I once met a man who declared his love to me by saying: “I’m bigger than you think!” Almost 30 years later, I’ve decided that this is the best pickup line I have ever heard. This statement came from a man who, at the time, wore Levi’s 501 jeans with a 28-inch waist.

Of course, he didn’t mean he was physically bigger; he meant that his life was more complicated than I knew, and if I wanted to stay involved with him, I would need to keep up.

After I stopped laughing, I said, “I’m in.”

Today, after snowblowing our driveway for the fifth time in 10 minutes, he repeated the same basic message with new winter-words: “Life is a siege.”

“Yes, my sweet, it is,” I replied. “How can I help?”

“How can I help?” is the new “I love you.” Can I help … start the car, shovel the stairs, take the dog out in subzero weather, haul the wood, start the fire or chop the kindling? Can I help iron your shirt, make a deposit or build a house? All of which I have done to keep up with the man with the very complicated life, whom I now call my husband.

Case in point, if proof is needed:

When I say “build a house,” I mean, other than hiring someone in the dead of winter to trim out the peaks, and accepting hours and hours of help from generous friends who felt sorry for us, we built our own house. Together, we built a house on an in-town lot full of 200-year-old trees.

I knew there was no turning back when I came home one Friday night to a bright-yellow backhoe parked on the side of our new lot.

The way-too-expensive quote from the foundation contractor caused an “I’ll dig it myself” declaration from my husband. The fact that he had never run a backhoe before and commuted an hour to a full-time job didn’t seem to be a concern.

“I’m not paying $30,000 to have someone dig a hole when I can do it myself,” he said.

One hundred years ago, our lot had served as a gully for a populous Portland neighborhood. Everything not consumed had been dumped into this trench we were now calling home. The first scoop from our rented backhoe exposed hundreds of artifacts: shards of every shape, old bottles, intact miniature clay pipes (apparently left by leprechauns), E. Swasey & Company molasses jugs, tiny headless Victorian dolls and always, with every scoop, more bottles.

So many “finds” were found that the neighborhood kids started gathering every afternoon to pick though the dirt. After making sure that our insurance covered all the horrible things I could imagine – children being swallowed by sinkholes, trees falling on neighbors’ houses and the general maiming of anyone not related to us – I told the kids they could keep what they found.

Building a house in the middle of a neighborhood is like setting up a circus: We were on display for all to observe. Small children became big in the time it took to finish our house.

One day I came home to a woman sifting through the dirt on the edge of our pit of despair. She was wearing wicked nice boots.

“Can I help you?” I asked in my least aggressive voice.

Gracious, poised and obviously smart (I could tell by her boots), she replied, “I’m a visiting archaeologist at USM. I take only the shards and never whole plates. If you wouldn’t mind, I’d like to take a few shards to use for my class.”

“Yes,” I answered, “take as much as you need. After all, whatever you take, we don’t have to move.”

At that moment, I knew that the hole my husband had dug had become a symbol for life moving forward and a community being built.

To my husband, who is bigger than life and smaller than most: Happy Valentine’s Day.

Jolene McGowan lives and works in Portland with her husband, daughter and dog and has no plans to leave, ever. She can be contacted at:

[email protected]