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Susan Straight Headshot

Valentine's Day: It Should No Longer Be About the Wrong Side of the Tracks

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Valentine's Day 2012, and America is grumpier than ever. Arguing over sex, over who can be married, and over contraception. Wait -- conservative America, you realize that love can't be controlled? You realize that it's been a mild winter, and already trees are leafing out -- from Central Park to the Tidal Basin, from New Orleans' Mardi Gras to Portland's farmer's markets, people will walk in the parks, along the lake sides and beaches; they'll go to bars and concerts, and they will fall in love.

Here's the deal, conservatives. (I'm not adding political affiliations or any parties -- because the new hardcore conservatives come in all versions.) Do you not remember the iconic 1970s movie Love Story? What if your son falls in love with his waitress? What if your widowed aunt falls in love with her home health care aide at the senior center? What if your daughter falls in love with a boy she meets on her college campus -- while she's sunbathing and doing homework, he's throwing a Frisbee -- and he's the son of a car wash worker who immigrated twenty years ago from Guatemala?

With all the deep, deep cuts to social spending and public services, with all current anger and vitriol over every dollar in every city and state budget, does America really think widening the chasm between haves and have-lesses and have-nots is the way to go?

The American fantasy of love is the "meet-cute," "Love at first sight" and "You had me at hello!" The completely spontaneous version of accidental love, which doesn't care about demographics and social compatibility. Favorite movies featuring men and women who should never have met, much less fallen in love: The African Queen, My Fair Lady, The Graduate, Carmen Jones and West Side Story, and yeah, Love Story.

Lovers met cute or desperate, on boats or in the street or on campus or in a bar. Our new national churlishness, an "us vs. them" idiocy, might have a chilling effect on the possibilities of love between people of widely divergent backgrounds. Does America really think widening the chasm between haves and have-lesses and have-nots is the way to go? Refusal of equal rights in marriage to same-sex couples, blocked passage of the DREAM Act, repealing universal health care and freaking out about contraception? I like to imagine the children of conservative legislators or their favorite lobbyists, meeting and falling in love at a Capitol cafeteria with the children of Capitol landscapers and security guards.

The meet-cute, as described by the elderly screenwriter in The Holiday, might go thus-ly: "Say a man and a woman both need something to sleep in and both go to the same men's pajama department. The man says to the salesman, Ted, I just need the bottoms, and the woman says, I just need a top."

People meet-cute on the subway, or on the playground, or in the grocery store, at office parties or college classes -- maybe with someone from "the other side of the tracks"? How did that legendary version we present to the rest of the world -- the freest and most democratic nation, a Great Society where a child of poverty can grow up to be an actor, a professor, a good mother, a banker, or Speaker of the House -- become something many Americans despise?

Wait -- there aren't even tracks anymore, right side or wrong. There's Facebook, and Match.com. Education can remain private and exclusive from preschool through Harvard -- but there's always the chance that love will scare the hell out of Tiger Mothers.

In Love Story, Oliver Barrett IV comes from generations of wealth and privilege, but when he meets working-class Jennifer Cavilleri, he can't resist. When they marry, his father disowns him, but they struggle on in love, until she's diagnosed with cancer and they can't afford the costly treatments. Oliver asks his estranged father for money; his father assumes he's gotten some girl "in trouble," and rather than admit his enduring love for his wife, "the wrong girl," Oliver assents.

The elder Barrett realizes his mistake and sets out for New York but when he reaches the hospital, Jenny is dead. His son repeats the phrase everyone used as a mantra when I was a child in the 1970s: "Love means never having to say you're sorry."

My meet cute? I first drew the attention of my future husband when we were fourteen, on the freshman school bus for an epic field trip from Riverside, Calif. to Los Angeles, where we were taken to the LA Zoo as well as the Natural History Museum. We sat in consecutive rows. (We had met a year earlier in junior high, when he was a basketball player and I was a cheerleader, but no spark then.)

The woman who sewed my cheerleading uniforms was Yoshiko Smith, born in Japan but married to an African American man in the Air Force. Most of our community was military, which meant we went to school with kids whose mothers were German, Filipino, Japanese, French, and English, and whose fathers were Americans of every race and ethnicity.

My father, born in Colorado, met my mother, born in Switzerland, when he went into the finance company where she worked and asked for a loan. (Probably not a good sign...) When they divorced, she married a man she worked with, born in Canada; they were actually in the same citizenship swearing-in.

Often I wonder how John Boehner, our Speaker of the House, met his wife. His biography is classically American, wrong side of the tracks. He was born in Reading, Ohio, the second of twelve children, grew up very working class, and began working in his family's bar, according to him, at age eight. He took seven years to finish college because he was working, and during that time married his wife in 1973.

Newt Gingrich has so many love stories I find it hard to keep up.

Dick Cheney's daughter famously fell in love with a woman. Bill Clinton was clearly on the wrong side of the tracks -- single mother, abusive husband, Arkansas -- and married Hillary -- clearly the right side.

Today, I think of my mother-in-law, who died sixteen years ago.

She never knew where she was born -- her own beautiful mother fled a violent husband whose version of love led him to threaten her that some other man would steal her away, so he planned to kill her before that could happen. She may have been born in Mississippi, Arkansas or Calexico, Calif. (She finally got a birth certificate at age 50.) She went to the same public high school my girls attended, where she met a handsome boy, but she married his brother, who then joined the Marines.

Today, I'll visit her grave at Riverside's National Cemetery, where she is buried next to my father-in-law. Near their gravesite, I know I'll see Valentine's Day decorations on the fresh burials for American veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq. Yoshiko Smith, who sewed my eighth grade cheerleading uniform, is buried here now. In the fifteen years I have visited my mother-in-law here, I've seen countless wives of military men in her generation.

From these flat black-marble headstones, we know only their names, their husbands' service units and wars, and their dates of birth and death. We don't know the places they were born. We can guess -- but Benavides could be a native of Mexico, or the Philippines, or California, or Puerto Rico. We can't guess at their social status, or how wealthy their parents were, or how they met.

Does angry conservative America really want the playing field of romance to be so uneven? We might have to go old school and remind them that love means never having to say you're sorry, no matter who you are.