certificate. My birth father. A man so feared by my mother that she denied what few memories I had of him. Maybe my heart was genetically doomed from the start.

How do we know what love is? There is no single answer. We define our idea of it as we grow. I didn’t have a father and my mother had her “career”, so my kid brother and I spent our early years with our maternal grandparents, a quiet, middle-class couple, and a live-in nanny. They showered us with love and attention. Those were the happiest years of my life. Had you asked me when I was nine, I’d have said I wanted a marriage like my ‘Doe’ and Grandaddy’s. From an adult perspective, it has been really, really hard to look at the truth: they were two people who simply lived under the same roof. The only abiding love they shared was for my brother and I. They never spoke to one another unless we were in the room. The abundant affection given so freely and often was never given to one another. As a child, I saw brief glimpses of the reality and either misunderstood or saw and was given an explanation of misdirection. My grandmother was deeply in love with my grandfather in all the ways a woman yearns to be and she adored her daughter but, for reasons lost to time, all that love was unrequited. It was a family of so many secrets, all kept for the sake of my brother and I. Could the truth have made my life any different? Is my idea of love a naive, fairy-tale notion I learned from growing up within a fairy tale? Is it why, at the age she was then, I can recognize my grandmother’s quiet pain? Would I have made different life choices?

We lived with my grandparents until I was nine and my mother came to claim us back. I got my second look at love. Mom had married a man diametrically different from anyone my brother and I had ever been around. We’d never heard a voice or seen a hand raised in anger; swearing, alcohol and “other things” were foreign, too. My little brother once told my grandparents that our new dad was “mean to mommy because he was always grabbing her” but, he added, “Mommy’s brave cuz she just laughs at him.”

Leave It To Beaver meets The Bundy’s.

My step-father was always away working. My former career-minded mother withered into a clinging vine, wrapped around the telephone waiting for his weekly calls. As the jobs took him first out of state and then overseas, my brother and I became the barrier keeping her from a life of travel and adventure. She couldn’t handle it. She pick us up from school with our luggage in the backseat and a pair of bus tickets back to our grandparents. A couple of months and a new school later, we came home to tearful grandparents and Maureen, our beloved nanny, standing by our suitcases, reassigned to a long bus ride to and from wherever Mom was, which was never where my stepfather was. It became a chaotic routine. When one job ended, he’d head for the next one, leaving her in the last town. She’d get lonely and swear she needed us. For awhile. Back and forth, kid-sized yoyo’s bouncing on a string of lies:

“Of course, your mommy loves you, but her husband’s new boss doesn’t allow children to be there.”

“You’re just going to your grandparent’s for the holidays (or the summeror the school year).”

We were with mom when, around my 14th birthday, while walking home late from yet another new school,  I “shamed” my mother by “allowing myself” to be abducted, beaten and raped. Of course, I had to walk! Wasn’t my stepfather due to call any minute?!?

When I was led into the house, she refused to look at me. She would not allow them to take me to a hospital or allow the sheriff’s deputy to file a report.

My dear Lord, no,” she sobbed. “What would the neighbors think of us!!

It was a much more innocent era; I had no idea what had made me so shameful. I understood why my head and face hurt but why did it hurt “down there”?? My mother couldn’t even be in the same room. She relayed instructions and a book through my brother. I was to take a bath, two aspirin, go to bed and not be there in the morning. The book was a thin paperback called “How To Talk To Your Kids About Sex.” Thanks, Mom. Better late than never, I guess.

The next morning, my kid brother stood in the kitchen window watching me leave, his hand pressed against the glass in silent farewell. I don’t know what hurt me more: being allowed to leave or leaving him behind. My backpack felt like it weighed a thousand pounds. I wasn’t old enough to drive and I was homeless.

This was how I learned about love.

I’ve been married to my third husband for 22 years now. We met when I was auditioning keyboard players for a band. We were even more different than my mother and stepfather had been. I knew this but it didn’t matter. I had never, ever felt so wanted by anyone. Before the ceremony our minister counseled us that the “honeymoon period” would last probably no more than a couple of years and we should prepare ourselves to then settle in to “wedded love”. Our honeymoon period lasted almost twelve years. My heart still skips a beat sometimes when he walks into the room. He often reminds me that he’s never broken his vows, as if he deserves a medal. I’m often reminded of the difference between “being wanted” and being loved. We’ve been raising his 9 year old granddaughter since she was a baby and in our home there is an abundant showering of love and affection upon this small beacon of light. She fills the empty spaces…

In the small dark hours of the night, as my grandmother surely must have, I ask myself:  “Is this what love becomes?” I’ve come to understand what Henry David Thoreau meant by lives lived in quiet desperation. Children learn what they live. Our experiences shape us. They are the colors that fill in the outlines of who we are. I’d like to believe that at my core, I am a reflection of the deep, unconditional love I experienced as a small child. That small child I may yet be, still in a search to find someone who will love me for me.

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