I first learned about true love when I was seven.
Shirley was a 350-pound woman who wore only muumuus and could float in our pool like a foam building. Irv was a portly, barrel-shaped elementary school teacher who stood five feet tall, fitting just under Shirley’s armpit when they stood next to each other as they visited with my mother at the end of their driveway. They were our across-the-street neighbors on the block I grew up on in the San Fernando Valley.
They were madly in love and when I was seven, I wanted to be exactly like them when I got married.
She had wispy red hair that went from her head and then straggled down the side of her doughy face to her chin, forming an Abraham Lincoln-ish beard that she confidently referred to as a strawberry-blonde face frame.
Everything about Irv was severely round. His face, his rotund tummy and his head, which was adorned with hair only on the sides so that he had a perfectly round bald patch on the top half of his skull.
To me, they were the perfect manifestation of true love. They adored each other and constantly held hands. When they stood on the driveway, both of them barefoot, Shirley rocking back and forth “to distribute her weight so her legs wouldn’t go numb,” my mother explained, they both radiated a gleamy quality. Shirley would cackle with wild abandon whenever Irv told a joke and Irv would smile his round-face smile the entire time he was in Shirley’s presence.
Shirley often rubbed her pudgy hands together as if she were about to throw pizza dough into the air and was preparing her mitts by rubbing them with flour. On days when I had nothing to do, I’d shoot across the street straight to Shirley and Irv’s front door and knock on the screen, praying that Shirley would be available to entertain me. When she came to the door, my heart would soar with relief and she’d bring me into her kitchen where I would sit on the only clear space that existed there — a small, red, vinyl-covered chair that was scrunched in between the boxes and cans and crates of food that stuffed the kitchen where Shirley held court.
I’d sit and she’d cook — rocking back and forth at the stove in her bare feet, stirring a gigantic pot of something that smelled of onions and beef. No matter what time of day, the aroma of onions and beef would waft out of every pore of that house. I was able to smell garlic from across the street sometimes. Shirley was always cooking.
One of her specialties was potato pancakes with apple sauce. She’d glop them into a huge pot of boiling oil and they’d almost instantly turn golden, just like her whiskers.
They had one son named Michael. When Shirley was pregnant, the doctors had a hard time hearing his heartbeat because of the size of Shirley’s girth. People would act shocked when she’d tell them she was pregnant because her already large stomach acted as camouflage to the bump underneath that contained Michael.
“He’s in there somewhere!” Irv would crow, patting Shirley’s tummy like he a proud father.
I had no doubt that when I grew up, I was going to find a man like Irv to love and adore me the way Irv loved and adored Shirley. Because my parents rarely, if ever, showed affection or even spent any time together, I gravitated toward the pulsing amore that surrounded my idol lovebirds.
Every vacation we went on without my father was in stark contrast to Shirley and Irv’s outdoorsy adventures in their camper trailer, which they hooked up to the back of their gigantic blue station wagon. Shirley would prepare a week’s worth of meals for a two-night trip somewhere in the San Gabriel mountains and she and Irv, along with their little boy Michael, would go screeching down the street, the smell of beef and onions wafting out the windows.
I wanted to be in their family. I couldn’t imagine moving from Erwin Street to some other location lacking Shirley and Irv. Just them being there, within 20 yards of my front screen door, made me feel safe and hopeful.
I’ve long-since moved from Erwin Street but my sister recently went by their house to see if they still lived there. And they did! Shirley was bed-ridden and Irv was waiting on her hand and foot, still talking about how much he loved her.
“It’s like nothing changed,” my sister said.
To me, Shirley and Irv will always be frozen in time, fawning over each other and talking their sweetie-pie language. It’s amazing the things that stick with you as a child. I can’t remember a time, when the subject of love has come up, that I don’t immediately think of my first and real example of enduring love — Shirley and Irv Gordon.