My parents' rare romance

I've heard the refrain often enough - "Hollywood/Disney has ruined romance for me," someone sighs, citing expectations that were too high, tempers that were too short or patience levels that were simply too low.

But rarely, I think, do people blame their unrealistic expectations of love and marriage on their parents - for having a relationship that is simply too good to be true.

My parents celebrated their 31st anniversary on Wednesday and it is only after being married myself that I have come to realise that theirs is a relationship that lies in the strata of the rare and exceptional.

They share decades of inside jokes, they tease each other, their eyebrows rise wickedly when they know what the other is thinking, they are fiercely protective of each other (the number of times my father had thundered "DON'T TALK LIKE THAT TO YOUR MOTHER" when I was a rude teenager are legion), they welcome each other's quirks, they go on long cycling dates around the island and have recently taken it upon themselves to teach each other Internet culture: selfies, emoticons, abbreviations and hashtags. They have found a way to keep their relationship both comfortable and surprising, combining a warm familiarity with a willingness to try new things together.

I've always thought of my parents as a single entity, perhaps because they always formed a united front. You could never play one parent against the other or get one to mete out a lesser punishment for bad behaviour. They always make decisions collectively and even if they had their heated arguments or got on each other's nerves, they have always tried their best to work it out quickly and never let it spill into other interactions.

Often, they will walk hand in hand or arm in arm, giving each other affectionate pecks on the cheek. And they know exactly how to make each other laugh.

A few years ago, I asked my mother how they managed to keep their romance alive. She pondered this.

"I guess we're both quite romantic," she said with a smile. "You know, I still feel a shiver when your dad walks into a room."

I can understand building a relationship of mutual trust and commitment. But that excited shiver down your spine? Perhaps it's something only bestowed on a rare few. I've often compared my own substantially less perfect relationships with that of my parents, wondering how they've managed to be so accepting, so welcoming of each other, warts and all.

"Well," said my infinitely more patient husband, "they do have 31 years of practice."

I recently recorded my parents telling us their love story, inspired by a friend who collects stories about how his friends' parents met.

The story of how my parents met isn't a particularly revolutionary one. Mutual friends had invited them for a game of badminton. My dad has always reiterated that "your mother had the most beautiful eyes I had ever seen".

I asked my mum: "But did you have any impression of dad? During that badminton game?"

There was a long pause. "...No?" she said with a laugh. In the background, you could hear my dad protesting as my mother insisted: "You were NOT smitten, honey, you had eyes on another girl!"

My dad told us that he had been looking for his soulmate to little avail - finding zero chemistry with other girls he had gone out with. But after meeting my mum several times, he had a dream and in that dream, a photograph descended from the clouds. He turned it over. It was a picture of my mother.

You could believe in a higher power or you could also believe that my father was so besotted with my mother that his subconscious decided to indulge in it. But I like to think that there is a bit of magic embedded in my dad's decision to pursue her. He took it as a sign. He invited her to a chalet party with a group of friends. They took a long walk on the beach and talked all night. My mum giggled, girlishly: "It got all romantic."

They got engaged nine months later.

I'm thankful that our family was built on the foundation of my parents' unconditional, overwhelming love.

I suppose it's only when spouses care deeply for each other that their children will grow up in an environment that is buoyed by love, not shot through with insecurities and festering bitterness.

Happy anniversary, mum and dad. Your relationship reminds me that love is hard work, but it can work and work well.

corriet@sph.com.sg