Understanding Mom and Dad’s early romance helps me understand my own dating experiences.

The hour or so after big family dinners, when everyone picks at dessert, we all gather around the table, full of food and drink, to reminisce about life when my parents were still dating. As a kid, the idea that my parents had ever been anything but, well, my parents absolutely fascinated me.

I always just want to know more.

Over the years, listening to their stories became increasingly relatable, as I began my foray into the confusing yet awesome world of dating. I realized that asking questions about their relationship was a useful way to extract advice without directly asking for it. It was a way to receive parental guidance without bestirring an inquisition. Ultimately, my parents’ love story led me to a deeper understanding of my own relationships, expectations, and ideals. After all, we share DNA, so what’s a better place to start?

Here’s what Mom and Dad’s blueprint for romance taught me:

Lesson #1: Trust your gut.

My parents met at the local community pool in their small town when my mom moved from Texas to Ohio in the summer of 1975. One day, when my paternal grandma arrived to pick up my dad from the pool, he made her wait outside so that he could bring out my mom to meet her. Later, he told his brother, “I met the girl I’m going to marry.” Call it teenage naiveté, but I think when your intuition speaks so boldly, you should listen up. After all, here we are today!

Lesson #2: Have standards—and stick to them.

The first time my dad asked my mom on a date, she said no! She knew long before she met my dad what her standards were, and she wasn’t going to budge for him or anyone else. He called and asked, “Would you like to go on a date tonight?” She responded, “You can’t call me and ask for a date the same day. No.” With that, they ended the call. Then the phone rang again. “Would you like to go on a date tomorrow night?” This funny story left an important impression on me. Not only did it teach me not to accept guys who only want to hang out last minute, but it also led me to find someone who actually respects my time and boundaries.

Lesson #3: Don’t be afraid of a little romancing.

For their first real date, my parents drove two hours away to go to a symphony together—that’s right, an elegant symphony. When I share this story, I almost feel like I’m describing an episode of The Bachelor between the fancy destination and the road trip. My dad had wanted to impress. Still to this day, my parents find reasons to dress up and go out. They both are romantics at heart, and they definitely passed that on to me. Hearing stories from this swoon-worthy first date always reminds me that I should never settle for someone who isn’t willing to go the extra mile.

Lesson #4: Spontaneity is good . . . and an open mind is better.

After high school, my mom went off to college at Boulder while my dad finished up the remaining weeks of his summer working for Budweiser delivering beer in his van. On a whim, he made the bold decision to surprise my mom by driving the van to Boulder and parking it right outside of her sorority house. While this seems romantic to me, my mom later admitted that she was absolutely mortified at the time. Her boyfriend had just showed up in a tacky van full of beer! But she kept an open mind, and my dad and his buddies ended up being a huge hit before they had to go back to their school in Ohio. (It’s possible that the van full of beer enhanced their popularity.)

Lesson #5: It’s easy to get carried away, but don’t ditch your life.

When my parents went out to a concert one night, they didn’t get back to my mom’s parents’ house until 3 a.m. My grandpa was awake and waiting for them, but my dad still (bravely) walked my mom up to the door. Luckily for him, my grandpa only looked at his watch and shot him a glare before closing the door. The next morning at 6, my mom woke up “bright-eyed and bushy-tailed” and drove to work with my grandpa and put just as much effort into her work as she would any other day. She always stressed this story to remind me that real life doesn’t stop just because you meet someone. I couldn’t drop all my responsibilities or halt my life for any guy, no matter what our future held.

Lesson #6: Build in time during the week to focus on your own person.

When they both worked jobs in downtown Columbus, my parents would find time during each week to meet for lunch dates. My dad usually tells this story because it was during this time that he discovered my mom’s deep confusion when it comes to navigation, but I find practicing daytime dates to be very sweet and practical—so much that I’ve actually stolen this idea from them! My weekday lunches with my current boyfriend lead to our most animated conversations, and I always return to the office smiling.

Lesson #7: Keep the little kid in you alive.

Once upon a time, my mom went out to dinner with my dad’s family. When my mom went to use the restroom toward the end of the meal, my great-grandmother immediately suggested they play a prank. The entire family (probably ten people) ran out of the restaurant, hid around the corner in the car, and had a huge howl as they watched my mom wander around the parking lot for a few minutes. They still cry tears of laughter when they tell this story today. Hence, joking around has been a part of my parents’ relationship since the early days—extended family involved or not. When you find someone who doesn’t take themselves too seriously and reminds you that everyday life can be fun, it’s a very, very good sign.

Lesson #8: Be gracious and open with your partner’s family.

At yet another family restaurant adventure in their dating days, my mom ended up being the only person to order dessert: a slice of chocolate cake. When she received her plate, she graciously passed it around for everyone to have a bite before she did. When it came back to her, it was empty, so the family ordered another. Then the same thing happened, so they ordered another. After the third order, the restaurant gave up and brought them the rest of the cake and left it on the table. At some point during this story, my grandmother always points out that my mom was a great sport and never flinched when they passed each slice around the table. Even though she was probably a tad annoyed each time she missed out on a bite, she was good-humored about it. In the end, they ended up with a whole cake, a great story, and a wonderful relationship.

Photo courtesy of Lauren Mongelluzzo