“I have not spent a day without loving you; I have not spent a night without embracing you; I have not so much as drunk one cup of tea without cursing the pride and ambition which force me to remain apart from the moving spirit of my life. In the midst of my duties, whether I am at the head of my army or inspecting the camps, my beloved Josephine stands alone in my heart, occupies my mind, fills my thoughts. If I am moving away from you with the speed of the Rhone torrent, it is only that I may see you again more quickly. If I rise to work in the middle of the night, it is because this may hasten by a matter of days the arrival of my sweet love. …
Napoleon to Josephine
Last night I was telling one of our daughters that after her dad proposed to me I couldn’t wait to call my sister to tell her the news. To do so, I had to use the pay phone in the hallway of the college dormitory. My husband and I met when we were in ninth grade. He sat in front of me in English class. He used to borrow pencils, pens, and paper from me. I, of course, was a good student and always prepared for class. (Did you doubt this?)
The first time he called me, my sister answered the phone, yelled that the call was for me, and because she’s my sister, she announced to the household, “It’s a boy!” Before cordless phones, much less cell phones existed, we shared a family phone that had an extra long cord that was frequently knotted and tangled. It was located on a small table in an alcove between the living room and kitchen. My boyfriend, now husband, and I spent hours talking on the phone and preventing anyone else from calling—because, yes, there was no Call Waiting either.
I think about how lovers in the past often had to endure long separations without being able to communicate, and sometimes not knowing if they would ever see each other again. When John Winthrop, first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, left for New England in 1630, his pregnant wife, Margaret did not travel with him. The couple arranged to “meet in spirit till we meet in person” on Mondays and Fridays “at five of the clock at night.” Margaret did join him in New England about a year later.
Before telephones and telegraphs, lovers could only communicate over distances by writing letters. Often they had to overcome obstacles such as the expense or scarcity of ink, quills, and paper, and the problems of getting letters over mountains, across seas, and in and out of prisons. Sometimes people had to wait months to send a letter with a traveler or a ship going to a particular destination. Moreover, many people could not read or write and had to rely on others to write or read their missives.
I value written notes and cards, and they are wonderful to reread. Yet the ability to talk quickly despite distances is wonderful–and it makes separations much easier to bear. (I’m still waiting for a Star Trek transporter device to be invented to make travel quicker.) I love getting a text from my husband or children knowing that they arrived safely somewhere. It reassures me. When my husband is away on a trip, I expect him to call me. When our daughters have important news or want to catch-up, we enjoy talking to each other.
Today, lovers who are separated can keep in touch through texts and social media, as well as by phone. They can have real-time face chats on their phones or computers. This type of rapid communication would have amazed people in the past—but if it existed earlier many of the passionate letters we read now would not exist. (What if Napoleon just sent Josephine texts? “Hey Jo, this Russia campaign is a bitch. Love ya.”) Do we perhaps take this ease of communication for granted sometimes? I don’t know. Does the ease of communication make love less profound? Does it make it easier to dismiss or erase?
I like to think that love is love, but a relationship does take work. As Ursula K. Le Guin said, ““Love doesn’t just sit there, like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; remade all the time, made new.”
(Notice how I worked food into this post. . .because I believe sharing good food is also essential to a lasting relationship.)
On this Valentine’s Day, call someone you love—spouse, child, parent, or friend—and tell them how much you value them. If it’s too late for Valentine’s, pick another time–perhaps Monday or Friday at five o’clock.