03/16/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Everything I Know About Love I Learned From My Parents

I have always been ambivalent about Valentine's Day. I'm an academic. I have a litany of complaints as long as my arm about it. It's consumeristic. It's gender restrictive. It perpetuates false fantasies about love that are harmful and degrading to women.

Yet. Still. There is small part of me -- ok, a big part of me -- that covets that red velvety heart shaped box filled with chocolates delivered ceremoniously with a bouquet of roses -- no -- peonies, accompanied by a romantic love letter.

When I was younger I thought these Valentine's Day gifts were a true declaration of *Love*. I would harass my father about what he was going to get my mom. Roses! Perfume! A new purse! I was not very creative, but my intentions were good. Alas, nothing ever materialized. My father is not the sentimental kind.

Still, as I reflect back, I realize that everything I know about love I learned from watching my parents.

My parents got married when my dad was 23 and my mom was 21. They met at the Y in Montréal. My mother saw my father across the room and just knew that this was the man she was going to marry. She maintained eye contact, she said, and that was that.

Neither of them spoke a word of English. My father was passing through Canada on his way to Europe. He had lost his entire Brigade in the 1973 Israeli war, and was, to use his own words, "escaping for a bit." My mother, also Israeli, was visiting her cousins living in Canada.

After six weeks of dating, my father proposed. He dragged my mother hiking through a snowstorm for six hours before he finally came out with it. They had walked the entire city and my mom was almost at her door before he blurted it out. The wedding ceremony took place at her cousin's house. They got a Cusinart, some bed sheets, and a paring knife. Neither had more than a high school education. Neither had ever lived outside of Israel before. They had $150 dollars to their names.

My parents were not the touchy-feely type. They didn't, as many psychologists recommend today, show affection in front of the kids. They didn't hug and kiss in public. They didn't say "I love you" a hundred times a day. They didn't even wear their wedding rings. But, they had an intimacy that was enviable.

At parties, they could communicate with each other telepathically with just a look. They laughed together more than is reasonable for any human being to expect in their lifetimes. They always seemed to be in on some joke that only they knew the punch line too. And, they had fun doing mundane things. Going to Home Depot. Gardening. Taking a walk. Shooting the breeze. Seeing a movie. Eating out.

When my mother was 33 she was diagnosed with breast cancer for the first time. I was 9. My older brother was 13, and my younger brother was an infant. Over the next eighteen years living with the disease she lost one breast, then another, then her hair, then a lot of weight, then her spirit, and finally, her soul when she died three and half years ago. They were married for exactly thirty years.

Throughout all this, my father never did bring her flowers, or buy her presents on Valentine's Day, but he did put his warm, solid hand on her back when she vomited day after day, night after night, for year after year.

He did make jokes and laugh with her about her "fake breasts", not the good kind, the plastic kind that she slipped into her shirt everyday.

He did buy her funky scarves and hats and tell her that she was a beautiful queen when she wrapped them around her balding head.

He did shuttle back and forth between our house and the hospital with three small children, three large bags of take-out food, and three new books for her night after night, holiday after holiday, so that we could spend time with her before she went to bed.

He did love and appreciate her. He loved her through sickness and health, through better and worse, through rich and poor, and through life and death.

This Valentine's Day, I don't want any chocolate, or flowers, or cards, or letters. I don't want anything red, or shiny, or fluffy, or cute. I want the kind of love my parents had for each other instead. Joyful. Committed. Loyal. Warm. Fun. Mutual. Love.

This kind of love doesn't only come in pairs, it's everywhere. On this day dedicated to the heart, I feel gratitude for family, friends, teachers, students, and co-workers while they are still here, alive and well, living and breathing, being and doing.

This Valentine's Day, I finally figured it out. I hope you do to.