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What I learned from visiting the grave of my mom’s teenage boyfriend

(Washington Post illustration; iStock)

This is a moment I never could’ve imagined until it arrived: I stood in a Massachusetts cemetery beside my mother, looking for her high school boyfriend.

This is not the man she has been married to for over 30 years, not the man waiting for us back home in his black turtleneck and fading jeans — our less affluent, less illustrious Steve Jobs, we joke, as he tinkers with the toaster and engineers a tennis ball to hang in the garage. This is not the man who fathered her three children, coaching our Little League teams, erecting graves for each pet lost and giving us haircuts while we sit at the backyard picnic table. This is not the man she loves, who erected a basketball pole beside the driveway, pouring a mound of wet cement and tracing our names before the cement could dry, the font clumsy and a little rushed, the words saying, nonetheless: Here we are.

This was not that man. This was the man who came before — a man my mother loved but knew she could not love forever. She dated Rich in high school, and he was a nice guy, she has told me more than once. Back then, she was just Holly: a small, blonde New England girl who rolled her R’s and wore her hair in braids. She could not have imagined, back then, the rich life that would unfold for her when she married my father: the ashy pastoral dusks, pulling green beans from the backyard garden, the cool stones of the lake as she waded in with her children.

Before any of that, there was Rich, and this is how she put it to me even when she asked me for this favor: “He died a few months ago, half a year, I guess,” she said. “His sister said they moved him here — they wanted to bury him where he grew up.”

We were at lunch at a small seafood restaurant when she made the request. These mother-daughter lunches were tradition: Every time I made the trip home, just three times annually from my own home across the country, we went for what we told my father was a “girls-only” necessity. To invite my father would invariably mean shepherding our otherwise easy conversation into a lecture on tire pressure, front-end alignment, home security systems. Am I saving receipts? He’d want to know. Am I still under warranty with that refrigerator?

Also, we liked to drink.

To invite my father would be to feel badly about the lunchtime wine. My mother, on the other hand, was easy. She was the best at keeping things easy.

I was 30, single and had made a habit of dating men we both knew I could never marry. Perhaps this is why she asked me to accompany her to the cemetery. She knew I would not pass judgment for helping her find her old boyfriend Rich. She wanted, though she did not say this, to acknowledge her first life. For however single I might be, I understand that, to love someone is to entertain, however briefly, the ways your future might spin in response to who they are.

What life would have availed itself to my mother had she lived in that small town forever? Had she had not moved half a country away for college? Had she not met a man who would become a chemist who would become the best thing to happen to her?

My first boyfriend’s father owned his own painting business, and I remember imagining my life as a painter’s wife: the sharp shades of slate gray we’d paint the bathroom; the oceanic blue under which we’d dine; his fingers so stained and green as they touched the softest parts of me.

My mother left Rich before he knew what he would do with his life, certainly before she knew what would become of hers. And while my mother has taught me many things, none seem as important to me now as the understanding that single people have the power to choose what becomes of life.

That regardless of any loneliness, or sense that you are failing, the best lives we can erect come from a strong acknowledgment of the self: that we are fine even when alone; that in many ways we are better; and that — and this lesson did not come to me easily — any discomfort or loneliness borne of leaving a bad situation is remedied in its dissolution.

The only thing worse, my mother told me, than living a life that makes you unhappy is not to know yourself enough to seek something better.

My father is a good man, a good husband, a good partner, and I will be lucky one day if I find his equivalent. Rich, too, no doubt was good, which is why my mother has brought me to this hot cemetery.

It was his sister, down in Florida, who reached out. She was sorting through his things and wrote my mother to tell her that she had found a shoe box commemorating their relationship: a prom ticket, her picture, letters and movie stubs. In keeping her in a box, my mother had never aged beyond 19. Rich had spent the majority of his adult life living in a condominium with his mother, caring for her. For about 10 years, my mother and Rich would exchange Christmas cards; but eventually, my mother said, it began to feel uncomfortable — the act of sending him her smiling family, the five of us in our matching red knit sweaters, posing before downy woods.

The past 20 years they’d been silent, not a Christmas card exchanged, but then here was his shoe box under his bed. “You were always very important to him,” his sister wrote. “I just wanted you to know.”

I know my mother felt strange, looking for his grave — that it felt like a betrayal, seeking out a person she loved however many decades ago. But to me, it is remarkable: the enduring power of even the shortest, most basic love. I was beyond touched to be standing there with her.

We looked for his grave but never found it. My mother conceded that she must have been wrong. Maybe this wasn’t the cemetery at all. On the long drive home, she was mostly quiet and didn’t ask me not to mention it — she knows she doesn’t have to. As we pull into the driveway at home, my father rounds the bend beside the garage, a pair of hedge cutters in his hand and a particularly wily weed, his faded jeans covered in flaky mulch, his lips pulled back to demonstrate this triumph. But all I see is my mother — how she looks at him, smiling, laughing — and cannot look away.


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Why we never really get over that first love

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