Love, Lost and Found
Chapter One — Context
The summer of 1972 was more than 50 years ago. It was a different world, almost unrecognizable today. Entertainment and information sources were quite limited by today’s standards. There was no cable-TV, no internet … newspapers and books were much more important. Even the ways people with each other was very different. All phones were land-lines (controlled by one company). There were pay-phones that could be used in an emergency, but you had to deposit cash and were charged by the minute. There were different rates for local and long-distance calls (and the longer the distance, the higher the rate). People wrote more letters or sent postcards. They took more time to think about what they read and what they wrote. I am not trying to be nostalgic here, that is not what this story is about. I am trying to explain the day-to-day focus of people at the time for those too young to remember.
The one thing that has remained constant through recorded history is people. Their hopes and fears may have had different names at different times, but their interactions with each other remained basically the same. Whether the tales are of Sampson and Delilah, or Helen of Troy, or Romeo and Juliet, or The Titanic, the motivations of the people involved are recognizable, even today. That is one of the reasons the stories have survived. Those interactions are what this story is about.
Chapter Two — Intensity
A series of incidents during my early development led me to continually question my self-worth. That is another story, for another time. My only reason for mentioning it here is to note the depth of the roots of the insecurities I referred to earlier. Suffice it to say the family environment (both immediate and extended) was not one that nurtured self-confidence.
At some point, I learned I had the ability to make other people laugh, and thereby gain some form of acceptance (and value). My craving for attention caused me to sometimes “get carried away”, and I had to be told to “calm down”. Decades later when I heard a famous economist use the phrase “irrational exuberance”, I said to myself, I know exactly what that is.
Being a “clown” will only get you so far, and it works better with group acceptance than it does in one-on-one relationships. So even though many people knew and accepted me, I had very few close friends. With the usual raging hormones associated with my teen years, this circumstance became particularly exacerbating. By that time I had gone from joking and clowning to trying to understand human behavior. Still there many times when a girl would tell me that she liked me, but not “that way”. They liked that I would listen when they talked (something their boyfriends seldom did). I soon realized that in many cases I knew more about them than their boyfriends did. (Of course there were a few times it got me into trouble with some of the boyfriends.) I had also accepted the fact that an open communication one-on-one relationship was better than none at all.
Even after high-school there were times when young ladies would tell me to calm down, that I was being “too intense”. Not wanting to risk losing a one-on-one relationship, I learned to temper the emotions I expressed to them. In the background during the first couple of years out of high-school, was the concern of getting drafted (also another story for another time).
In the Summer of 1972 I was working as a cook/assistant kitchen manager in the city. She had just graduated high-school and was “taking a year off” before going away to college. She started working as a waitress that Summer when we first met. I can still recall our initial exchange of glances … when she noticed that I noticed, and I noticed that she noticed (no doubt my memory has embellished it, memory does that). There was an electrifying magic from the beginning. Everyone around us saw it.
Without going into too much detail, one thing led to another. I ended up meeting her family and she met mine. We came from different situations. She was raised in the city, I was raised in the country. Her father was a dentist, mine was a welder. She was going on to college (in another State), I had missed getting a scholarship by a few points. None of those things mattered. I had finally met someone who was intensely passionate about life as I was.
Chapter Three — Doubt and Pain
Much of what has been said and written about the late 1960’s and early 1970’s and the “non-conformist, anti-establishment, question everything” attitudes that existed were merely glossy headlines. When things were brought down to an individual/personal level, the story became more complicated.
I had learned my experience with student government in school that usually the most effective (and often most difficult) way to make changes to a system is from within that system, rather than an outright rejection of the whole system. The intent of questioning something is to determine its validity. That is true in both sociopolitical structures and in personal one-on-one relationships.
Many times different people make different choices, based on what they feel/think is most valid for their circumstance. Recognizing and accepting that in each other can produce a more harmonious world.
Sometimes my choices are “traditional”, sometimes they are not.
We both knew that she would be leaving for college in the coming Fall. That was the best choice for her to pursue her dream of how she wanted to influence the world.
My choice to remain cooking at the restaurant was based on limited options, as well as the prospect that I could be drafted. Additionally, I was pretty good at it and I enjoyed it. Even though it had little potential to “change the world”, it was a marketable skill and one that would have continued demand … people will always want to eat.
A question her father asked me when we first met, “What do you plan to do with you life?”, came back to me in the Summer of 1973 when the draft ended. My original answer about making the world a better place, without any real details as to how (due to the uncertainty of my fate), left him suitably UN-impressed.
