If you keep wondering 'Where is love in my life?' Anita Brookner (Undue Influence) knew: 'love was on offer to those who knew how to deal with it.'
If the criterion for 'knowing how to deal with it' is that you must have experienced true love in childhood - unconditional, attentive, joyous - then I would, had I remained who I was born to be, prove a complete failure. People who claim to have 'no baggage' don't know what they are talking about. They merely mean: no wife or husband, no children, no wooden leg, nothing that shows. But if we have come to realise that we learn soon after birth the principles of love inherent to our family, then we come to that first meeting with a potential mate laden with unseen gifts or crippled with incompleteness if not seeping wounds.
For my mother, love was imbued with need; for my father, it seemed a distant attachment of sorts, he didn't seem too sure, and soon came to spoil it. My sister and I learnt practically from the breast that 'love' is needy, anxious, conditional, demanding and finite. I came to understand that the kind of loving I had learnt was possibly crippling and abhorrent to others, because it was incoherent, damaged, and consequently harmful. Hence a rich history of wrong choices and heartaches. I got a great deal better over the decades though. I have also learnt that I mustn't necessarily sacrifice my well-being to other's.
I never used to think I had a right to be happy, so much did childhood feel like a slow death. Happiness always seemed such a fleeting grace, something granted rather than acquired, even less deserved. Aware of the haphazardness of its delivery, my aims were elsewhere, and although I certainly sought love out, I never really assumed it should make me happy, examples were everywhere. I knew from books what real life could be like; I thought I knew. In my early teens, having read Jack London, love took the shape of a tall man in a lumberjack shirt standing in the doorway of our humble abode, after a days hunting, crowned by the light behind him. Childhood planted inaccessible dreams in my head: between father, who was sad in a quiet but stern way and mother's poorly buried anger, the anxiety of growing up was placated by books and a friendly teacher's support. Among the vignettes in my head, I still have a vivid memory of that glorious young couple: I used to lean at our kitchen window, staring out at the road outside our house for signs of another life, and I often saw them, cycling side by side, his arm always around her waist or shoulders, smiling, chatting, him with his dark wavy hair and her with her sweet blue eyes and shoulder length blond curls. They seemed to have a halo around them. The image left me disconcerted, wistful. Another is of my mother coming home one afternoon, having had tea with a new acquaintance, the wife of a writer who had a house in the hills nearby. She came back excited, at once elated and thoughtful: 'do you know what she told me about her husband? "He is my friend, my son, my brother and my lover...." Isn't that wonderful? It's the most beautiful thing...' She was silent after that. Maybe it was just for other people...
Two's Company: Love Again, A Woman's Journey by Helene Pascal