It was Easter Sunday, 1960 in Iowa, I was 17, and nearly two feet of snow covered our quarter-mile lane. My father drove me on the tractor from the house to the cleared road where Jerry – not his real name – met me and took me the eight miles to town to meet his parents.
The noon meal included lamb, which I had never had before, and a head of cauliflower with melted cheese cascading down it. His father, who was French Canadian, prepared the meal. They owned the hardware store, several farms, and had land in the most beautiful lake country in Minnesota. They were the elite.
The night before Jerry and I had gone to my senior prom. He bought me a corsage of roses on his way home from college. We had dated since the end of the summer before. He sent me letters several times a week in neat small handwriting.
I had been in love with him – totally and secretly – since I was 12 years old. To have let anyone know that I, a country girl, was besotted by the most sought after boy in school – a townie, captain of the basketball team, student body president – would have been humiliating, unbearable.
But a miracle happened. On our first date we went to the movie “A Summer Place” starring Sandra Dee and Troy Donuhue. “Within that summer place your arms reach out to me. . . . I’m safe and warm in your arms, in your arms, in your arms.”
On the night of the prom, after the dance, before the snow storm, we held and kissed. He told me that he loved me and wished we were married. He would take me to meet his parents the next day.
That next day, after the meal of lamb and cauliflower, he drove me to the end of my lane where I put on boots to walk to the house. We kissed and I told him I loved him. It was the first time I said “I love you” to anyone, even my parents.
I did not hear from him again for four years.
To not hear from someone in those days meant that it took weeks to know that you were not going to receive any more letters. Winter went to summer as I walked the lane to the mailbox to nothing. It was never talked about, never mentioned by anyone. Ever.
This and its infinite variables is how the words “I love you” become difficult to say. Is there anyone who hasn’t felt caution about expressing love, saying those words?
We don’t want to expose ourselves. We don’t want to mislead others. We are afraid if we say “I love you,” it will be heard as something else, as undue or awkward involvement. Obligations, intentions, obsessions.
The words “I love you” may have more baggage attached to them than any other words in the world, at least in the Western world. “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you” come off easy in comparison. To be sorry and to forgive may be difficult to say and do, but they are one-click operations compared with plumbing the depths and complexities of love.
We know what being sorry is about and we know what forgiveness is about, but the word “love” has to support an array of meaning, nuance, subtlety, and innuendo. What kind of love? Romantic? Parental? Spousal? Sexual? For country or culture? For love of art, artists, idols, the home team?
It is peculiar that we don’t have distinct and separate words for different feelings of attraction and attachment. But I’ve come to believe there is a reason for this. It has to do with how language reflects truths that we seldom bring into conscious focus. Our language reveals that there is only one word for love because love is an encompassing whole. It is a totality and all of its variants fit inside the immense dynamic whole of love.
The ocean is one big thing. It might be a choppy ocean, a dark ocean, a calm ocean, but it is still one ocean made of water. We don’t have different words for “ocean.” (Okay, “sea” sort of, but not really.)
The sky is one big thing. It might be a stormy sky, a clear sky, a sky with clouds, but it is still one sky made of air. We don’t have different words for “sky.”
Love might be experienced with different qualities and forms, but it is still love. And – this is important – it possesses the qualities of a magnet. We are constantly pulled towards love. We want to live within love. We want love to permeate us. We recognize love as healing, sustaining, transcending, inspiring, and as our natural place to be, as home. As there is only one “home” so we only have one word for love.
The infinite variations of love occur through the feeling and actions of people who are lovers, parents, children, seekers, humanitarians, peace-workers, worshippers, and more. It is we humans who shape love into its different forms and apply it in our daily relationships. It is humans who “color” love, tweak it, make it real, make it our own, and become whole inside in the process. We heal, we transcend, we inspire, we come home.
[Note: Obsession, addiction, envy, jealousy, possession, and greed are not variants on love. Period. They do not heal, sustain, or transcend. They are not “home.”]
To round out the story of the Iowa boy who disappeared. He reappeared in 1964 when he was stationed at Quantico Marine base in Virginia and I was a cocktail waitress on Capitol Hill. He asked to see me and I acquiesced, but I was not above trying to humiliate him. It did not go well for him, and ended after several weeks.
I found him through Linked In a few years ago. I had a 5-decades old question I needed to have answered, “Why did you disappear after I told you I loved you?” He remembered nothing of it.
He then asked me, “If I had stayed with you that one night in DC instead of leaving would everything have been different? I’ve always regretted that.” I didn’t know what he was talking about. Just goes to show you, we are in the same movies, but we experience different plot lines.
He now lives in San Diego and is on the far right-wing fringe of politics. That’s really a different plot line than mine.
I owe him one thing. The imprint of first love, how total and consuming it can be even when secret, even when rejected.
And I owe him as the first catalyst for the muscle I have built over time to tell the people I love that I love them. It didn’t come easy, but the fact that it came hard means it is an examined, deliberate, and cherished choice. It is joy, clarity, play, gratitude, and strength. It is also freedom because to love someone is to go beyond the limitations of words.