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