In New York in the nineteen-forties there was a young woman working in New York Central Library. They had a basement for books and there was a small cafeteria for employees down there, too. One day this woman was going for lunch with a friend and she walked in the door and saw across the room a man named Alan. He was sitting eating and she thought ‘I love this man, I want to know him’. Later she saw him talking to someone who worked in her department and invited her colleague to come to something ‘and bring your friend’.
She was my grandmother, he was my grandfather. I never met him, he died a long, long time before I was born. My grandmother divorced him in the fifties, moved across the Atlantic with two children and found a job nannying. She later found a house and petitioned an Oxford Don to get the mortgage lowered, so she could afford it, which he did for her. She is an incredible woman for so many reasons, and is one of my best friends. She’s someone I can talk to, and that’s rare enough to treasure.
The story about how she met my grandfather came out on Friday, at lunch. I can’t remember what the conversation was, but it came round to love and marriages. She was explaining how falling in love, being in love and being married are different things. She says falling in love was a physical reaction, that you can’t eat or sleep or think about anything except them, that you can’t imagine living without them. The rest of the conversation is irrelevant. She told me how much she loved Alan, and how he loved her in some way, even after they separated. I always thought she was courageous, but now I know so. She left the man she loved that much.
I’ve wondered about love. I’m studying English Literature and am reading Elizabeth Barret-Brownings Sonnets (‘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 idea Grace.’), Jane Eyre (Jane and Mr Rochester are legendary), Wuthering Heights (Catherine and Heathcliffe), and I’m faced with ideals and ideas of love at every turn. Passion and destructive love, lust, ever lasting love, all kinds of love.
My Grandmother tells me, as I giggle respectfully, about eyes met across busy rooms and love at first sight, that one day I might feel it. I’ve asked other people what love is; my older brother, married for twelve years, says he got lucky and a very good, old friend tells me it is “just about feeling good with someone who loved you and understands you”. I like my Grandmother’s version- a moment of physical reaction and then something more enduring, but always a bit desperate. I like that idea.
I can see my Grandmother, still young, discovering her husband is not the right fit after all (for various reasons) and either asking for or being asked for a divorce. I don’t know which way around it was and it doesn’t much matter; she took her courage in both her hands, emigrated and dug out a life for herself and her children. She has his paintings up in her house, has photographs of them together, tells me stories about him. She’ll love him forever, I think. But she still moved, still managed to leave him entirely.
She the bravest, best woman I know. In the run up to international women’s day, I realise just how much she’s made me who I am and how much she teaches me.
Featured image from D Sharon Pruitt