With the random act of being drafted removed from possible scenarios, my employer decided to offer more responsibility (and more money). I accepted knowing that while it would not change the world, it would provide a chance to create a better work environment for those around me. Plus with the additional income, I might be able to save enough to go visit my love at college.
At that time a letter would take 3 to 5 days to get to where she was. Add to that the time to read and write a response, and it could take 2 weeks before one of knew the answer to a question we asked in our letters to each other. That is a long time to think about what a possible answer might be.
It has been said that absence makes the heart grow fonder. Perhaps that was a factor in deflating my original optimism about creating a better work environment. Plus as I said before, making changes from within a system can be difficult. Either way, my daily thoughts and feelings were overwhelmed with missing her. That was apparent enough that my employer decided we needed to “talk about it”. He tried to convince me that she was in a new place, making new friends, and building a new life, and as a result she would soon forget about me. He said I should forget about her and concentrate on the work at hand, and building my career. Besides, he said, I was young and “there are plenty of fish in the sea”.
I knew much of what he said was inaccurate and self-serving. So, in my next letter to her, I expressed my thoughts and feelings about us being in the same place together again. I tried to do it cautiously (so as not to be “too intense) and asked how she thought and felt about it.
For whatever reason(s) her reply letter took even longer than usual to get to me. That prolonged period of uncertainty allowed my brain to run through a thousand different scenarios.
When her letter did arrive, it was filled with her excited descriptions of her new environment and the people in it. Only briefly (and towards the end) did she reference my inquiry about us being together. That was with a phrase that I long ago associated with rejection… “We need to have a long talk.”
My employer had planted the seed of doubt and my subconscious brain prevented me from taking her words at face value.
I was devastated, but I had seen the prequels to this movie before. So I closed the steel doors around my heart and accepted this as my fate. I decided that henceforth all relationships would be pragmatic in nature and went back to work.
Chapter Four — Being Completely Wrong
I buried myself in my work in an attempt to block any sense of remorse. I adopted what previously I had sarcastically called the “Junior Executive Mode”, and focused on moving up through the hierarchical structure of the company.
Still, just as when faced with rejection in the past, I hoped to salvage at least some semblance of friendship. To that end, when my mew house-mate and I decided to have a seasonal end of year party she was invited. I did not know if she would come or not. It turned out she was home from college on Winter Break and did come to the party.
Unfortunately, I was busy talking to the other guests and someone else answered the door when she arrived. I did not even know she had been there until someone told me, she did not come in and left quickly. They said she seemed very upset. I hurried to the door, but by the time I got outside all I could see was the tail-lights of her car as she pulled out of the parking-lot and disappeared into the dark snowy night.
Months earlier I would have abandoned the other guests at the party I was co-host of, and gotten into my car to follow after her. Sadly, my Junior Executive operating mode made me freeze, consider “appearances”, and ignore my instinct (and my heart). I went back inside to the party, hoping that the following day I would find a way to sort things out. It was then I first began to suspect my original interpretation of her “long talk” phrase was a gross mis-assessment
That realization was codified the next morning while I was working the breakfast shift. She had come to the back door of the kitchen and left a note with the dishwasher to give to me. In it she explained that she was returning to college that day and that she wished me well. She also quite poignantly expressed the pain and betrayal she was feeling. Those words have been forever etched on my mind, carved into my heart, and indeed seared onto my very soul.
“I gave you my heart,
and you cut it up in tiny pieces,
and handed it back to me
on a silver platter.”
Chapter Five — No Way Out
I was no longer wallowing in the pain that I mistakenly thought had been inflicted on me. Instead I was faced with the agonizing truth that I was the source of causing even more severe injury one someone I loved. Not only that, but the damage seemed irreparable. Once lost, trust cannot be restored. All of this because I allowed my own past insecurities to cloud my perception.
What followed was several years of fluctuating between the moments of quiet desperation and those of focusing on living in (and only for) the moment. Through it all I maintained the hope of having a chance to explain to her my misunderstanding of her words. At one point I had somehow (probably from one of her old letters) tracked down a telephone number where she might be reached. By that time, we were living in diagonally opposite ends of the country, but I had access to a phone that I could use without having to deposit cash first. When I called, the man who answered relayed a message that she had “no interest” in speaking to me. That is when I gave up hope (at least consciously) of ever letting her know that I never stopped loving her.
