Love Language Lost

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4 October 2023

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Love letters are meant for only one pair of eyes but the sentiment remains forever...

Everyone knows the Victorians were big on the love letter. Face to face meetings were chaperoned but the letter was a private space where feelings could be expressed. For consistency and effort no one outdid Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning though. Between them they wrote 573 letters, stoking the love in each other’s hearts to a blazing fire before eloping against the wishes of Elizabeth’s father.

“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways” are the opening lines of Sonnet 43 written by Elizabeth Barrett Browning to her husband and used on sticky Valentine’s Day cards for over a century. With the skills of a supreme writer she lists them as precisely as though giving  coordinates to the formulation of her heart.

“I love thee with a love I seemed to lose

With my lost saints”

Most of us are inadequate or cliched when it comes to the task of saying just how much we love someone. Like in the best selling children’s book  “Guess How Much I Love You” (2005) in which Little Nut Brown shows his daddy how much he loves him (as wide as he can reach and as far as he can hop to the moon and back). 

Always the advice is less is more when it comes to writing it down. Unlike the Victorians, modern day love notes are/were written for one set of eyes only. Say what you mean to say (and keep it short). In 2009 the Courtney Place Lightboxes exhibited Marie Shannon’s Love Notes (2005) a series of black-and-white photographs Marie had taken of private notes exchanged between her, her partner (the artist Julian Dashper), and their son Leo.

“I L Y and sorry for being grumpy xxx” read one 

“ I L Y always”” 

and “ I L Y xxx”

Without any inflated vocabulary or sentence structure, without metaphor or adverb and more than the fact of their plainness what also gives these notes their charge is the fact of seeing the private made public. 

Once while wearing a 1950’s blazer belonging to my late husband’s aunt (that I had saved from the charity bin), I reached into the pocket emblazoned with the official silver fern and discovered a love note. Sonia Cox had been a world champion badminton and tennis player who’d gone to Wimbledon and played professionally in the 1950s for New Zealand.

She’d returned home and lived alone, her body lay undiscovered for days in her semi-detached flat in Island Bay when she died. As far as the family knew she had never been in a relationship, never been in love. The note which had been written on ruled note paper and carefully folded up (and how many times unfolded!) into a minute square read simply  “To my dearest” and  “Good Luck” and beneath it kisses drawn in the form of crossed tennis racquets.

As ee cummings wrote “here is the deepest secret nobody knows, I carry your heart with me” (I carry it in my heart). 

pile of letters on a wooden table with blue ribbon

When my father and mother fell in love they were not in a position to do anything about it. My mother was a widow with two young children and my father was a close friend of her dead husband. I imagine it must have been awkward. At what point did their common grief turn to love? This is not an unusual story. People come together to comfort one another and find they’re all tangled up.

The history is vague and they never really talked about it, preferring to try and keep the stepdad aspect out of the family lexicon. Put it this way, I did not know that two of my siblings had had another father until I was around 13 years old.

When my dad died, my parents had been married for over 60 years. Every year for almost all of their marriage dad would write mum a Valentine’s Day sonnet. He mastered the poem’s fixed rhyme scheme and used all the metaphors of his flying days to good effect – parachutes, blue skies as well as roses. The denouement was always an expression of his hopelessness – ”without your love…” He was a true romantic as well as a fighter pilot and stayed well on course with his serenades.

In 1945 shortly after they both realised that their ‘closeness’ was becoming so much more, dad left the Hawkes Bay where my mother was living to go and find work in Auckland and – it seems – to put some space between them so they could know what their ‘true feelings’ were for each other. I know this because recently I found a cache of letters that he had written to her. They are the only things that she kept from a time before their marriage and they were tied with a blue ribbon. True story.

The writing is almost impossible to decipher. So slant as to be horizontal, the letters are written over the days and weeks he was away and they always start with him proclaiming how slow the post is. Sometimes they run to 13 or 14 pages written on both sides. They dictate the tedium involved in his life between receiving the last letter of hers and the agonising wait for the next. He is so love smitten he is ill. All hell is endured because of their love. The more harrowing and painful it is, the better the witness to it.

The letters are so personal and private that I cannot bear to read them. I do not recognise my father who ran marathons, flew planes, built a shed and poured concrete but I do recognise a man in love.

Emails disappear in a glitch, texts are lost to the Cloud but what I would rescue from a flood are letters which start with the words  My darling, …


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