Oh lord, dear reader, did this quandary not plague me during my twenties. I certainly can’t boast a plentiful string of beaux, but the few major relationships I did have conjured in me an age-old question which to this day I still can’t seem to settle.
I was brought up in America and Canada to Protestant/Anglican parents who believe in hard work and reaping the fruits of your labor, and who have a moral compass which on occasion, due largely to my Southern roots, includes little white lies for the sake of keeping the peace. My parents were divorced when I was young. And I was always certain that my step-father truly loved my mom.
My dealings with love and romance, then, began in the dorm rooms of my all-girls boarding school where my roommate and I would sit up late at night analyzing the look or the touch of some young man we’d encountered at a school dance. How juvenile and innocent it all seems now.
My first real love came waltzing into my life in university. That romance still lingers in the crevices of my heart almost fifteen years later. Does that mean it was love?
The first time I met my husband, I was nursing a broken heart over this First Love. Somehow the whole story came pouring out over my plate of pasta at dinner on our first date. I guess I could no longer pretend I was over him or hold back the tears.
“You may always love this man,” the French stranger across the table told me as he reached for my trembling hand. “Only Americans, you know, think that the heart can only love once, only one way or that it has room for only one person.”
I ended up marrying that stranger with the kind eyes who showed such compassion and understanding to the little ball of embarrassment and emotion that I was on that first date.
I think what chance brought to my door that night is love. It’s not romance. It never was the fire-in-eyes, bewilderment of passion I felt for First Love. Although if I’m really honest with myself nothing since ever has been.
So, I’m left wondering: Is romance a precursor to love or an end in itself or perhaps there are no rules in the games that hearts play.
I made so many mistakes with First Love during the seven years we lived and breathed each other. I sometimes feel as if back then I couldn’t see what was standing before me out of some intrigue about what might come along in my life, out of sheer immaturity, a fear of ending all possibility too soon. Wasn’t I putting a little too much stock in romance?
I blame Jane Austen. 🙂 This might sound a little strange and I’m only half serious, but my point is cogent enough: Young girls (and boys) are led to believe in fairytales (beautiful princesses and brave knights). They are taught of perfect love and storybook (capital R) Romance. Hopefully we all have the chance to embody what that fleeting glory feels like at least once in our lives, but as adults we all seem to realize at one point or another that Romance, dressed as Passion, is but a stage of falling in Love. It won’t always feel like that, you or I all goo-goo-eyed and unproductive. Where I blame Austen is her part in making the fairytale so appealing to adults. Truth is we never know what happens to Lizzy and Mr. Darcy or Emma and Mr. Knightley after the adoring heart is won. I suspect this is largely because Jane’s own experience with love (or was it romance?) ended at this same point.
I felt ill-equipped and unprepared for my first love. As a result, I handled myself badly. Oh, heck, we both did. We were scared and young and crude in the ways of the heart.
I thought romance was love and when that passion naturally died down I became restless.
Thankfully another fifteen years has helped me realize the truth behind these fraternal twins – Romance with its Passionate beginnings and Love.
The French seem to know all this much earlier on than Americans, or maybe just earlier than me. I suppose I can’t make such a tremendous generalization on matters of the heart. But the words my stranger-of-a-to-be-husband spoke to me that night on our first date were words of wisdom and maturity and selfless understanding. There was no fairytale in his conception of love.
When that stranger looked over at my sorrow and wiped the hot tears from my cheek, I felt a calm come over me. I’d never tasted that particular brand of peace before. He bore no jealousy for the feelings I harbored for a past love, a fact that may have bruised another man’s pride; nor did he belittle my pain as irrational or overwrought sentiment.
I’ll leave you with what he said to me that night at dinner on a cold November evening as we sat in the back of a small bistro in Paris. He spoke what he’d grown up knowing was the truth about love:
Love is personal between the bestower and the receiver. It is your kindest friend and most brutal enemy. The lessons it teaches you last a life time; they stamp your heart. The face of that stamp on your own heart is your first love. But you will live to love again, I’m sure of it.