How my lonely heart aches

We were going through a bunch of boxes, mostly throwing stuff away, and I came upon a trove of love letters. It wasn’t exactly a surprise — I had been lugging it around, house to house, town to town, marriage to marriage, for over 50 years — but this was the first time I actually sat down and read them all again. They were written to me over the course of four years by three different girls who were, serially, my girlfriends.

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I got letters

I shall withhold their names. They are all 70+ now; one or more could be dead.  I do not wish to cause them embarrassment. I’ll call them Lew (as she sometimes signed her letters), Me (as she often signed her letters), and Flo (as she never signed her letters). Last I heard, Flo was in Hawaii (she sent me as nice shirt), Lew was in Seattle and Me was in Walnut Creek. But that was a while ago.

The letters gave off a deep erotic charge. That’s a little creepy — these are letters written from 1957 to  1961 by teenage girls — but the heart knows what the heart knows. The handwriting made me grow lightheaded. On one occasion, Me put a spot of perfume on one page; I imagined I could still smell it.

For age-appropriate music, listen to this.

Their personalities came through in the letters; all of them were heartbreakingly unguarded as they wrote.  Me was bubbly and gossipy; Flo was straightforward and sunny; Lew was reserved, intense and smart. I’m giving Lew three adjectives, because she wrote the best and longest letters. I fell in love with all three of them again, but mostly I fell in love with Lew.

The letters brought back many poignant and hilarious moments, none of which I will share with you.

The letters were written on many kinds of paper, from personalized stationery (Flo) to plain white bond (Lew) to weird translucent onionskin (all three). The latter was a fad of the time; its illegibility was perhaps part of its allure.

The content was standard issue genteel teenager: gossip (including inevitable discussions of who liked whom), music, irritating parents, exaggerated boredom, plus delicate excursions into flattery, self-presentation, and various shades of affection (“I’m in love with you, but I don’t love you”) .  Several were even SWAK (ask your parents).

For most of the period these letters were written, I was at a private boarding school; telephone calls were limited, and f2f contact was forbidden. Therefore, I needed words to retain the relationship, furious letters designed to amuse, seduce, flatter and show my whole heart to the person at the other mailbox. I have some notion of what my letters were like from the reactions to them: I believe I was needy and hyperbolic. But also, apparently, appealing: Two of the love affairs ended because of geographical considerations, the other because I ended it.

I dumped Me. I feel bad about it now.

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This is just a mood photo; no actual human beings are involved

I say “love affairs,” but the carnal part of things were limited to prolonged kissing and outside-the-clothes rubbing, usually in parked cars in exurban cul-de-sacs. No orgasms were attempted in the making of this movie. None of it felt chaste — it was just four hours of kissing, but oh, what kissing. The culture was restricted, but the human beings in it were still curious about what human beings are curious about. Puritanism is such a crock.

There were some surprises. This paragraph, from a Lew letter dated October 23, 1960: “As for the car, it is taken care of. Dad was out of town all last week, so it was in the shop then and is now fixed. It seems. however, that it will be quite expensive, since it had to have body work done. A new side and front fender had to be put on, and I don’t know what else. Dad will probably write to you and/or your mother about it.”

I have no memory of this. I wrecked a car, really? Did I hit something? Did Dad ever write me? Second: Ain’t it nice to be rich? I went on scholarship to private schools; the kids were rich except for me. Basically, I dated rich girls because that’s the pond I was fishing in. Not mansions-and-servants rich, but rich enough. Let’s-sneak-the-wrecked-car-by-Dad rich, anyway.

I could tell you more about Lew’s father (burdened by a secret sorrow), just from the letters. Also about Me’s father (strict) and Flo’s sister (athletic). None of these people left any other dent on history; this may be one of the last records of their existence.  And, for that matter, one of the earliest records of mine.

Memory is ephemeral. Things that seemed so solid at the time fade into impermanence and invisibility. I have photographs of places I have visited, certificates of ceremonies I have attended, but without the augmentation of memory, they are only of interest to clothing historians of the mid-20th century, or writers of scholarly slang etymologies. Only I am interested in these letters; if I keep them until I die, my daughters will agree without comment to deep-six them. I know they will, because I did the same thing with a lot of mother’s stuff.

And why not? As has been frequently said: 100 years, all new people. Each generation has its own history, its own heroes, its own love affairs. So much joy, so much suffering, only to be supplanted by  other triumphs, other tragedies.  Bathing in nostalgia is fun, particularly when you realize that you’re in a tub reserved exclusively for your use. The thrill of these artifacts is not transferable; use them or lose them, or they will lose you.

But new memories can be added.  Some decades after these letters were written, Lew and I met again. She was in town, and I took her to the Hayes Street Grill, my own little memory palace. It’s a meeting that neither of us were sure we wanted, but we seized the moment. We were uncomfortable at first, sipping water and studying the menu.

