• Part of an essay in progress

Why are first-love memories so potent?

Posted November 1, 2013 10:30 am  

——Merely thinking of my old boyfriend or seeing his photograph could bring back intimations of the swept-away feelings of my youth. Talking to him on the phone before the trip was like time travel –I was instantly a 20 year-old year feeling the full force of all those long-ago yearnings. At the same time, I remained the sober, observing 65 year-old, listening to a voice on the phone that, after 45 more years of smoking, sounded its chronologic age.

Despite the passion and romance of our affair, it ended without drama. Did we ever say good-bye? He graduated and simply returned to Germany. There was no heart-ache, no what-ifs. It was as though a TV series had come to an end, and the channel changed. We didn’t try to stay in touch and never saw or talked to one another again, although he maintained an apartment in New York City, not far from the hotel where I always stay, something I knew through a mutual friend. The feelings aroused by our meeting were largely irrational. Although I knew little of his adult life and only met his wife and visited his home that one time, I felt as though I knew him utterly and could say anything at all to him. He held a unique place in my old-love memory bank, and it turned out that I held a similar place in his. At the same time, I am not sure that I actually liked the grown man who still evoked such powerful feelings.

I am working on an essay about reconnecting with a first love and would very much like to hear others’ experiences.


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  • eliz   March 11, 2014 at 7:46 am

    This charming story came to me via email:
    My first love was a girl named Irene. We were in the third grade. On Valentine’s Day, we exchanged candy valentine hearts that said “I love you.” Otherwise, we had a pure wordless love that was perfect in its tiny way. I have recalled visual images of her from time to time, but I’ve never imagined, much less seriously considered what it would be like to see her again.

    An early love affair that ended badly was instructive, teaching me how I made my lover into someone I wanted her to be so I could think she was seeing me as the person I wanted to be but seldom was. It was exciting, magical, all-consuming. My profession would employ terms like idealization, projection, narcissism, and denial to characterize it. It was great while it lasted. Love has the power to transform us, however briefly, and however it plays out.

    • eliz   March 11, 2014 at 8:01 am

      I love the fact that the memory of a youthful, mutual love expressed only through an exchange of candy hearts has held its vividness for a lifetime.

      And that an early, imperfect affair became a model that you knew you had to improve upon. Now that you describe it, I would say the same for my German love affair: it was a wonderful, magical trial run from which I could see I needed to make corrections. Thanks so much for the insight!

  • Diana Birchall   March 6, 2014 at 5:35 am

    I don’t think I ever had a “first love” of the kind you mean. I had a best friend, a boy, from age eight to eleven, when we moved away, and we never saw each other again. In both our lonely childhoods, we were something between best playmates and soulmates. Without a doubt “first love” would have arisen in a few years, but we were just too young. Fast forward 35 years to when we reconnected. We were mid-40s, and it was a year or two pre-internet, but Mark, a psychologist, took an office in my aunt’s building, and we found each other, as we had each always longed to do. Since then, more than 20 years ago, we have maintained a warm friendship. As we’ve seen in our Hunter Elementary School reunions, people who were imprinted indelibly on your memory in extreme youth, retain an aura of warmth and meaning in later life. It was so with us, and we get together with our families when I’m in New York.

    • Eliz   March 10, 2014 at 4:55 pm

      What a great story! You are so lucky to have found one another. Your description makes me think of the book “South of the Border, West of the Sun” by Haruki Murakami. In it, a young boy and girl become best friends in childhood, and their affection grows into a budding romance that is thwarted when they are parted. The book’s narrator is the man, who spends the rest of his life searching for the woman he cannot get out of his mind. She appears –or seems to– and disappears several times. Altho he is happy married, his real, affective life is with this old love. It’s quite a powerful book and describes very vividly the experience of being caught in the past and, so, unable to live fully in the present. The book suggests it was lucky that your intense friendship ended when it did!
      Do you still feel you have a lot in common? Are you fond of one another’s spouses? One of my best friends is married to a man who was a summer fling when we were 14. We were never soul mates, like you and your friend, but we did both become architects, so there was something real that drew us to one another!

  • RF   March 4, 2014 at 12:43 pm

    The draw of first love is that it frequently is unincumbered by the complexity of the person. The intense feeling drown out inquiry beyond romance and passion. On the other hand, first loves may survive in a universe of many regrets and desires – emotions both positive and negative. Since we cannot truly turn time back, it may be easier not to look or feel back. 3/4/14

  • Susan Sabin   February 4, 2014 at 11:50 am

    I wonder if the feeling of feeling intimacy and as if you have the license to say anything to your old love may be no different from that same feeling for an old friend…as if you were grounded in time and shared a background…in your case, even if your backgrounds differed.
    Susan Sabin

    • eliz   February 4, 2014 at 1:07 pm

      I’m sure that’s true. I think what may make it more odd in the case of an old lover is that you may have known him/her only in a very circumscribed way. Romance doesn’t always entail the whole of the person, at least not necessarily the parents, siblings, and personal history. And yet the sense of knowing the person through and through is very strong.

  • cassandra gordon   February 3, 2014 at 8:30 pm

    I think what is so powerful about memories of our 1st love is that it takes our back emotionally and physically to when we felt young and desirable. Looking back we see our former selves.

  • Guest   February 3, 2014 at 8:20 pm

    I have not but would like to hear about others experiences.

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