Recently, a young man I’m mentoring asked me how you know if you’re in love.

“You just do,” I said.

He then asked if I had any books or apps or courses I could recommend that could help him know. Instead, I told him three stories of great loves that I have witnessed in my life. He seemed to like them, so I thought I’d share them. Here’s the first.  It’s a story of impossible love. 

A love between my Gran and a man named Don.

My grandmother was married three times. Her first husband walked out when my mother was only about three years old. Her second husband only lasted a year, but when that marriage ended, he and Gran remained such good friends that they threw a joint party celebrating their divorce. Gran’s third husband was to the man I called Grandaddy. It lasted from St. Patrick’s Day, 1957 til Grandaddy’s sudden death from a heart attack in 1976.

In between Gran’s first and second marriage, she met Don. Gran was a thirty-something, stunningly beautiful single mom living with her parents in a little town called Waxahachie, Texas and selling shoes in downtown Dallas. Don was an incredibly wealthy alcoholic whose Catholic faith kept him from divorcing his wife, who lived in the affluent part of Houston while he kept a farm near where, today, they make Blue Bell Ice Cream.

At first, Don literally swept Gran off her feet, putting her up in the presidential suite of a swanky hotel in downtown Houston (giving my mom the life of a Texas-based Eloise for a time). Next he bought and furnished a house for Gran and Mom in the Park Cities section of Dallas, where everyone who was anyone lived. Gran got a job as the women’s shoe buyer for Neiman Marcus (back when there was only one store) and, but for the brief interruption of Gran’s second marriage, she and Don had a rather lengthy affair with, as Mom remembers, many, many, many parties. 

Many.

It was all so glamorous. These were the 50’s after all. The time when men put on their best suits and women wore the latest fashion (including gloves!).

Just to go to each other’s homes. 

Mom tells the tale of Don once arriving for a party in a Rolls Royce with a full-length fur coat that apparently was from his Harvard days (of course it was, how could it not!?!?!!).

It was also all so impossible.

Don grew increasingly fond of the country and, the story goes, told Gran that he would do the very un-Catholic thing of divorcing his wife if she would move to the country with him. Gran, who had already had to return to small town life once after her first divorce, was not about to spend life on a farm. Plus, Don’s alcoholism was growing progressively worth and he was a sloppy drunk. While Gran loved Don, she loved proper appearances more.

So, after Gran started dating Grandaddy, she and Don broke up. 

For good.

But they never stopped seeing each other.

Not for sex. 

But for love. 

Here’s what I mean. Grandaddy was an officer in the Air Force and from the time he and Gran married in 1957 til he retired in 1969, Don would send Gran brief, typewritten letters on formal stationery that was impossible to ignore.

Two reasons for that. First, Don’s address was embossed in bright red on a stark white envelope. Second, because he began each letter with, “Dear Miss M,”.  The “M” stood for “Morris”, which was Gran’s last name when she met Don. You see, he simply refused to acknowledge that she had had love for any other man after that. 

It was as if, after Gran and Grandaddy married, the love that she and Don shared simply lived outside of or, perhaps, frozen in time. 

Don got sober in the late 50s or early 60s and remained active with Alcoholics Anonymous for the rest of his life. He also became a significant benefactor to them and, as such, was involved with committees, boards, etc. He travelled a great deal for AA (maybe it was one of the few things that could get him to leave the farm from where he dispatched the typewritten letters to Gran).

After Grandaddy died, whenever Don’s AA travels brought him near wherever Gran was living,he would send her a letter. “Dear Miss M, I shall be in your vicinity from X to Y date. Would you be available for lunch at Z time?”

Gran never said “no.”

She never hid the lunches. “I’m meeting Don for lunch on Wednesday,” she’d freely admit.

But she never talked about them afterwards. And no one, not even my mom who adored Don, ever asked.

I think I met Don once or twice over the years. I couldn’t tell you the circumstance or the location. But I can say that, by whatever time it was that we did meet, he had become simply an elegant, sober, wealthy gentleman who lived on a farm.

While Gran partied well into her 70s, those days were long, long, long behind Don. I simply remember knowing that he was a special person to meet, that I had better stand up straight and offer a firm handshake when I met him so as not to embarrass my grandmother.

And I remember noting that, when Don and Gran looked at each other, all those years later, they did so in a way I had never seen.

And I have never forgotten. 

The Practice of Being Alive is a collection of stories about getting through this thing called life.