Recently, we attended a going-away party for some friends who are moving to Europe. One of the guests arrived a bit late, along with her husband and daughter. She also brought her 83-year old mother, Evelyn , who was the chronological outlier among the crowd of 30 to 50 year-olds and their kids. As the children played and the younger adults socialized I made eye contact with Evelyn, who was standing alone. She smiled back in that kindly, typical grandmotherly way, so I introduced myself. We made small talk and she mentioned how she had recently sold the house that she had lived in for more than thirty years, and how much she loved her new apartment and her granddaughter, and other things grandmothers like to talk about.
From her slight accent, it was obvious that she was born elsewhere. Eventually she revealed that she grew up on a farm in eastern Canada, in one of the maritime provinces, and that’s where our conversation took off.
I mentioned having family in Nova Scotia, and her eyes widened as she found someone who could relate to her as she talked about the beauty of the region and how she loved going back home. She asked about my family’s roots (“You must be Scottish or Irish if you have family there,” she predicted. True.) She told me all the places we should visit in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and PEI. When I asked why she left Canada to come to the U.S., she replied “I left to forget a man I was in love with.” My eyes probably widened at that point. Clearly, she had a story to tell.
She told me that when she was twenty-two, she fell in love with a student named Georgs, whose family had escaped one of the Baltic countries in 1940 just as the Soviets began their takeover. “They left their dinners warm on the table,” she said. His family eventually settled in Canada, and he later went to university to study engineering, during which time he was hired by an aluminum company in Quebec. Evelyn was working there as a nurse, and the local hospital was owned by the aluminum company, which led to their paths crossing.
“We went for a long walk, and we talked and talked. He had a pack of lifesaver candies. I asked him for one, and he said he would trade one for a kiss. I ate half the pack,” she said with a smile. She was obviously smitten, and they dated for a while. Unfortunately he didn’t feel the same way, and it deeply wounded her. She volunteered that she felt a pain like she never experienced before. I then shared some of what I learned about the research on the biology of unrequited love and how there are similarities between rejection and physical pain. “Oh, I believe it!” she said. When I asked how long it took her to get over it, she replied: “I was a walking skeleton for five years.” Five years. Love can sometimes be costly.
I told her that one of the characters in Tolstoy’s ‘Anna Karenina’ said that it might be a good idea if we could vaccinate people against love in the same way we did against small pox.  “Maybe he was right,” she said.
She later moved to the U.S. for a much-needed change and distraction, to get away from Georgs. Being a nurse, she could go anywhere she wanted because her job was always in demand, so she decided to go to California. She said that the people there were obviously different from rural eastern Canada, where she had lived her whole life up to that point. “But other things were still the same as they were back home – the moon and the stars, and the wind,” and they acted as reminders of the past and of Georgs. It seemed like she was saying there was no escape. But she found a way to live her life anyway.
Evelyn later moved to New England where she found new love and a husband, and they had a daughter together. She continued to be a very good nurse before retiring. When her daughter announced it was time to go home, Evelyn grabbed my hand and gave me another warm smile (actually, the whole conversation was one long smile). Georgs left a mark, and I think she just wanted a chance to share her story.
Xu M (2013) How Does the brain react to a romantic breakup? scientificamerican.com May 26. Link
By coincidence, this came out yesterday. Perhaps this is why romantic love can last so long.
All you need is an enzyme and six hours of cohabitation, at least in prairie voles.
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Reblogged this on Patrick F. Clarkin, Ph.D. and commented:
I was just reminiscing about Evelyn, who said to me over a year ago: “I was a walking skeleton for five years.”
It’s interesting to read a story about a woman’s experience with heartbreak. As a guy, I know it can be very difficult to get over a lost love. In my younger days, I remember being a little cynical about the topic because it seemed like many women have men waiting to take them out as soon as they become “available.” I was bitter because I felt that as a guy, I had to try harder. Looking back, I realize that I didn’t always try to get to know the women who would be a good match for me.
I think many people are cynical about love, perhaps understandably, given the potential for heartbreak. On the other hand, there’s some evidence that most people experience romantic love in a fairly consistent way, irrespective of gender, sexuality, or ethnicity. So, nobody is immune.
Nicely written. The beginning sentences, up to ‘standing alone’ would make a nice opening to any mystery novel.
The particular case is something that everybody has experienced. Not everybody will become ‘obsessed’ to such a degree. A few might become even more obsessed and this might lead to anti-social or even illegal behaviour in pursuit of an obsession. There is no right or wrong in this story (which for some reason reminds me of Titanic), but perhaps today in certain places (like Sweden) Goergs might be said to have acted ‘sexist’ in demanding a kiss for a candy ~and that might have been enough to abort the whole story and change E’s life. More than simply an example of unrequited love, this story is a beautiful example of how one second, one simple action by somebody can unwittingly change the course of life for another.
Thanks, Robert. This is a different type of writing than the one I usually do. I could have described Evelyn physically to add to the story. To me, she kind of looked like Jane Goodall.
Her life really was radically altered by Georgs. Without him, she probably would not have moved to California, and everything that came after that would not have happened. I wonder if Georgs is still alive and whether he ever knew the impact he had. I also wonder how much of the pain she experienced was his fault for rejecting her, or hers for not being able to let go sooner, or if the psychology of love itself is to blame.
And you’re right that most people have experienced something like her story, if to a lesser degree. As Helen Fisher likes to say: “nobody gets out of love alive.”
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