Proof.

My husband had a friend that always challenged him with one word: Proof. It was a paragraph, neatly condensed into five letters. Proof meant everything from I’ll hold your beer, to I don’t believe you at all, and you’re gonna have to show me.

Proof. We say it now, though his friend passed away several years ago. Or, maybe we say it because his friend passed away, and parroting him, keeps him here longer. Either way, it has become an indelible part of our conversation, another sort of familial shorthand, not entirely decipherable to the casual eavesdropper.

Sometimes, we say it after days of striving. When words have hard rigid edges to them, and our bodies have separated long enough for an unkind chill to form between them. Sometimes, the one most humble and brave enough to try to broach across the chasm by saying I love you, is met with the mumbled dissent of, “Proof.”

Other times, it is a flirty come-on. A one-word pickup line in response to a compliment. It is a daring, giddy antithesis of rejection. It is an invite and RSVP all rolled into one.

We use it to challenge each other to rise above their fears, and accomplish what we are capable of. We raise it in conversation, like the opposition to white flags of surrender. This word, it binds us together. It transforms one of us, suddenly, into Rocky, the other into Adrian. We take turns, alternately being the one in the ring, and the one who inspires the other to keep fighting.

Lately, things in our marriage have settled a bit, not unlike an old house. Yes, there has still been odd creaking, and the random startles of things you didn’t know where coming. The pops of old radiators, letting off hidden steam, then silence. But also, a kind of quiet peace, as we huddle together, our foundation sinking deeper into the bit of earth we are borrowing. Our walls, like hard sponges, soaking up the sounds of laughter, until joy hangs like an invisible pennant from the beams.

Proof. We don’t say it as much now, in this season, and I couldn’t think of why until this morning. Then I realized, it’s because we show it. Our words have been given wings, or maybe, feet. Yes, feet are more our style. They are the harder, slower, more determined way, not given to flapping and an easy out. They are a constant process, requiring rest and tenacity. They stumble, and get hurt, the littlest parts of them prone to breaking. But they heal, and they bring you where you needed to be going, even when that isn’t the direction you set out in.

It is not a secret that my love language has been receiving gifts, probably for my whole life. From the time I was a small child, I craved them. A stick of gum meant more to me than a held door. An actual present, no matter its cost, could make my heart swell to tsunami levels. If people give you gifts, they must absolutely love you, and if they don’t, well, then they must not. That’s about how black and white I felt about things. And, I’m ashamed to say, I acted accordingly.

The thing is, that love, just like the people who feel it, looks differently on everyone.  Maybe it’s because I’m getting older, or maybe it’s because I am a slow learner and have a patient teacher, but I think I can finally see that now.

This year, things have gone in a dramatically different direction than past years. This year, (partly because of the great basement cleanout), I asked for acts of service for my birthday. From everyone. I have enough stuff. What I need is to know that I have people who will come alongside me and work. Or at least sit beside me while I work.

My husband thought that this was a great idea. He probably never saw it coming from his gift-needy, commercializing, consumer of a wife. The girl with impossibly high standards, who watched too many movies growing up and still believes that John Hughes should direct her birthday, complete with a music montage, every year. But there it was, and he agreed wholeheartedly. “Make a list,” he said, “one item for every year. Things I can do to show I love you.”

That’s quite an undertaking, as I am now more of a winter hen than a spring chicken. Thirty six things, people, thirty six. And truthfully, I only made it to 28 things, because I ran out of real ideas and felt intoxicated by the possibility of the things I had already written. My list contains everything from ‘help me rehang and space my gallery wall’ to ‘take over bedtime duties one night so I can Netflix’. Sounds amazing, right? Having someone help make your life easier or prettier, instead of throwing money into the winds of commerce and hoping you like what’s hidden in the tissue paper. Yeah, I think so, too.

And yet, something strange has happened. Everyday this week, I have been showered with gifts. People just stopping by with handmade jewelry and throw pillows, the Apple product I have wanted for the last six months, a surprise envelope of cash, and yesterday, a vintage sterling silver locket that my husband had bought secretly and had re-chained at a jewelry store. How I love jewelry with a story of its own. I have been dreaming of a heart shaped locket of my own (without the hair inside, ew) since I was a little girl, but had never told my husband.

When he gave it to me, I asked if I was dying and everyone knew it but me, because this is just too much. It feels surreal and lovely in a way that Sara Crew must have felt upon waking in a warm, furnished attic towards the end of A Little Princess. Even if it’s all a dream, it’s been wonderful.

How many years I have wasted, striving and dropping hints like heavy metal bombs, searching for evidence that I am loved. And finally, when I sit back and choose to just let life happen, filled with the knowledge that I am okay, that my life is okay, it shows up.

Around my neck something beautiful hangs, but the truth is that my husband gave me his real heart long ago. I just didn’t see it. I was too busy looking past it, hoping to dig out validation from a pile of presents. But it wasn’t there. It was standing beside me, holding my hand while our children were born. It was disguised in a plumber’s uniform, going to work every morning to support our family. It was never available at Nordstrom or any online retailers. It was here, in the miraculous mundane of every minute together.

