A Lifetime of Love Letters, One at a Time

                                     October 1994
Dearest E,

While walking up the stairs tonight I was forcefully struck by what a precious gift life is, how good it all is and how much our love for each other is the source of the goodness. How precious and sweet! How thankful I am for it all and especially for your love. Sleep well.
   Love into the next several lifetimes,

                                                    V

***

Dearest Vic,

I have a thick manila folder in an upstairs desk stuffed with love letters from you. They begin in 1966 and continue on until your death in 2008. I also kept little notes you left on the kitchen counter or dining room table or tucked in my suitcase under clothing when I traveled. You weren’t afraid to end a note with a heart.

I’ve only read a few since you died. I want to put them in order and read them all, but it’s a tear-filled journey. Reading one today brings me to my knees. I’ve created a new life as we both trusted I would, but right now it feels fragile. Cochlear implant surgery brings better hearing but also fatigue, vulnerability, and renewed grief. Add to that the alarming political situation and climate change.

I want to lean into your body, not just my memory.

Elaine & Vic, 2006

You wrote about our love in all your books and in many articles. You wouldn’t mind if I shared your words now, but can I face the surge of longing that comes with each letter? Your words bring me to my heart where you live, but also leave me with helpless yearning for the past.

What a gift it was to be married to an Italian romantic. No one taught you to love like that with words and hugs and sweet patience that grew stronger as you grew weaker.

Can it be eleven years since I pushed the button to start the cremation fire? Can it be eleven years since I held you in exhausted arms and gave all to letting you go, not calling you back, not asking for a sign or squeeze of the hand? You were on your way to distant shores where I could not go. There would be no more love letters, except this cache written for forty years, each new to me now.

My life includes quiet grief but I focus on living in the present tense. I plan to read your letters in manageable doses of love medicine so I don’t drown in turbulent waters.

You write of being together in other lifetimes. That thought began in the late 1960s when we took psychedelic drugs and imagined earlier lives, journeys, and searches for each other. What does it look like to be with you in another lifetime? Would we recognize each other?

I don’t focus there. Instead, I try to live well now. How do I give myself the acceptance you gave me? How do I remember to cut though exasperation or frustration to love the best in myself and others? Maybe your letters will bring me to the safe harbor of love, but they feel dangerous, like a heart bomb. I hold the folder at a distance for fear of what will erupt.

Had you been a poet, you could have written these words to me:

MARRIAGE
Dan Gerber

When you are angry it’s your gentle self
I love until that’s who you are.
In any case, I can’t love this anger any more
than I can warm my heart with ice.
I go on loving your smile
til it finds its way back to your face.
(Healing the Divide: Poems of Kindness and Connection, James Crews (ed.), Green Writers Press, 2019, p. 32)

You gave me acceptance, patience for a storm to pass, and trust in my kindest self. We gave this to each other. As I read just one letter, I imagine you waiting for a smile to return to my face.

***

I highly recommend Healing the Divide, an anthology of poems edited by James Crews. The poems he included are balm for times like these or any time at all. Most in the collection are not specifically love poems, but this stood out for me. For other posts about the healing power of poetry, see Poems to Sooth a Grieving Heart. For a post about poems that guided us during the first and last years of our marriage, see Bookends of a Marriage.

28 Comments
  1. What a beautiful, heartfelt post. How you open the eyes of my heart Elaine! Thank you. You must know that the photo of your thick manila folder stuffed full of love letters, poems and notes from Vic had this poet swooning! Hmm, I’d be tempted to print and bound them all in order to find a new way to lean into love … for what better way to hold love than in one’s own hands … and one day, such a volume may also become a gift for your sons too, filled with more than 40 years of love lessons, one at a time, from their loving, romantic father!

    I hope you know that your words today float my soul up to the ceiling where it’s spinning like a swirling Sufi! Here’s the thing, all lovers are cast into roles and (I believe) were cast long before they even met … that’s how the myths work I guess as often it seems fated that our lovers end up in our hands … perhaps, lifetime after lifetime too! For more than fifty years you have loved Vic and his love I know lays deep in the drawer of your heart. Thank you so much for shining your lighted lamp of love on us! Long may you follow the path of the Heart. Love and light, Deborah.

