My niece calls from college in tears: love trouble. She's been friends with Ben, a fellow student, since last year. He's always wanted more from the relationship, but she's held back.
Last week, both of them were tipsy and kissed for the first time — and it was magical! So they decided to go from platonic to romantic. And now, Ben is ambivalent. He's not sure he's ready for a steady girlfriend.
Even as I comfort my niece, I inwardly groan and roll my eyes at young Ben. It's so typical of humans. They finally get what they want, and then they're not so sure that they want it.
So much drama from amateurs in love! Of course, some people stay amateurs all their lives. Many of us — either with luck, through determination, with the help of counseling or out of desperation — manage to figure out a reasonable relational give-and-take that works well enough for both parties.
At age 19, however, the odds that both partners will have the maturity or the commitment to stay in their current relationship are fairly slim.
Yet in our local Mid/Yid community, we know a number of couples who met in college. Even after 25 or 30 years, they seem to enjoy one another. Out-of-town friends who visit think it's something in our water supply.
I didn't meet my husband until I was almost 30. I had plenty of experiences such as the scenario my niece described, where sometimes it was me and sometimes it was the guy who got cold feet as the relationship went on.
It's hard to think of myself as so transparent. But more importantly, it's clear that I was scared. I needed a safe distance.
Much of our mating and marriage rituals are concerned with learning to tolerate — and indeed, coming to value — closeness at the deep end rather than the shallow end of the emotional pool.
But in those early years, there sure is a lot of splashing around.
Everyone Needs a Shoulder
Knowing all that, I try to be a good Tanta/"Auntie."
We all need a good Tanta — preferably someone who listens nonjudgmentally. Someone who doesn't sermonize or moralize. Someone who is sensitive to matters of the heart.
Such Tantas (and their male equivalents) don't need to be biologically related. They simply need to be cheerleaders on the young person's team.
When I was 16, I had my heart broken by a smooth-talking actor at an arts camp. I remember calling my grandmother and telling her the dramatic goodbye line that he used as he walked away from me ("If I stay one more minute, I'm going to do something we'll both regret later!").
My grandmother laughed. Not meanly, but probably in the same vein that prompted my eye-rolling at the antics of Ben.
Curiously, her laugh made me feel better. I figured my predicament couldn't be too dire if my normally sympathetic grandma was chortling long-distance.
In several weeks, I'm having lunch with the daughter of an old friend. She's in a serious relationship, and my guess is that she wants to chat about the "M" word with several of us in her mother's coterie.
I find it exciting to relive that time of life when one explores relationships, but hasn't yet settled down. To the degree that it can also be fraught with ambivalence, confusion and pain, I'm willing to be a sounding board and to pass on whatever relationship nuggets I've gleaned. It's the least that a Tanta, with a little hindsight and insight, can do.
Mara Sokolsky is a freelance writer living in Providence, R.I. E-mail: [email protected]