On this birthday, I was given the best present that I could ever ask for: Proof.

 

 

 

 

Misspelled Identity

My sister and I have embarked on a monumental task. We have a goal, an endgame. We are laser beam focused, spurred on by small successes and a vision of glory.

No, we are not planning a summer hike up the side of Mt. Kilimanjaro or backpacking across the continental United States. We are cleaning/de-cluttering/and deeply organizing my basement. If you had seen it before we started, you would understand why this feels so herculean. And also, why you have not been invited to see it.

My basement is where memories and half-filled cardboard boxes go to die. It is the keeper of things. The space for taxable good intentions and not-yet-started Pinterest projects. Bicycles, baby clothes, and broken toys create a macabre consignment section. Birthday banners and rolls of 90% off Christmas wrap commemorate with each other about their unused potential. Awards (that I forgot I won) from college lay on their sides, the bin mate of old Jonathan Brandis teen beat posters and New Kids On the Block buttons as big as my daughter’s face. Not the 3 year old, the 8 year old.

My basement is unfinished, mostly not insolated, and probably boasts a proud lineage of descendants from the first spider families to move in when our home was built over a hundred years ago. I think if I looked close enough, I would see a tiny gallery of golden frames on one of the beams, showcasing this patriarchal history.

And while I love all the woodwork, leaded glass windows, and pocket doors that come with living in an old house, the basement is not my favorite. It’s probably more accurate to call it a cellar, but as there is no wine stored down there, that title seems terrifying. Especially since the original furnace still works, which makes me both grateful, and sorry that I spent so much of my childhood watching scary movies.

So, there we were. Standing on the concrete floor, trying to live out the homemaker’s version of Pretty in Pink, and make something beautiful from something far less than appealing. “Oh, look what I found, Jess,” my sister called from across the dungeon. She handed me an unassuming silver bin, it’s lid snapped shut on only one side, and laying askew. I opened it, not thinking anything of it. Isn’t that usually the way great things come to us, wrapped in the ordinary and waiting for us to look further?

Inside this bin was a cobalt box that I hadn’t seen in years, probably a decade or more. My brain prickled with the beginning of recognition. Opening the box, I found dozens and dozens of cards and letters from my grandfather, 18 years worth. How had I forgotten that he always wrote to me? I couldn’t fathom.

I stood there, the foam soles of my Nikes pushing back against the hardness of the floor, and melted. I read letter after letter, card after card. I will confess to you that when I was done, not only was I crying, but I was different.

I had forgotten that I was so loved.

So often when I think about my childhood lately I think about all the lack. But I was loved, you guys. I was loved enough. And somehow I forgot that.

My grandpa was the kind of person you could make a movie about, and still not understand after an hour and a half, just how great a man he was. I knew it as a child, and I knew it when he passed three weeks before my high school graduation. But knowing it as an adult feels different. Reading those letters, felt like reading a crucial chapter of my life that I had accidentally left out.

Everything these days seems to be about identity. We are broken up into columns and rows of who’s and what’s and ins and outs. We are divided, united, and talked about. We are a people condensed into two hundred words or less, a profile page that shows us at our best.

My name is Jessica Rae. I am a wife, mother, friend. I work with foster kids. I like to write, and shop (thus the horror-filled basement). I enjoy travel and the arts, time with my family and friends. I like belly laughs and good wine, and movies with happy endings. I love poetry and music, and orange colored days, when the sky fades from blue to sherbet to the palest ballet of pink. I love people, people are amazing. I love kindness, and mercy, but also justice. I have freckles on my right upper arm that exactly replicate Ursa Major. I love the truth, and those who are brave.

I, I, I. It’s a lot, right? A lot of I’s? But we know this, right? We know exactly who we are, what we are, what we want to be, and feel the sting of what we aren’t, don’t we? And yet, somehow when I was making my lists, I forgot to include that part of who I am. I am loved. I belonged. I was welcomed, and cherished.

A man with dancing blue eyes loved me with fatherly affection. He thought I was worth writing those letters. Even though he worked six days a week, from open to close, standing on tired feet, hands wracked by arthritic pain, he still wrote. He still visited. He showered us with gifts in his home. He taught me how to fish, and to clean and cook what we caught. He took us camping, and out for walks. He gave me his time and attention, and his misspelled words. And, if I’m honest, that seems like more of a gift. The letters aren’t perfect. They have probably at least 3 misspelled words each, some more.

And while my sister and I will keep plunging forward, for that day, I had found what I was looking for. The box is sitting on my dresser now, where it belongs. I see it when I wake up, and when I go to bed. Those feelings of lack can stay with the spiders, they don’t fit in my house anymore. Truthfully, they never did.

I’ve replaced them with words that fit. Words that are actually a part of who I am.

I am Jessica Rae, and I am “verry verry loved.”