I Knew You When

I was sitting perched on the arm of our couch, quietly observing my father-in-law, husband, and son. Next to me was Gabriel, rapt and motionless, listening to his grandfather read a story. At the far end sat Mike, puzzling over conic sections for the math class he was teaching. Maybe it was something about the way he was holding his back and head at attention, but suddenly little Gabriel became a big teenager in my mind’s eye. I could see his long limbs and strong brown neck, his graceful motions and intent way of listening. And when I looked at my husband studying his math assignment, oblivious to my presence, jutting out his lower lip and furrowing his brow in concentration? There he was, as a child. He was thin and awkward and beautiful; his look of troubled yet determined concentration spoke volumes.

Have you ever had an experience like this? When, unbidden, you are struck with a vivid sense of what someone you love was once like, or what they might be like in the distant future?

I often feel grateful for the fact that my husband and I fell in love when I was just twenty years old. We were so young! And yet – we weren’t children. Crazy as it sounds, I have also felt the absence of intimacy with Mike-as-child as a source of grief. I don’t know if I miss having been children together; I just miss having known him then. Who was that little boy who jumped for joy watching the 1980 World Series, who sat with Sister Dennis in the hall outside his second grade class doing advanced-level reading, who played football in Chris Ropertus’ backyard? (And how could he have gone about daily life as if everything was just fine? He didn’t even know me!)

We often think of loving the whole person. You could call it spatial – loving all of someone, all of their scattered bits. But could we also think of loving someone temporally, across time?

My husband once explained to a dear friend how he knew he was ready to marry me: though he didn’t know who I would become in the future, he knew he would love that person. We love people at every moment of their unfolding, every moment of growing into themselves. When I see pictures of my mother as a child, my heart flies to her. I love that little girl. And my father, who died so young? I sometimes imagine him as he would be now. It is not so hard to do, conjuring a fifty-nine year old Dad. I don’t know the details, but I know I love him.

In the same way I am getting to know eight year old Mike better all the time. I am getting to know and love the people my children are growing into, too. Sometimes I see flashes of an older person expressed in Gabriel’s baby face. I hear a tone of voice that belongs to a much older person accidentally slip out of Frances. Little hints of what is to come.

Love draws us towards that most essential center of a person, that mysterious and ultimately unknowable core. It is the you-ness of you that I love. Yet that you-ness travels through the most varied landscapes and circumstances. It is expressed in an infinite number of ways, each of them compelling. Sometimes you are infuriating, sometimes you are inspiring, sometimes you elicit the deepest tenderness in me. Sometimes you are a child, and sometimes you are very old. All of these expressions point to that you-ness I love so dearly, and in that way they are precious.

Could it be that true intimacy allows us a partial, shadowed view of the entirety of another person’s life? The seed, the shoot, the root, the tree? With our children in particular, it is easy to know that we love them always. We love them backwards and forwards. Though they came from outer space, though they surprise and baffle and refuse categorization, in loving them, I am yearning to know them. Yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

How has motherhood changed your understanding of what it means to love someone? Share with us here! (And come visit my blog, Homemade Time, to read more reflections on the intimate, rich moments of family life.)

About Meagan Howell

Meagan Howell is a freelance writer and social worker who loves art, books, yoga, friends, music, being outside, and helping to build communities of all sorts. Meagan lives in Maryland with her husband and two children and writes about motherhood at Homemade Time.