But then we started to talk. We discovered that we had thought a lot of the same thoughts over the past 30 years. We discovered ways to make each other laugh, and those ways seemed familiar. We discovered that we liked each other, and that we approved of the people each other had become. It was just, you know, really great. Maybe we weren’t so dopey back then after all.

OK, I know what you want. You’ve been wanting it for some time now. You want to know what they looked like, the long ago gallery of America’s sweethearts. Very well:

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Me and Lew

 

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Flo’s the wandering minstrel, I’m the exiled prince

 Now go take your own bath. You’re never too old for heartbreak.

 

 Photography by Tracy Johnston

General competence by Michelle “She hasn’t heard my latest idea yet” Mizera

 

 

 

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39 thoughts on “How my lonely heart aches

  1. Dear Jon, whom I feel I know but of course don’t (although we did meet once at the Bay Area Book Festival in days of yore), thank you so much for these blog posts. I am enjoying your freer (more free?) voice and insights and extreme silliness and equally intense seriousness. We are about the same age, so similar experiences although also different. I’m just so dang glad you’re still writing and I get to read it. Really, thanks.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I know exactly where my boxes are. They have all my correspondences from many years, but the only letters I expect I will care about are the letters like these. I have a date with myself to read them one day. Of course, if I get hit by a bus, it might not happen. But they’re on the list.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. P.S.: Would it be difficult to incorporate a “Edit within five minutes” function? ‘S okay if that’s too hard; I just will have to make a note to self to carefully re-read for form and content before clicking “post comment.” (Nothing I want to change in the last post, but I just know, you know, me. (Me, not Me.)

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  4. And this. Exchange dances with girls’
    schools of similar persuasion. Lined up single file, trying to figure out who you had been paired with for a high percentage of your dance card. The biggest question: who would be paired with Tricia Nixon.

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    1. Exchange dances! I did those. In fact, that photo of me among the letters was at an exchange dance. And Marlborough was one of the schools we exchanged it, and lo, Lew was a student there. I had no access to Tricia Nixon, however.

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  5. Wonderful piece. And good for you for not dilating on the impossibility of such a cache’s surviving the age of the iphone and the text message. Restraint, thy name is Jon C.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Wonderful piece! Having just “retired” I am going thru old boxes of stuff too, and especially am loving the old letters. So evocative of the evanescent past! So reminding of the richness of living and relationships. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. jaycee, hizownself… A bummer that keeps on happening. It happened again this morning. I turned to the back of the Datebook section, and alas, no Jon Carroll. I’m still not over it, Dude! When I would recommend you to my peeps, I would always tell them that you write like I think. No Caen, no McCabe, and now no Carroll… waaaaahhhhh, sniff Appreciate this blog of yours, but brunch just ain’t the same without you. signed: jayell, your fanboy

    Ram Tzu knows this. .. You are perfect. Your every defect is perfectly defined. Your every blemish is perfectly placed. Your every absurd action is perfectly timed. Only God could make something this ridiculous…Work . (my mantra that I’m totally willing to share)

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  8. Interesting post. It caused me to google an old flame. Her husband (who beat me out 53 years ago) died a few years back. Hmmmm.

    Sent from my iPad

    >

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  9. Thank you for sharing this, Jon.
    After my mother died, I spent a lot of time purging and managed to get rid of boxes of photos, but had some trouble with tossing old letters. Such memories! I am never nostalgic, so clinging is unusual for me.
    As I read the letters from my college years (letters on pa per with leaky Bic pens and clunky electric typewriters back then), I was transported to the young Me that I was, because, like you, I had to imagine what letters I sent to elicit the responses. I felt embarrassed too. What a self conscious mess I was!
    I was blessed with very witty friends, I must say. One became a notable humorist for papers and magazines, imagine that! What a joy to re-read those missives again.

    The college boyfriend who I “turned gay” (sigh, the first of many) was a brilliant letter writer. Funny, poetic….and he really did love me! He was also the high watermark of all men I have ever met, so that is a bit sad.
    After reading his letters, I gave him a call. We met up last autumn after 25 years and…we wept. And we laughed a lot. We still had such love! I so missed my old friend. We plan to meet again, at least once a year. (Add a smiley face here)

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Great post, Jon — “Love Letters in the Sand,” indeed. I wasn’t much of a writer back then, and my high school flame (junior and senior years, Class of ’68) was always there, so no need for letters until she went far away to college — which wasn’t much fun for either of us. I have no idea if those missives still exist, which means they probably don’t.

    During one of her periodic cleaning frenzies of our mom’s house, my sister unearthed a yearbook from 1968, an oddly stiff, archaic document populated mostly by very young people I never really knew. A small circle of close friends, but that’s about it… and of course, Linda. Wading through a sea of photographs with “Have a great summer!” scrawled across those fresh young faces, I finally came to hers — and the years vanished in an instant. Those eyes, that coy little smile, the delicate curve of her neck…

    Her salutation was brief and to the point: “Love Always.”

