Thanksgiving seems like a good day to post this meditation on love, heartbreak, and gratitude. This was written originally about ten years ago and was just now updated.
From the time of my first sexual and emotional stirrings, I have had a penchant for impossible loves. Not that they never became real romances; most of them did at some time or another, and in some form or another. Indeed, both my husbands were, in their own ways, impossible loves.
In every case, though, there were protracted periods of time during which either my love was not reciprocated, or the relationship was emotionally difficult and painful. I won’t say that my heart was broken more often than I broke others’ hearts. Indeed, I once did a tally of how many men had broken my heart and how many hearts I had broken, and they came out about even. So really, I have been neither victim nor vamp. Nonetheless, from the perspective of a woman approaching her eighties and looking back on a rich and productive life, I would say that many of the best things I have done, and many of the finest experiences I have had, happened because I allowed myself the luxury of impossible love.
The first was a high school crush that felt like love. It was in the throes of this love that I began a journal (then termed a diary) to try to write out my excitement and confusion and to impart some reality to otherwise ethereal feelings. Thus began a record, albeit intermittent, of the hopes, loves, adventures and disappointments of my life that spans more than half a century. This was a gift to me and maybe even to my progeny. Also, because I was then “in love” (however impossibly), I was not susceptible to the charms and persuasions of any ardent others. Thus, upon emerging from the difficult chrysalis of female adolescence, I still had no sexual regrets, and I could go on to college full of hope and expectation.
The second, the “love of my life,” was the impossible love of my college years. Oh, we dated steadily during our freshman year, but he broke it off when we came back as sophomores. Apparently, a hometown girlfriend had snared him over the summer, probably one who put out more than I did. My mother, who had her own experience of the female life-trap, had seriously warned me about the possibility of unintended pregnancy when I had my first period. (“If you screw around, Dear, you’ll probably get pregnant.”) No doubt this kept me chaste more than any religious admonitions could have done. So, because I didn’t have a steady boyfriend, I was free to take full advantage of a Junior Year in France, and that changed my life both inside and out.
Because of that year, I learned another language, I came to appreciate European history, and I experienced one of the most wonderful years of my life—wandering around Paris each afternoon after classes, skiing in the Austrian Alps during Christmas holidays, taking part in a pilgrimage to Italy with French students during the Easter holidays, and spending the summer in a work camp in Germany. That year whetted an appetite for languages and for cultural diversity that has informed the rest of my life.
Yes, after my return as something of a local international celebrity, my impossible love and I began dating again, and we eventually became engaged. When I began talking seriously about going to graduate school, his ardor cooled once more. He didn’t want to be married to an academic woman.
After he broke my heart again, I went on to graduate school and met and married another man. After a couple years of marriage, he became impossible love number three, if only because he, too, eventually wanted to keep me at home and out of academics. Still, we had a daughter, who was one of the best things that has happened in my life. She is still a source of great joy and pride, and she has produced two grandsons who are, in their turn, a source of pleasure and fun.
Liberation from a marriage that had turned sour came in the form of impossible love number four, who encouraged me to return to graduate school, despite my husband’s wishes. After my husband and I separated, I eventually had an affair with this impossible love; it lasted two or three rocky years, perhaps burdened by the guilt—his more than mine— of the marriage breakup. His area was English, in contrast to science, my main focus at the time. Through him and with him, a passion for literature and creative writing took hold of my being and remains with me still.
Graduate school in the late ’60s was a time of liberation on many fronts, so there were other loves, but only one other impossible love, and I broke his heart as much as he broke mine. He was someone so different, culturally and educationally, and yet I loved him so much, that I abandoned all preconceptions about what was important in love and in the person I loved. He became my poetic muse and social conscience, and he still often whispers in my ear. For that I am eternally grateful.
Another impossible love (are we on number six already?!) rescued me from the despair of a dreary two years of post-doctoral research in Philadelphia. But he created his own sort of despair with a type of moodiness that I never could penetrate.
Then I met my second husband in Charleston, SC, and he was the reason I stayed here, despite an intention to leave the city after two years. This has been a wonderful place to spend more than half my life, and I owe that to my husband and to the fact that we developed a settled life here, at least for a time. He eventually became impossible love number seven, but he gave me the gift of a decade of reasonably stable and happy family life, as well as two daughters, both of whom were a great pleasure as children and are mostly a reward as adults. And each of them has had children of her own. So I now have six wonderful grandchildren. My husband provided emotional support during my early career, but after the children came, and as my career consumed more and more time, he began to feel neglected, and he sought solace elsewhere. Nonetheless, he was and is a good man, and I am grateful to him for all that he has contributed to my life and to the lives of our children and grandchildren.
Since then, there have been a couple more impossible loves, neither of which blossomed into romance. But each stirred sensitivity to the world around me, as only love can do. Although I haven’t been in love for more than two decades now, the residuum of the loves I’ve experienced, their memories and their magic, vivify my life and spirit, and make me grateful that I have loved often, if sometimes painfully.
Moreover, the experiences and memories of those loves have fueled much of the writing I’ve done throughout my life, beginning with that initial diary, and continuing with poetry and then fiction. Nonfiction writing has been inspired largely by travel and by other cultural dissonances of a long and complicated life. My scientific writing reflects a fascination with objective reality that exceeds even the joys of imagination. This interest was fueled largely by my father, a brilliant and difficult man, whom I have only truly come to appreciate—even to love—since his death.
I sincerely thank the men I’ve loved who have broken my heart—and also those who haven’t.
Humans are hardwired to survive heartbreak