Old Love Letters

By Janice Steinhagen
Issue 95, July/August 1999

Woman reading love lettersI saw the briefcase nearly every day. It sat on the floor of the closet, gathering dust next to the shoes as I selected a blouse to wear to work or poked around looking for my sandals. Of course I knew what was in it, but its contents were relics of the past, and who had time to reminisce when there was a rug to vacuum, a baby to feed, and a crying child to console?

But one day there were none of those things – just two children napping, a box of outgrown kids’ clothes to pack away, and the briefcase on the closet floor. I hoisted the clothing box to the back shelf, paused for a moment, and sat down to open the briefcase.

Inside were two packs of letters, bound together with plaid ribbon and bearing postmarks dating back nearly two decades. Each set was addressed to the return address of the other. Alongside the letters were college notebooks, filled to the brim with journal entries, and loose slips of paper bearing poems written in a tiny, pinched hand. Here was the written history of my love affair with my husband from the time we met until our marriage nearly six years later.

I opened one of the journals and began reading, and the years fell away. I was back in college, awakening to self-awareness and to the tentative but compelling love I felt for a remarkable young man I’d met at the start of my freshman year.

“As long as I live I’ll never forget Tuesday’s walk in the snow. It was like a page from a dream book. . . Erich told me I was beautiful! I only wish I could tell him how beautiful he is to me.”

But the course of our love was fraught with uncertainty. It was difficult for us to say what we really meant to each other. We wrestled, individually and together, with the conflicting truths of our physical desire and our religious principles. We tiptoed around the stability – and the painful vulnerability – commitment would bring. Now, as I read, I winced at the awkward language, replete with 1970s psychobabble; but I felt clearly the poignant spark of emotion behind the words.

“Where are we going together? Into oblivion? Into something neither of us can handle, even together? It’s difficult to travel when you can’t quite see the light at the end of the tunnel. . . .”

I turned page after page, opening each envelope in turn. With each new entry, each new letter, incidents sprang back to life. I read about our wrenching, confusing separation; our gradual, intuitive return to each other; our final mutual admission, on the brink of commencement, that we belonged together, whatever the future might bring. I read about the two long years apart that followed, working toward that future. Separated by more than 500 miles, we poured all our passion into our letters, knowing they would be treasured and reread for weeks after our all-too-brief phone calls were over. We reminded each other of our dreams: a house in the woods, a studio where each of us could make our art, a family of children to nurture.

“This for us is the night before, the sleep. It is a time of gathering energy and resources. It is the time to plan and hope. It is also a time of unreality and dreaming. Whether or not our dreams will come true will depend on how hard we work and how much we are willing to give to each other. We dream now, but we must be ready to wake with the dawn and begin our work. But what a wonderful dawn it will be!”

That was all half a lifetime ago. Here I was now, sitting on the floor of the bedroom we shared, with our two children sleeping soundly in the next room. Our time apart was a long-ago memory, our time of confusion was the distant past. But I wondered at the vivid recognition these well-aged writings evoked in me. Why could I feel this hollow distance so clearly now?

At first I thought it was a gnawing sense of disappointment that we hadn’t stuck faithfully to our initial agenda. We’d had our wished for pottery and weaving studio for a while, but our art gradually began to take a back seat to paying the bills and supporting a family. We lived near the woods but now had little free time to enjoy them.

Even so, I could not muster the disillusionment to support that theory. Our college-age selves might fret that we had “sold out” and bought into a bourgeois lifestyle, but our life was far from empty or stultifying. Erich was making sculpture now instead of pottery; I was writing now instead of weaving. We had cultivated a mutual interest in classical music, gardening, and the theater, unhinted at during our college years. It’s too easy to be single-minded to the point of prejudice in one’s early 20s. Half a lifetime later the value of compromise, and of an open spirit, becomes crystal-clear.

For days I pondered what it was that those letters of longing had stirred up in me. And one hectic day, when life seemed to be a juggling act of juice cups, car keys, and phone books, it hit me. Our time together alone these days is just about as rare a commodity as it had been during our bleak days apart before we were married.

Back then, it was our respective jobs and our need to save money that kept us apart. We knew, deep down, that our time apart was finite, that we were working toward an ambitious goal, but even so we sometimes gave in to worry and, occasionally, to apathy. Even after our wedding date was set, our letters sometimes reflected a sense of unreality, a sense that finally being together was, in fact, too good to be true.

Now different intrusions encroach on our time together. Nobody ever really is prepared for the unrelenting demands of parenting and for the lack of privacy inherent in life with small children. As much as I had longed to be a mother in years past, now I often long for the blissful solitude of our early marriage.

