Dear future self: you’re never too old for love – or love letters

I wrote my first love letter in 1973. I was 13 years old; it was the first year of high school. His name was Trevor. I wrote it very neatly in blue ballpoint pen on a piece of lined foolscap paper and folded it up into a small square.

“Dear Trevor,

I like you very much too. Since Wednesday you showed you loved me, but then on Friday (just because I threw a stone and didn’t mean to hurt you) you started telling everyone you hated me, grinning now again and me not knowing what it means. I’m writing this letter to ask you to love me again.

Elly xx”

Trevor read my letter, turned the paper over, briskly wrote his response in pencil and sent it back to me.

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“Dear Elly,

I think I will love you again, the stone did hurt. Please tell me why you threw this stone at me, if you tell me why I will love you again.

Trevor xoxo”

Thanks to Trev having been so conservative with his paper usage, today I have testament to both his and my correspondence and it effectively set the template for my future romantic life: he professes his love upfront. I respond tentatively at first and then lay my guts on the line. I overthink what he may or may not be feeling. I apologise for provoking a response. I anticipate rejection and judgment.

I went on to write a few more love letters in my time. Some during those early days of mutual limerence. Others after I had been dumped – what lengthy impassioned arguments for the defence those were! The power relationship between dumper and dumpee always works the same way, irrespective of whatever history leads up to the final break. In 1984 I received a love letter, or rather a love postcard, every day for a month. They were like daily clues to a cryptic crossword from someone who only ever identified as “Love from the Toucan Club”. When they stopped, I’d felt a little sad.

Is a love letter still a love letter if the recipient doesn’t know who it’s from? What about if the letter is never sent to its intended recipient and remains like a journal or diary entry?

Susan Sontag said it’s “superficial to understand the journal as just a receptacle for one’s private, secret thoughts … In the journal I do not express myself more openly than I could to any person; I create myself.”

Perhaps we have the chance to create ourselves anew every time we fall in love, just like every time we travel to another country?

Related: Esther Perel on life after Covid: ‘People will want to reconnect with eros’

My boyfriend and I met a few months before Victoria declared a state of emergency. We were both on the cusp of turning 60 and only nine days apart. Astrology: bah humbug! He read my palm: woo-woo but weirdly sexy. I’d promised myself and anyone who cared that I would never ever be in another relationship. My last one, though short, had crippled me. I was done. But then he went up north. In his van. To “chase the waves”. A surfer – who would have thought? When the New South Wales boarder closed he got stuck and wrote me love letters. Not much else to do on your own in a van once the sun goes down and you’re living off the grid and out of range during a pandemic. Sometimes he’d call if there was a signal and read his letters to me over the phone. I liked his voice. We exchanged lots of stories. Falling in love is a necessary and divine sort of a fiction filled with denial and a fair bit of self-deception, especially at the beginning. Eventually my Odyssean surfie returned.

So unaccustomed was I to being in a relationship with someone securely attached, I kept on looking over my shoulder for red flags I’d missed or on the lookout for early signs of withdrawal or rejection. Why was this relationship working? How could it be so easy and drama-free? I mean, he’s so securely attached he gave me carte blanche to write this piece! ‘Tell them you keep on trying to dump me, but I won’t let you.’ It’s hard to accept that anyone will hang around once one’s imperfections puncture the fantasy. It’s all very well for Esther Perel to reassure us that “a good relationship is the ability to see its flaws and still hold it in high regard”, but could I find the wisdom at 60 to resist re-enacting my prior relationships and to simply allow the light to shine on to the folly of my neuroses?

What do love letters look like today? Has everyone’s access to the spurious democratic forms of self-presentation and confession on social media rendered the truly personal and private redundant – weird even? A young friend of mine tells me that no one she knows really writes love letters like what I’m talking about but that “even if it’s a text or a DM or whatever, it’s still a love letter, I guess, and you know it when you see it”.

I’m not sure what happened to Trev and me in 1973. We were 13 so probably not much.

  • Elly Varrenti is a Castlemaine-based writer, teacher and broadcaster