We were in Woolworths, SA’s Marks and Spencers – and surrounded by bits and bobs designed to satisfy just this sort of request. I said: “Sorry my love, you need to buy your own Valentine’s tokens … it’s the way it works.” Which he found irritating – especially as I then took the opportunity to explain to him that a woman can tell at a glance if expense was spared – especially when it came to flowers and diamonds (guess who is a veteran of many disappointing February Fourteenths). He looked at me, probably thinking …. “boy, all I wanted was a chocolate”, and asked: “Suzie, how does love work?”
Good question, and not one I could adequately answer in the chaos of the fruit aisle.
John Steinbeck though, could. And did so in a letter to his son Thom – who was in the painful throes of his first crush. Steinbeck’s answer outlines what love is perfectly: and reveals a father who is tender and optimistic, wise and plain spoken. I can’t imagine a better guide for a newly minted loveheart. So, in anticipation of Valentine’s Day on Friday, I thought I would ask John Steinbeck to explain to Jasper (and the rest of us) how love works.
“New York November 10, 1958
We had your letter this morning. I will answer it from my point of view and of course Elaine will from hers.
First — if you are in love — that’s a good thing — that’s about the best thing that can happen to anyone. Don’t let anyone make it small or light to you.
Second — There are several kinds of love. One is a selfish, mean, grasping, egotistical thing which uses love for self-importance. This is the ugly and crippling kind. The other is an outpouring of everything good in you — of kindness and consideration and respect — not only the social respect of manners but the greater respect which is recognition of another person as unique and valuable. The first kind can make you sick and small and weak but the second can release in you strength, and courage and goodness and even wisdom you didn’t know you had.
You say this is not puppy love. If you feel so deeply — of course it isn’t puppy love.
But I don’t think you were asking me what you feel. You know better than anyone. What you wanted me to help you with is what to do about it — and that I can tell you.
Glory in it for one thing and be very glad and grateful for it.
The object of love is the best and most beautiful. Try to live up to it.
If you love someone — there is no possible harm in saying so — only you must remember that some people are very shy and sometimes the saying must take that shyness into consideration.
Girls have a way of knowing or feeling what you feel, but they usually like to hear it also.
It sometimes happens that what you feel is not returned for one reason or another — but that does not make your feeling less valuable and good.
Lastly, I know your feeling because I have it and I’m glad you have it.
We will be glad to meet Susan. She will be very welcome. But Elaine will make all such arrangements because that is her province and she will be very glad to. She knows about love too and maybe she can give you more help than I can.
And don’t worry about losing. If it is right, it happens — The main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away.
This letter and many other brilliant ones beside can be found in Steinbeck: A Life in Letters – a deeply personal, witty, honest, vulnerable, thoughtful portrait of a man, friend, family member, author and critic. A man who also happens to have been a Nobel Laureate and who wrote three of my favourite books ever East of Eden, The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men.
(Images found in the public domain.)