The Love Story:
When we met, over 50 years ago at a music camp on a lake in the Adirondack Mountains of New York State, John was16 and I was a year older, a counselor in a cabin of girls that included his 14 year old sister. He was studying violin and composition, I played the flute and she, if I recall, had come to sing. That summer, we were singing Brahams: Shiksalslied, Nenia, the Requiem. For 10 weeks we kids made music that wafted out onto the lake from every corner of those balsam-fragrant woods, and each evening while the sun went down over the mountains, we rehearsed in the boathouse as the lake turned golden, then wine-blue then black. Then, on the weekends, we would give ecstatic performances to tourists and the local townspeople who would come. For me, whose family knew little of culture, this was a kind of paradise. I was in heaven.
From the very first rehearsal I noticed him, a slender, good-looking boy whose enthusiasm you couldn’t help noticing because he sang and played with so much gusto we worried he would fall off his chair. He also was on the prowl for a girlfriend, he made that clear, because without a trace of guile he scanned the crowded boathouse each night, his intense blue eyes stopping at one girl after another. On the second night they rested on me and stayed there, remaining there for the next three years until I was 20. I can still feel them watching me, although he is long gone and even though, to his great chagrin (and my relief) we never married. And therein hangs the tale.
After camp – and a memorable performance of the Brahams Requiem, and many after-hours clandestine trysts in the woods, and passionate rehearsals and deep talks by the edge of the lake – we wept our goodbyes and went back to our separate lives, he to college in Boston and me to college in New York. However, within 2 weeks of Harvard’s Freshman orientation, his letters of longing began to come. Daily. Yes, school was exciting and his classes inspiring and his roommates fascinating, but he missed me. I could not imagine why: he was at the center of an intellectual whirlwind, and I was in City College living at home with my unhappy family who read nothing more stimulating than the Readers’ Digest. He had all of Radcliffe to choose from, and the dorms were right there. A trip to New York meant money, which John did not have, and complicated arrangements on trains and subways. John was adamant, however, and thus began his frequent pilgrimages to my door – most Fridays, rain or shine or final exams – and daily airmail letters back and forth between Harvard and Hollis Hills. This was flattering and, at first, exciting but his energy soon became too much for me. He was brilliant, passionate, sensitive – in a word, larger than life - but I was not. More to the painful point, John was madly in love, but I was not.
It is now over half a century later, he is no longer here, and finally I feel the love that he so craved from me. Yesterday, Memorial Day, while cleaning out a closet I came upon a box of his letters, hundreds of them, and spent the day stretched out reading them one after the other. There was his voice – smart and intense and loving – as he wished to be heard, not as I heard it at the time – demanding, pleading for more.
For three years of weekends and holidays he escorted me everywhere, introducing me to Schubert and late Beethoven, to staged plays of Shakespeare, to his Harvard roommates and to the postulates of physics. We played duets, he set to music poems that I wrote, and we went to parties where people knew about politics and world affairs. His voice was loud, his laughter louder, and his gestures grandiose. His cigarette-stained hands stroked me continually, and when he gazed at me his face went soft with longing. I never had the faintest idea how to respond in kind, and so I didn’t, which seemed to make him love me all the more. I was completely out of my water, partly enchanted and partly scared witless, not knowing whether to stay or to leave, until he clove me to his side by presenting me with an engagement ring I was not allowed to refuse.
It happened in, of all places, Edinburgh, where I had gone to try and take a break from his attentions for the summer, much to his disappointment. He tried to talk me out of it, but finally followed me instead (and the group I was traveling with) and whisked me away from them whenever he could, once to a gated park on Princes Street at closing time. There, in the lowering light, he presented me with two gifts: a flute and an engagement ring, saying, “The flute is for you; the ring is for me,” All the while those eyes burned into me, daring me not to give the loving response he so wanted. He got a dumb speechlessness instead, and when the Gatekeeper called out that we all had to leave the park, John refused to budge until I had accepted his proposal of marriage. The Gatekeeper called a last warning that anybody left would be locked in, and sure enough, we got locked in. It was hours before we found someone to let us out and when we finally emerged into nighttime Edinburgh, I had John’s ring on my finger. And the wrath of my poor group leader.
The next two years were stormy, passionate, frightened and confusing for me. His parents were appalled at the engagement – we were too young, my pedigree was all wrong, John was out of control – and as for my parents, the likes of John had never been dreamt of in their philosophies. Nor, by that time, in mine. All I wanted was to get away from them all, to a quiet place where I might take my bearings and feel my way back into who I was without him, but each time I tried to back away he would arrive at my door begging for another chance. So I would take him back, removing the ring as soon as he had left on the train for Boston, and replacing it only when he arrived again the following weekend.