I had other relationships during those years, but they were primarily ones of mutual convenience and gratification. They were never anything that could evolve into something enduring. I had also reached a point where I realized many people spend a lifetime searching for the kind of love we had, and some never find it. I tried to take consolation in the fact I had that “once-in-a-lifetime” kind of love, and I should be grateful for that … regardless of how brief it was or how disastrously it ended.
Chapter Six — From Time to Time
Life has a way of continuing around us. Things change, perceptions and attitudes are altered … sometimes suddenly, sometimes gradually. Change is constant, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not. Many of those changes we have no direct control over. The most we can do is choose how we re-act to those changes. Some things (like a sunrise) are predictable, other things (like falling in love) are not.
Human memory (at least mine) is based on a complex cross-referencing system, some obvious and some abstract. That is why a scent, a sound, a color or a phrase can bring to the surface an emotional (and sometimes physical) response to a memory. The ability to distinguish between a re-called experience and whatever stimulus brought it to the surface can require a large degree of effort.
I remember as a child racing my older brother to a local pond to go swimming. I was the first in the water, or so I thought until I heard my brother and my mother standing on the bank frantically screaming for me to get out of the water. When I turned to see what they were pointing at, I saw a snake swimming across the surface headed straight toward me. From that day forward I had an irrational fear of entering large bodies of water, so much so that I did not learn how to swim until after the age of 30. It didn’t help that fear was compounded by a simple cautionary tale I was told at a much younger age about how it only takes a tablespoon of water entering through the ear canal to drown.
As I mentioned before I developed a preoccupation with trying to
understand human nature. One of the ways to gain insight into why
people do some of the things they do is to listen to the stories they tell their children (whether in a formal setting like school or in an informal setting around the kitchen table).
Another way, particularly when looking at a specific time-frame, is to read the literature that is produced in that time. I am using a very
broad definition of literature here. It includes not only short stories and novels, but poetry (and by extension songs), as well as magazine articles and op-ed pieces in newspapers. It also encompasses the other venues of story telling such as cinema and television.
During that time I tried to consume as much information as I could
about relationships between men and women … everything from medical manuals and psychological studies to satiric comedy routines. Absorbing those, it was easy to conclude that most men at the time knew little ( and cared even less) about how to please a woman.
One of my favorite comedy routines from the time summarized the
frustration in communication between men and women at the time. I do not re-call the presenter nor do I know it verbatim, but the gist of it went as follows…
“It is no wonder women think men are confused. They spend nine months trying to get out and the rest of their lives trying to get back in. Then, in typical male fashion, they refuse to stop and ask for directions.”
That told me (for lack of a better analogy) that in the wilderness of
relationships not only is an intimate knowledge of geography required, but so is an understanding of the inhabitants of that terrain. Communication is a key to understanding and half of communication that is often overlooked (or at least under-rated) is listening.
I have already described my initial reaction when I mistakenly thought I had been rejected as shutting down (at least emotionally) “…and a rock feels no pain, and an island never cries…” (Simon and Garfunkel). It also had the aspect of living in (and for) the moment “…if you can’t be with the one you love, honey, love the one you’re with…” (Crosby, Still and Nash). Later when I discovered that I was the source of inflicting great pain on someone I loved, just like the trauma with the snake and the pond, I developed an irrational fear. This time it was ever allowing myself to love again.
Fortunately, things change. I have been unexpectedly blessed with a
second chance at a long-lasting loving relationship with my wife. There are some amazing stories associated with that from the beginning, and I’m sure many more yet to be lived. (Yes, I told her this story long before we were married.)
For reasons I am unable to explain, from time to time the memories of this story come to the surface. Once she was in a dream I had and after doing some internet searches I found out the dream occurred the same day her father died. I wrote a long letter to her at the time, but never mailed it (for fear of opening old wounds). Occasionally when I see a full Moon, I recall her first telling me the story of The Rabbit On The Moon.
I did cautiously reach out to her electronically once several years ago in the hope of establishing a channel of communication. She responded by telling the events occurred when we were both too young to know any better and I should “get over” any guilt I might feel, and besides I probably did her a favor since she was happy in her new life. “… if all you are offering is diamonds and rust, I’ve already paid…” (Joan Baez).
She may be right. I am glad she is happy. I am also happy in mine. I do not know if she will ever read this. I do not know if it matters. I do know that writing it has helped me sort through it. “…maybe we’ll meet again someday on the avenue, tangled up in blue…” (Bob Dylan).