“Come to the door my pretty one. Put on your rings and precious things. Hide all your tears as best you can, try to recall what use to be.” ~Gordon Lightfoot, “Love’s Return”
I sat on the porch swing tonight watching the rain pour down on our poor dried-up lawn. We’ve been in a severe drought for several years now. Spring often starts out relatively green and fragrant, the mountain laurels heavy with purple blossoms, the red bud’s perky show of pinkish red flowers, the Mexican plum near my front door welcomes me home with a sweet aromatic bouquet. But soon the leaves fade to grayish-green, the lawns remain spotty, and everything seems to turn to dirt brown long before mid-summer with the cicadas buzzing in the trees and the sun sizzling the day into a baked emptiness.
As I softly swayed on the swing tonight, watching the rain roll off the roof, hovering slightly when the cold wind picked up and blew the downpour near, a bittersweet memory emerged of a porch-swing on a rainy evening long ago, though the memory was as clear as a bright blue-skied day.
I was in McKeesport, Pennsylvania with my boyfriend’s family, visiting his Croatian grandmother in her quiet little neighborhood of 1940s brick homes, tree-lined streets, manicured lawns, little pocket parks of swings and merry-go-rounds; the family neighborhood of steelworkers and immigrants who had prospered and stayed on. His widowed grandmother made the best apple strudel I was ever to have, and moved around her house of many up and down staircases with ease and surety; a soft-footed ‘angel of the house,’ as Virginia Woolf would have observed.
My boyfriend and I were young, only 18 and 16 years old, but old-fashion and certain that ‘we’ were meant for each other. We found ourselves sitting on his grandma’s porch swing, high above the street and rich green lawn, watching a thunderstorm shower this old eastern town with a hardy spring rain. We were happy to be away from the kin-folk, at last alone to soak up the drama of the rain storm and the sweetness of our young love.
He was everything to me, as I was everything to him. Not unlike other first time loves, we couldn’t get enough of each other. We, of course, lived by the moral foundations of our times, and weren’t about to blatantly make-out or get carried away on his grandma’s porch, but we found delight in the subtle exchange of little kisses, holding hands, and my leaning firm against his arm as I curled up closer to him with every thunder clap and spark of lightening.
It was simply a sweet moment. The air was rich with lilacs and lily of the valley and the fresh aroma of rain-cleaned streets with the swish of cars passing by. We didn’t talk much on that swing, but we seemed dreamily in the same place. We were intoxicated for the first time on love’s sweet promise and both seemed happily anxious about what the future had in store. I loved the scent of his skin, a scent that every now and then I will encounter on a young man passing by, or even my own son, of sweat and denim, Carhartt jackets and leather boots. He was not a boy of words, but he made it clear that he loved my bright eyes and rosy lips, and the feel of my little hand in his. That was enough for me, and I thought I could live on that complete feeling for the rest of my life.
But life had other things in store.
We were to marry four years later, but little did we know that we did not have the resolve to move through the challenges of life together. Perhaps we were too young and hadn’t really found out ‘who we were’ before we pledged our hearts to each other, but the road led us to faraway places and unforeseen sadness that our love simply could not shoulder. After nine years of marriage it was officially dissolved, and I never saw him again.
Forty-four years have gone by. New loves, new places, many houses, marriage, babies, and grown children, and yet something as simple as a rainy night sitting on the porch swing transported me back to that place where I once felt completely loved and cherished, full of hope and possibilities. It has been so long since I’ve felt any of those feelings, that it was easy to rock in that image, to see it all again through the sheets of pouring rain, and to recall the warmth of an innocent time.
I don’t pine for him anymore, though I did for many years. He went his way and found what he was looking for, and for better or worse, I found my way in the world as well. But, I can’t help but wonder, maybe hope, that on some stormy night, when he, now gray and showing the years on his face, finds himself sitting on his porch watching the rain, that he might think of me in passing and remember how much we once loved each other.
I am surrounded by young people these days, all holding hands, gazing at each other with adoration and desire, happily making their plans and enjoying this time in their youth. It’s a joyful time, as it should be. And yet I feel compelled to tell them secrets; secrets about love and how it can go right or wrong.
For love can be like the rain. It can be fickle. It can come in with gusto, be exhilarating, rolling and pounding away on your emotions like a thundering storm. Or it can be torrential, flooding your thoughts and overwhelming you until you feel like you are drowning and need to save yourself. Or it can be a soft, constant shower, drenching you slowly with a gentle watering of pleasure and consistent nurturing.
But love, like the rain, can slow down, tapper off, come to a slow pensive drip off the house you built together and …stop, as well. And like the trees and plants in your garden, it can dry-up for lack of watering and subsidence. Love needs to be refreshed; carefully cultivate and gently re-planted, if need be, with the things that make it grow and blossom. Love does not continue on its own, and once it has been neglected long enough, it is like a plant that has not been nurtured, it’s stem gnarled and ugly, dried to a crisp, it’s roots detached; it most likely will not come back to life again.
It is unfortunate for some of us, now older and wiser with broken hearts that have been glued back together, that we should be so aware of this little secret about love when it is, well, almost too late. But perhaps, if the young are listening and watching carefully, they will learn from those of us who have lost. Love is not a stagnant emotion. If it is to remain alive, love must flow and breathe and be born again and again. Lovers must be vigilant. They need to watch their partners like a mother watches a child; know what it needs before it asks. They need to give each other space to grow, affection that never turns away, and words that produce more smiles than tears. Sometimes, in the depth of trouble and disappointment, that will be hard, almost impossible. But, do it anyway. Not because some piece of paper tells you that you must lawfully bind yourself to this person, or your church says your love was sanctioned by God. Love begets love. This is a simple truth that is so easily tossed aside by pride and resentment. Don’t let the flower of your youth dry up for lack of love. Water it. Let it flow in sheets of passionate down pours or gentle, consistent showers, but let it come. A drought isn’t pretty. It’s a painful slow death from want and thirst. If not for the rain, there would be no hope of life, or love’s longing to stay alive. Do it to hold on to the love you once had. That young love that sat sweetly on a porch swing watching the rain, hand-in-hand, with tender kisses between the threatening claps of thunder.
My swing is empty, the rain has stopped, yet my memories of love have taught me well. There is always hope for showers again tomorrow, a quenching of thirst after a long drought, a green garden and fruitful boughs and the promise, with nurturing, of sweet love’s return…and, maybe, a piece of apple strudel shared from a grandma’s old recipe box, on some soft rainy day.