All of those long-distance letters, brimming with pent-up frustration and aching loneliness, strike a chord that resonates perhaps a bit too deeply in me. Then, as now, I was doing something I enjoyed, but its demands created a gulf between my love and me. Once, that gulf had been 500 miles wide; now, it’s the distance across two small children, but seemingly just as insurmountable.

So how had we survived in the past? What had kept our love alive through those two treacherous years? The answer was scrawled on nearly every page of those letters, in handwritten black-on-white or invisibly, between the lines: we were willing to endure anything to sustain our love. Despite our youth, we were convinced that we were intended for each other, and that our lives would be incomplete without each other. Not empty, mind you, or meaningless or impossible, but certainly far, far short of their potential.

“If I ever had any wonderings about being with you as opposed to keeping my job, the answer’s been given to me. It could never, never be really right without you there, to share it and to bring some purpose to the things I do, brilliant or stupid, good or not so good. You’re as necessary to me as art is necessary to life- some people might insist it’s mere decoration, but a person can’t live, really live, without beautiful things to stir his or her heart.”

The power of that vision was compelling enough for us to commit our lives to each other, to muster confidence in the face of uncertainty, to accept our turns of fate and persevere. We relied on humor constantly, and we were not ashamed to fall back on our religious faith when we needed to. At the crux of the past and the future, we tried to put the present into context for each other.

“Don’t forget what we have, and what we will have when we are together. Things seem hard right now, but things will get better, I promise. We have a lot going for us and a lot behind us. Hard times will make us strong.”

It struck me, reading those letters, that in those days we’d had such a short “history” together, in the grand scheme of things. Of course, when you’re 20, four years is eternity, and we already felt the bond that comes from growing together through major life changes. Yet even then, we had a sense of our place in the continuum, a perspective that could make us take the leap of faith into an unknown tomorrow.

“When we look back years from now, this time apart will seem ridiculously short, even though it now seems hopelessly long.”

Our determination to stick it out has stood us in good stead through the intervening years, steering us through calamity and keeping us afloat through tedium. Our history is infinitely more complex than we could have dreamed two decades ago, and our understanding of each other is deeper and stronger, too. We’ve had to summon up resources we never knew we had for each other, only now we have had the inestimable comfort of each other’s physical presence to strengthen and enrich our love.

There seems to be very little time for introspection nowadays. Our energies are focused on the immediate and the mundane. But I still keep a look out for those transcendent moments that connect our past with our future, that reaffirm what brought us together in the first place. Sometimes we have to pay a babysitter to make those moments happen, but that doesn’t make them any less transcendent. The very fact that the one great love of my life is still here at my side continues to strike me as miraculous.

We can’t really regard our present intrusions the way we did back then, when we saw them as stepping stones to a glorious future. Now we can see them for what they were, what they are: the ingredients of our daily life together, the forces that shape us into the people we become. We as a couple do not stand separated from the life outside our relationship, even though we once believed we did.

Keeping our love alive through separation required an act of will, and in that respect nothing has changed. The spark that draws two people together is a powerful yet ultimately fragile thing. In our early days we were, by turns, entranced and intimidated by the brilliance of the fire we had ignited. Now we realize that it must be tended, like a flame in the hearth, or it will eventually wane. We have to keep reminding ourselves that our relationship cannot function on automatic pilot for long, and that preserving and enriching it, apart from other family relationships, is worth whatever it takes.

“The world outside is a frightening place. Many people who choose the same path we choose end up breaking apart before long. I keep telling myself that it can’t happen to us, that we’re different, that those other people weren’t as committed as we are. Still, I know that we aren’t that different. We have to have something stronger that will bind us together, stronger than the forces that would tear us apart. I think we can make it. We must make it.”

I didn’t put the briefcase away until I heard the little people stirring down the hall. As I retied the ribbons around the letters and snapped the brief case shut, girding myself for an afternoon of being a mom, the phrases I had committed to memory long ago whispered through my mind again. “Remember the dream that we share.” Could it be that a floor littered with toys, a sinkful of dishes, and the children whining for lunch were part of that dream?

For more information about rejuvenating marriage, see the following articles in past issues of Mothering: “When Lovers Become Parents,” no. 81; “Still Dating After All These Years,” no. 76; “Good Marriages Make Happy Children,” no. 69; “Conscious Commitment,” no. 57; and “Keeping Love Alive,” no. 53.

Janice Steinhagen’s essay “Mom’s Night Out” appeared in Mothering ‘s Summer 1994 issue. She writes art reviews, features, and essays for several newspapers and is currently at work on a Catholic children’s book. She also teaches art at her children’s school, sings in the Norwich Diocesan Choir, and teaches fifth grade religious education at her church. She lives in Voluntown , Connecticut , with her family: Clara, Paul (P.J.), and Patricia.

Photograph by Eric Swanson.

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