    Ps. I will check out the poetry book, thanks for the heads-up.

    • Deborah, I’m not sure why I don’t dig into those letters. Do I really have “more important” things to do? Part of me thinks I need a letter reading retreat to stuff my heart and feelings full–and that may be where I’m headed. I don’t know if they need to be printed, but they do need to be read and taken in. Then I will know if I have a passion to do something with them. Instead, I avert my gaze. It reminds me of the years of photographs Vic took in slide form that haven’t been digitalized. They’re in eleven notebooks on my book shelf, culled and ordered and labeled by Vic. They’re also loaded with memory and family life and my personal history. I need to do some sorting and discarding, but mostly putting them in little boxes for the digital process. Maybe this is the year.

      It all feels a bit too hot to handle, too much about then rather than being with and fostering what’s now. I haven’t been shy about grief, but there’s part of me that holds back from drowning in the past. I’m not sure why. Is it self-revelation and discovery instead of drowning? Marion Woodman would agree with you. “Do It!” I can hear her saying it. Thank you, Deborah. You always help me get things straight.

  2. I can barely read your blog. It is heart wrenching. “I long to lean into your body, not just my memory”. I feel the empty space. I feel the aloneness.
    Most all of the people who have died in my life, with a few exceptions have been old. And although I miss them the timing seemed ok.
    You have turned grief into writing, and your writing into art. And art which moves people is a cultural gift. A gem for us all.
    Even in your understandable resistance to reading his letters, you face them. I so admire your willingness to articulate the winds of discomfort.
    What a remarkable trove. Bless his Italian romantic self.

    • Lauren, no doubt my heart is wrenched these days. My first thought on reading your comment is your sister Devon was younger than Vic when she died. They were both full of laughter and life.
      With Vic, hard as it was, the timing seemed OK. His body was not livable and I was young enough to create a new life. As I watched the older couples in the oncology waiting rooms, I knew it was harder for them. It just hurts, but the timing was right.
      I see that in writing this and bringing all my feelings to the surface, I may be preparing to dig into those letters. Yes, bless his romantic loving heart.

  3. Reading between the lines, I detect that you know you are blessed among women to be married to an Italian romantic, a brilliant man who has been able to express passion, deep and strong. I did the math and that’s 42 years of letters and love notes – wow! I sit in awe as I type this, knowing how rare an occurrence such devotion is, even in good marriages.

    As you mention, those heart bombs are too powerful to read all at once. And you have wisely opted to read these “potent containers of love medicine” in small doses. You’ve been way too busy to process this before. Now you can absorb the pain with the love a little at a time. Just lean into this love you have been granted. (I sound directive, but you know I mean well.)

    Before our marriage, Cliff and I got to know each other through letters, weekly at first, then daily after we announced our engagement with a brief interval of “nothing” when we broke up for a few months. What we have are the remnants of letters that have survived a flooded garage during a hurricane. I married a German-boy artist, who has made cards for me over the years, some of which I’ve shared on my blog.

    One of us will leave the other; we have discussed this. The separation will be tortuous, will cause a physical and emotional wrenching. But we too will have tokens of our love to cherish. Oh, my gosh, Elaine, what a post. You are a courageous woman. Read that “coeur” Old French = heart.

    • Thank you, Marian. I need a little direction and encouragement and don’t mind at all. I seem to be preparing myself to dive in, even deeper. Or maybe I’ll write about the ridiculous number of Monarch caterpillars on my back porch (~60, but 10 to go to a friend this evening and others promised). I love their calm.
      I’m glad you have some remnants of those love letters (the flood must have been devastating). I know a few of those loving and whimsical cards drawn and lettered by your artist love. You have a long strong marriage, too.
      Although I wrote a draft of this piece a month ago, I woke up this morning thinking, “Elaine, what have you done?” Too exposed, too much. That critical voice doesn’t stop telling me to get it together, but there’s nothing more precious in my life than what I shared with Vic. Here I am exposing the precious heart. Thank you for calling it courage and bringing me back to “heart.”