Finally, in a storm of desperate tears on a cold streetcorner at Christmas, I pleaded my case with words that got through to him: “I want to be good!” was what I sobbed on that winter day. He deflated immediately and we wept, finally both understanding that for me, ‘being good’ meant ‘being without him.’. In the following months, after many phone calls from Cambridge trying to convince me to change my mind, he began seeing a psychiatrist, dropped out of Harvard, and started to gain weight. A year later he had quit the psychiatrist and went from playing violin to playing Bridge. He asked me to reconsider one last time, and then he met another girl. His letters continued unabated.
Over the years. John has never altogether left my life – even now, post-mortem. He wanted to meet the man I eventually married, wished to know my children. He read my books, and phoned us yearly, giving news of his family. When he came to California he paid us visits, and when I met his second wife, she took me aside and said, “You’re the love of John’s life, you know, but it’s OK with me. He’s a special case and we understand each other.” His third wife I have yet to meet. But as he lay dying many years later of liver cancer, he phoned for one last time to say goodbye. Our talk was tender and true, and before we signed off I told him I loved him – but my fingers were crossed in my lap. His last gift to me was the string quartet he had been writing for me during our three tumultuous years together. I realized that the melody of the fugue in the first movement was right there in my memory, and I sang it for him over the phone. His breath-held silence was my reward.
Now, here I sit surrounded by his letters – his handwriting, his voice, his passion, his youth – and I hear him anew because there is no longer the felt pressure of having to respond in kind. I hear a quick intelligence, a passionate heart longing for love, a clarity and self-wisdom rare in someone so young, and enough energy to burn up the world. I know now how lonely he was in his intensity, and understand his longing to share his heart with a fellow adventurer. I still wonder why he chose me - did he recognize me as soul-kin, someone who could go the distance with him once she broke through the fears of a stifling childhood? In the letters he says over and over that I bring to him his own beauty; that with me he can find his way to his best self; that I awaken in him a love so profound he finds himself loving everything around him through loving me. “When I know you care,” he writes, “then I have immense energy for my work and everything and everyone around me. When I doubt your love, I cannot concentrate on anything because I frankly no longer give a damn.” That was too large a responsibility for the girl I was, for sure, but I wonder if I might not enjoy the challenge of this amazing man now.
For I can hear him now, loud and clear. My heart responds to that intensity with eagerness to know him, to see him, to take him on. (He was, in fact, rather beautiful in those days.) I’m wondering if he might have been one of those remarkable children we now refer to as “Indigo” – children with wisdom beyond their years, a prodigious capacity for love, rare intelligence in unexpected directions? His parents might well have been bewildered by this unusual child they had spawned and, not knowing what to do with him, had sent him to board at one of the upper class east coast boys’ schools when he was thirteen. “Cynicism there,” he wrote to me, “was considered a virtue. If you showed your softness, they crucified you.” How might he have developed if he had been kept at home to go to the local public school, coming home each day to a family, a kitchen table, perhaps some of the intimacy and love he so desperately needed?
Oh John, I embrace you now through the ethers, at last your true friend and erstwhile lover. I wish we had been able to sustain the idealism you felt around me, that I had been able to love you as you deserved to be loved. I have never quite gotten over the pain of rejecting you – both your pain and my own – and this love that I feel for you now, I am sure, is making its way to you wherever you are. I believe, now, you will not try and grasp it tightly to yourself, but will let it suffuse you and share it with me so that together we may be filled with it. Then, John, we’ll spread the love out to wherever it may go in the universe, through all the realms in all worlds.
May it be so.
About 3 weeks before my Memorial Day read-a-thon, I happened to run into John’s sister, the 14 year old of that long ago time, now a scholar and writer of renown living in a nearby city. We had seen each other only once in the intervening years, and had much to catch up on – children, careers, health issues. John. She mentioned that her daughter was a flute player, as I had been in the past; I told her my daughter was a violinist, as John had been. We parted warmly, but non-committal about future contact. By morning, however, I had a remarkable realization and I contacted her immediately. This is what had occurred to me:
- that once I had been given, by a benefactor, a rare and unusual ebony flute which now sat unused in a drawer;
- that I had begun passing on certain of my unused treasures to young people who might use them well;
- and that I had unfinished business with her brother that I would like to address by passing on my flute to her daughter.
After many emails and phone calls and the attendant astonishment of all concerned, including myself, her daughter received the flute, played it, fell in love with it as I expected she would, completing a full circle of John’s karma and mine.
I assumed that was the end of the story: one day I would meet his niece and hear her play my flute, perhaps I would cry, maybe we would talk a bit about her uncle John and then I would move on, having resolved one difficult bit of my history. But then I found the letters…
The story, apparently, is not quite over.
Carolyn North, June, 2007
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