Love that Lasts
“Love is a passion and it seeks for two things, eternity and intensity.” (Sri Aurobindo) Yet all too often that passionate feeling arrives without warning out of nowhere and then vanishes just as suddenly without a trace. In The Notebook, an old man spends his idle time in a nursing home reading a love story to an old woman with Alzheimer’s disease who has lost her memory and forgotten her family and her life, but listens with rapt attention to the old man’s narrative. The story he relates exemplifies romantic love in its purest and most powerful form, a love born in youth and sustained for decades.
It began at a carnival on Seabrook Island, South Carolina, as an unlikely summer romance between teenagers from very different backgrounds and strata of society. Allie was the only daughter, heiress and pride of a wealthy southern family of distinction, given the finest education and raised with the highest expectations of accomplishment in life. Noah was the son of an intelligent, working class father with aspirations that did not extend beyond raising a happy family on this beautiful island of his birth. Initially Allie was put off by Noah’s bold intrusion and pursuit. He was handsome enough, but one look was sufficient to show the differences in their origins and up-bringing. Yet differences can be deceptive. For beneath the striking contrast, they found a deep and joyous commonalty of shared affection. Noah was all too aware of the social distance and obstacles that separated them, but he was sure of himself, the intensity of his love and his capacity to make her happy as no one else could do. He helped free her from the stifling conventionality in which she had been raised and brought out her creativity as a painter. She was thrilled with wonder to discover the poetry of his unpretentious heart. He offered her little, but pledged himself to buy the dilapidated Windsor Plantation on the riverbank and restore it to its former grandeur for her sake.
Knowing their daughter to be head strong and independent, initially her parents tolerated the summer romance with little doubt that it would end when Allie left for college in New York in the fall. But the ardent intensity of her feelings alerted them to a deeper danger. After failing to curtail her emotions, they cut short their vacation and forced her to leave a week early. Noah outwardly resigned himself to the campaign against him, while silently accusing Allie of not openly refusing to leave. Feeling deeply hurt by his accusations and rejected, she decided that Noah must take the initiative to pursue her if he really cared to.
The following year Noah wrote to her every single day, but Allie waited in vain to receive his letters, because her mother confiscated them without her knowledge. Mistaking Noah’s silence for indifference, Allie was heart-broken for months but finally decided to move on with her life. Noah went off to WWII, where he lost his closest friend. Allie became a nurse for wounded soldiers, where she met and was attracted to Lon Hammond, a handsome, sophisticated southern lawyer from a wealthy family, precisely the type of man her parents had always wanted her to marry.
After the war, Noah’s father presents him with the deeds to the old mansion and together they embark on a labor of love to restore its lost beauty. Seven years have passed. While visiting Charleston, Noah catches a glimpse of Allie walking down the street. He sees her enter a restaurant and kiss Lon affectionately. The passage of time has not dampened his feelings, nor has it disturbed the quiet reserve which prevents him from speaking up for what he wants. He returns to the island alone.
Shortly thereafter, Lon proposes and Allie accepts him to the great joy of her family. The day their engagement is announced in the Charleston papers, Allie notices an article on the very same page with a picture of Noah and Windsor Plantation, relating the story of the restored mansion. Preparing for the wedding, Allie tells Lon she must go away for a few days. She returns to Seabrook and drives out to the magnificently restored mansion where Noah is living by himself. Amazed to see how Noah has remained faithful to his promise, shocked to discover that he had written her 365 letters which she had never received, and deeply moved by the evidence that he had never ceased to love her during all the years of their separation, her long buried feelings of joyous love rose to the surface and overwhelmed her.
Two blissful days later, her mother drove up to the mansion and informed her that Lon has come to Seabrook in pursuit of her. After Allie confronts her with the treachery of concealing Noah’s letters, she drives Allie to the sand mines where she points out a middle-aged laborer and describes the passionate love affair that she had with him on a summer holiday in her youth. Then she had chosen convention, conformity and security over love. She had tried to impose the same decision on her daughter. She now withdraws her opposition and returns Allie to the mansion, gives her the 365 letters and leaves her daughter to choose for herself.
For once in his life, Noah breaks his stoical silence. He accuses Allie of giving in to security and social pressure and tries to compel her to choose what he is sure she really wants. Strong willed as ever, she quarrels and drives away to meet Lon. Hours later she returns to Windsor with her suitcases to spend the rest of her life with Noah.
The old woman was deeply moved by the old man’s narrative. Suddenly she realized that the story was one she had heard before, it was her own story and the man who read it to her was Noah. For five minutes they enjoyed the intensity of emotional reunion before she lapsed back into self-forgetfulness once again. She herself had written that story down in a notebook when she realized she was losing her memory and had made Noah promise to read it back to her in the hope of reviving her memory. For months Noah had been reading her the story daily. She had forgotten her children and grandchildren and could not recognize them, but the story in the notebook brought back momentarily the most sacred emotions of her life. At first her recover came every few days, then every few weeks. Now it had been months since she had last remembered. But for those few brief minutes they both relived freshly with the original intensity the love they had felt for each other the first summer they met. In one such moment of lucidity, she asked Noah whether they might die together and the next morning they were discovered lying motionless next to one another in bed.
What kept alive the flame of love between Allie and Noah over more than half a century of quiet living in the same home, raising children, seeing them married and having children of their own? What made their love so very different from so many ordinary or disappointed marriages? Though physically attractive in their youth, beauty and good looks that vanish quickly with age could hardly explain the longevity of their love. She came from wealth and sophisticated society, he from the plain simplicity of the rural South. Nor did they share any intellectual interests or artistic pursuits. She was well-read, highly educated, played the piano and painted pictures. He never went to college, read poetry and crafted furniture. She was vivacious and extroverted, he somewhat quiet and reserved. She had aspirations to see the world, he to live in the world he already knew. What they shared was at once much simpler and more profound than the long list of factors that purportedly determine emotional compatibility.
Allie did certainly love Lon, but the heart is a plant that blossoms just once in a lifetime. After that it may continue to give fruit, but a second blooming can never match the purity and intensity of the initial bloom when the love it is based on is true. Allie’s love of Noah was no mere childhood infatuation. Its fragrance arose from deep in their hearts and remained true throughout their lifetime.
The secret of lasting romance is not a matter of chance or luck or the magic of finding the perfect person. It lies rather hidden in the aspirations and values that bring to people together in the first place. Allie made a conscious decision to follow the deeper urges of her heart, rather than the surface attraction of wealth, material security, status, respectability and social success. It is true she did love Lon in her own way, the way we love all our families, all that we are used to, all that represents a comfortable and acceptable way of life. But her love for Noah issued from the depths of her being. She had the strength which her mother lacked to renounce the safe and secure path in favor of an emotional adventure of the soul.
Though often felt but briefly, never to return, true love is not altogether a myth. Eternal romance is not mere fantasy. Attaining that intensity requires a purity of aspiration that is willing to give up everything else combined with a capacity to give oneself in joyous love and ask nothing in return. Rare are the hearts qualified for it. Rarer still those that can sustain and revive it year after year, but love lies always in waiting, ready to return to hearts that remain true to love.