      • I wanted to add that the first photo of Vic looks like a photo of the late John Kennedy, Jr.. I hope you take that as a compliment. I like your daring to show your vulnerability; in my opinion, you have not exposed too much. You love was real and precious. The world needs to know that!

        • Yes, a complement. I see the resemblance. Vic had something international in his face–in Italy (his parents were both Italian, but his father had changed his name as a teenager), people spoke Italian to Vic, assuming he was a native. In Mexico, they assumed he was Mexican. In Israel, they thought he belonged to their country. And on it went, especially for Mediterranean countries. I loved the comment from an Italian baritone who was giving a concert in our area. He and Vic were introduced. “What are you doing with a name like Mansfield?” the singer said with a wonderful Italian accent. “You have the map of Italy written on your face.” We thought of changing our name to Vic’s father’s given name, but Vic’s father wasn’t part of Vic’s life and the few memories of him were horrendous. So we stuck with Mansfield.

  4. I love that photo at the top–it’s so full of pure enjoyment. How amazing that you have so many love notes and letters and yes, how that sweetness breaks the heart. I can see why you will go slowly.

    • I loved that photo, too, Harriet–and I hadn’t used it before. Vic had a loquacious tongue and pen (like me), so he wrote letters and notes. During his illness, he wrote long middle-of-the-night letters to our teacher Anthony, so I have those, too. I’ll go slowly, but there’s a sense that it’s time to dig into some of these old stories and images. First, and until September, I have to check on the Monarch caterpillars to see if one quiet one has started eating again. It will. Some are devouring everything in sight and will soon make chrysalises for a long transformative rest.

      • That’s quite amazing, that Vic wrote to Anthony during his illness. I hope he was feeling some closeness to his teacher.

        • Oh, Harriet! I’m teary eyed remembering this. After that night of a dozen heart attacks, Vic was more traumatized than any other time during his illness. I reminded him he knew how to do Active Imagination. He wrote letters to our teacher Anthony, often about exhaustion, fear, and suffering, but also gratitude, connection, and love. The last letter was written a week before Vic died. The journal is still in a drawer in the room where Vic tried to rest but couldn’t because of coughing. Yes, he felt very close to Anthony in those last years.

  5. It’s no wonder the two of you got together Elaine and that your marriage lasted the way it did only to be uprooted by his death. One has to wonder at what it all means, that you were left behind to care for his mother. Maybe Vic’s letters will cause something to erupt within but they will continue to be balm for your soul –

    I imagine that reading letters from a loved one who is no longer alive, would be bitter sweet. I have drawers full of letters from my husband when he was undergoing further training in the UK and I was here in SA. We were not married at that stage. Letters from my parents, a few friends, postcards, other love letters – they’re all sorted, but still to re-read. I look forward to time to read them – a trip down memory lane, even if uncomfortable feelings or emotions are evoked –

    • Susan, I think the best thing we did to make sure our marriage worked was lots of psychological work and sharing, right from the beginning. We learned to be interested in each other’s feelings and responses and want to understand. We drove our sons a little nuts with wanting to talk things through when they broke the rules, but they appreciate that approach now. And, yes, his romanticism and my love of that sweet affirmation. As I’ve said before, he didn’t ask me to take care of his mother, but I knew it was my job to take on. She was so unlike him, except in looks and sense of humor. I promise to read a few letters if you promise to read a few letters. We’ll compare our reactions which will surely be both love and grief.

  6. The letters we saved from our loved ones. They have such power to touch the deepest parts of us, both then and now.

    • I agree, Mark. My mother saved all the letters I wrote her. I learned how I always like to “process” feelings, even when I was 18. Vic didn’t save my letters, but he saved the photographic images of our life.

