The things you learn at school set hard like concrete. You don’t know they’re buried deep in your brain, until something is said and all of a sudden – pow! – like cracking through the earth and tapping the well, out pour words or songs or facts; pure springs of knowledge you’d forgotten you knew. So it was last week when a friend was recounting a story about that quiet type of man, the one who says the words ‘I love you’ once a decade, if that. It was a bitter-sweet tale: the wife asks her husband, “why don’t you ever tell me you love me?” to which he replies, “I told you I loved you ten years ago and if I change my mind you’ll be the first to know.” On hearing it, I immediately thought of ‘Fiddler on The Roof’, a musical we put on at school in the eighties. Word-perfect, up sprung the lyrics of, ‘DoYou Love Me?’– a song performed in a reflective scene between Tevye and his wife Golde. In this case, it is Golde who is reticent to speak the words; gruffly shrugging off her husband’s questioning as neediness, a sign he might be ill. She prefers to focus on the practicalities of life rather than indulging in lovey-dovey fripperies.“Tevye: Do you love me? Golde: Do I what? Tevye: Do you love me? Golde: Do I love you? With our daughters getting married and this trouble in the town, you’re upset, you want out, go inside, go lie down. Maybe it’s indigestion. Tevye: Golde, I’m asking you a question. Do you love me? Golde: You’re a fool!” And on they go: he pushing for an answer; she talking about all she does to keep the engine of the household well-oiled, with ‘I love you’ at the bottom of her list of priorities, and then some. Eventually she concedes: “Golde: I suppose I do. Tevye: And I suppose I love you, too. Together: It doesn’t change a thing, but even so, After twenty-five years, it’s nice to know.”
It is nice to know. Some people need to be told, some people like to be told, and some people will understand and accept that ‘I suppose I do’ is as deep and profound as statement of devotion as they are going to get, and it’s enough for them. For them, actions speak louder than words. There is no right or wrong, but if words are your kindling, then surely there are none more romantic and powerful than Cathy speaking of Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights: “He’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same” …… “my love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath.” For Cathy, love turned into a form of madness, for Golde it is a solid unpronounceable fact and, as sure as the sun rises and sets, it needs no acknowledgement. Alexander McCall Smith writes of love bringing “surprise, joy, despair and, occasionally, perfect happiness.” Speaking of love arriving by surprise, I came across the most charming note in the letters page of today’s Times as I was leafing through it on the train to York this morning. Under the title, ‘Labour of Love’, Barbara Scott of Gourock, Renfrewshire had, with delicious understatement, penned the following letter to the editor: “Sir, An old boyfriend “rediscovered” me after 27 years of writing, including to 760 Barbara Ann Scotts on Facebook, the University of Glasgow, local councils, the General Medical Council, the British Medical Association and hospitals and health centres in the Glasgow area without success. He found me within five minutes after being told about LinkedIn. The least I could do was to marry him.” I do hope he is the wordy-type.
How Do I Love Thee? Elizabeth Barrett Browning
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints.
I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.