Colleen Oakley, author of Close Enough to Touch, loves to write about unconventional romantic leading men: and here’s one of the reasons why. In this essay, Colleen reflects on how her grandfather’s tough love helped her to understand more about her own husband’s way of romancing her. Close Enough to Touch is now available in trade paperback!
My grandfather was a gruff man. He liked his scotch neat and smoky. He wasn’t big on large displays of affection. Growing up, when he’d see me after long absences (there were 12 hours of distance between us), his greeting was standard: “How are you, you rotten kid?”
In my younger years, he wore a toupee. He smoked Benson & Hedges. He liked gadgets. He sliced his thumb wide open building me a dollhouse that I had begged for from my parents for years.
As a teenager, he and my grandmother took me, my sister and my cousin traveling every summer. We sang a karaoke duet (“I’ve Got You Babe”) on a cruise ship off the coast of Alaska. We saw the statue of David in Florence, Italy. We ate a terrible meal at an airport hotel in Paris when we missed our flight back to America.
While most people get more conservative as they age, he got more liberal, shouting expletives at Republicans on TV.
He hated to exercise.
He was a terrible driver.
When I landed my first big editor job, I called my grandparents to tell them. Grandpa’s response was typical Grandpa: “Hey, you rich bitch.”
He never looked me in the eyes and said “I’m proud of you,” but he kept a stack of my magazine articles inconspicuously on his coffee table.
When I met my husband Fred, I — like most women — wanted grand, sweeping romantic gestures. During our courtship, I begged him to write me love letters. To surprise me with flowers. I asked him to plan thoughtful date nights. He struggled through it all. “It’s just not me,” he said. I was bewildered. I knew he loved me. Why couldn’t he show me?
We didn’t fight often in those first few years, but when we did, they were blowouts. Like most couples, we were trying to navigate the merging of our paths— how much to give, how much to take, tallying offenses and transgressions against each other like we were keeping score in Boggle.
We were long distance, which made the transgressions that much more severe. One Christmas when I was in New York, and he was in Atlanta, I was convinced that he was going to surprise me and show up for the big holiday party my roommate and I had been planning for weeks, even though he said he couldn’t make it.
“You didn’t come,” I said to him over the phone the next day, near tears.
“I told you I couldn’t,” he said, confused at my emotion.
He was a logical man, predictable. Could I live with predictable for the rest of my life?
When my Grandpa met Fred, he loved him immediately. Of course, he didn’t say it to me, but my grandmother told me when we were walking on the beach one day. “Grandpa thinks he’s a really good man.”
We got married.
In the ensuing years, like most couples do, I learned a lot about my husband.
Fred is not a gruff man. He likes his scotch on the rocks. He kisses me (and now our kids) regularly and with abandon. But I still longed for some swash-buckling Hollywood-type of romance. I was jealous of friends whose husbands surprised them with flowers, thoughtful notes tucked under pillows, spontaneous weekends away. To combat my jealousy, I instituted date nights, which he perfunctorily planned out at my prodding. I told him that I only wanted love letters for Christmas gifts, and now I have a stack of proof written in my husband’s scrawl that he loves me — perhaps decidedly less meaningful proof, when delivered on assignment, but proof nonetheless. I’ve harangued and plotted and cajoled my husband into being more romantic, more showy with his love, only to discover what he said to me when we were first dating was the God’s honest truth: “It’s just not me.”
And then my grandfather died.
Though he had been sick for years, I never really believed he would be gone.
The funeral was sad. The stories we told about him were funny. I cried through all of it.
And life went on.
A few years later, my grandmother came to visit. I had recently gotten a publishing deal for my first book. Over dinner we were discussing how exciting is was and I said, “I just wish Grandpa was here to see it.”
She looked up at me. “You do?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Of course.”
She put down her fork. “I was always so worried that you didn’t know how much he loved you. He could be a little, well, gruff, I guess.”
I laughed. That was an understatement. But it dawned on me in that exact moment that even though my grandfather was gruff, underneath that rough exterior was an enormous amount of love. And I never questioned it for a second.
And though my husband is decidedly less gruff, I realized that two of the most important men in my life had something in common — they both loved me incalculably. And they both had unorthodox ways of showing it. I reached next to me, grabbed my husband’s hand and squeezed it.
“Of course I knew,” I said.
I looked at Fred.
Of course I know.
Read more about Colleen’s writing inspirations here.