  7. What a beautiful post. Thank you for sharing it with us.

  8. I met my son for coffee this morning. I said I had a pile of photos for him and some correspondence and other stuff of his, including a dream from a long time ago. He reminded me that I gave him letters (a while back) from him while he was at boarding school for his senior years. He said that he’d put them away, that he’d starting reading them but they upset him a bit – in that he would write to us that all was fine etc but meanwhile he was actually not a happy chap in his first years as a boarder. I said to Mike to maybe check them out again – and I’ll still give him what I’ve still got. It reminded me of a few years back when I gave my sister a pile of letters from a long time ago – from my mother to me expressing her concern about her and her unhappy marriage … my sister was very emotional. These trips down memory lane can be painfully bitter-sweet …

    Much sorting I have to do of letters ,photographs, drawings and cards my sons made when they were boys and I don’t know what else … once done, I’m imagining re-looking at them with the family …

    Thank you Elaine for sharing this was us ..

    • I’m glad I have you thinking about old letters, Susan. My mother saved letters I wrote her when she was in Europe or Asia during my college years. I was openly angry and resentful and abandoned. I’m glad she saved the letters. I’ve never been good at hiding my feelings. You may have a treasure of sparks for writing and self-exploration in those letters you’re soon to read.

  9. Elaine, you’re a warrior woman of love. I don’t know how you managed to complete this post, as I felt my heartstrings ripping just reading it, as I am grateful I haven’t lived it. Though I’ve lost too many loved ones in my life, and have had my share of scares with my own husband thus far, I can’t even begin to conceive what my life would be without him. Thank you for sharing your raw and honest heart with us. <3

    • You know why I haven’t read all those letters. Each one is loaded with love, and so grief. I’m glad your husband is hanging in there, Debby. He’s a tough one and I know you do a lot to help him through the challenges.

  10. OMG, Elaine. Forty years of poems and love letters. I can’t imagine. But I definitely understand how reading even a single one of them is like getting blasted by a “love bomb.” I’m looking forward to getting back to my manuscript sometime soon, as it is my love-bomb. It’s like finding Marika alive again, writing her songs and experiencing how cancer affects her life, and then going through all the treatments and hospitalizations, until we get to the point where I finally know she is not going to make it. I relive all the heartbreak and joys, just reading her poems along with my narrative of our horrendously beautiful journey together through the wilds of cancer. I love those tears at the end of the story. I realize they’re tears for myself as much as for her. And that’s okay by me.

    • I get it, Robin. You have exquisite written gifts from your daughter and you’ve written about those letters in such a poignant way. I think you have an important story to get out to the world. Vic’s letters are only rarely about being sick and those were emails or notes written during his last two years. He grappled with having cancer in middle-of-the-night journals, so I have those, too. They aren’t addressed to me but to Spiritual Teachers and to Fear. Yes, tears for ourselves and the innocence and plans that died along with them. I hope you return to your unique story.

  11. Oh, Elaine, this is so beautiful and heart wrenching, as others have written. The bravery of humans to open to such a love as you and Vic shared knowing that there is only one way for it to end just astonishes me. Thank you for “shining your lighted lamp of love” (in Deborah’s words) for those of us who will have to navigate this territory one day–for showing us that it is possible to live with “quiet grief” and still “focus on living in the present tense.”

    • Thank you, Anne. Of course, deep committed love isn’t all joy and lack of conflict. We knew how to disagree, too, and worked on that part of relationship from the beginning, including fear of abandonment early on. I’ll always be grateful for reading Jung but even more for those wild California encounter groups that helped us learn to say hard true things. As I’ve written elsewhere, Vic called me his “worthy adversary.” In the mix of having egos, our connection was deep and we trusted each other to stay and work through the hard times. I’m thinking a lot about grief these days, I believe because of climate news, political horrors, racism raising its ugly head, my own process of aging and learning to hear again, etc. Sometimes I think if we’re not aware of grief, we’re not paying attention to life. It’s everywhere, but so is love.

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