    Oh Sweet Jesus, talk about a “deep erotic charge.” Forty-eight years later, and the magic still smolders — if only in my own imagination.

    She married, I didn’t. The road not taken.

    So it goes…

    Liked by 2 people

  11. So wonderful, and real and as always, well done.
    I had a steamy outside clothing affair with a San Diego girl.in Wyoming. Later that year I wrote her. No answer. Again…No dice. So the only thing to do was to drive to San Diego (National City Really) and
    pledge my love in person. It did not turn out well. Indefference will have to do. A long ride back to Altadena. And, one of many lessons learned.

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  12. Hi Jon,

    After reading your lonely heart blog, I had to send you this photo of Tom Klaber (who recently passed away) and me on our wedding day in 1973. Back in the early days of our relationship, we couldn’t be in a room together without touching each other, which always made his sister and mother gag. I remember making him a Valentine’s Day card, painting a heart on fire, saying “My heart forever burning, my love, in your light.” Sappy or not, these are great memories.

    Thanks,

    Karen

    ~~

    Karen Klaber | Founder & Publisher

    THE East Bay MONTHLY

    direct: 510/658-4042 | cell: 510/407-6862

    kklaber@themonthly.com | TheMonthly.com

    Oakland Magazine & Alameda Magazine & Bay Woof

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  13. After my father died, his widow/my friend Donna sent me a folio of his letters to his older sister, written between 1942 and 1947. In that lustrum, Dad/Norman wrote with astonishing frankness to his sister Eleanor about his sexual conquests (Santa sent me a WAC for Christmas!), his acne, his disdain for his fellow Army recruits (ignorant sallow fellows from all over the South, not a couth among them), and then. . .Donna discretely removed every letter from mid-1944 to October 1946, during which interlude Norman met and conquered Pearl, which resulted in me, in November 1945. But I know nothing about what he wrote to Eleanor concerning these events. In this epistolary gap of 2 years, my parents met, courted, copulated, got pregnant, married, and bore me. How did that 20 year old man feel, what did he think, what did he write to his sister? I don’t know. After July 1944, the next letter in the folio is dated March 1947 and describes the pain I was suffering from thrush, an oral infection common in babies. I have never had the courage to ask Donna for those missing letters. I expect that she purged them because she thought that reading them would cause me pain. That is probably true.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Update – Back in Virginia, Donna reads Jon Carroll. Donna saw this post and my comment. Donna wrote to me and explained that it was either Eleanor or Eleanor’s daughter who removed those letters before sending them to Donna, who sent them to me. Donna was sorry I had wondered all these years. . Jon, thank you. Such a cyberfamily.

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  14. Alas! I burned all the letters from previous boyfriends the night before I married my (now-ex and now-dead) husband. It seemed like the properly symbolic act at the time, but what a waste!

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  15. Pale blue Crane stationary, the sheer crinkly kind. Written in deep blue ink in the familiar crabbed hand of my gauche swain. Tied with a white satin ribbon even. I don’t have to even slide a page from the envelope to feel the heat generated by the words on the page.

    My daughter will not be shocked when the day finally comes that she must clean out the drawer they have (thus far) lived in all these years. She has a lifetime already of rolling her eyes at her sometimes overly amourous parents…

    She will recognized that painstaking cursive as well. Her father has written her often over the years, usually when he and I are traveling.

    Those letters were penned begining in 1978… and I suspect strongly that the distant day will come when she finds a matching packet, more misellaneous in medium, paper and ink, changing with my mood, tucked somewhere in one of his drawers.

    You motivate me to curl up somewhere and re read them. Or not. The ardent, graphic nature of them might, refreshed, cause me to reconsider leaving them to be found.

    And I would so miss the occasional sensation of my fingers brushing over them while hunting for a slip…

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  16. You brought back so many memories of letters written, with SWAK on the back of the envelopes. I have saved one written to me in high school that was a personalized version of “Annabel Lee”. Fifty-five years later, it could still make me cry.

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  17. Thank goodness your beautiful prose can take us back to those magical high school days when all the emotions and hormones of that turbulent time were shaping us. Love this! Thank you, thank you, thank you….

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  18. Loved this particularly. I personally like all the old stuff. Your use of a bath tub to describe one’s personal past and attachments was perfect. I wish I still had the many pages of letters written to me at age 15-16 by my first boyfriend, years older than I from cross country as he attended Harvard. Boy he loved me. The relationship was mostly secret till I turned 17. He was my girl friend’s older brother, so in summer and at Christmas, that was my excuse to be able to see him. We got engaged, my mother insisting that he support me going to college (he did), but I broke it off after HS graduation. It broke his heart badly. Thanks for the story Jon. Great young picture!

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