Monday, December 30, 2019

Looking Back At Long-Ago Love

He came to me in a dream recently, looking young and vibrant and loving. He smiled and told me he loved me -- as he had many times before. The kindness in his bright blue eyes was striking, the way it was more than 50 years ago when I started dating Michael Polich, my first real boyfriend.

What prompted the dream about Mike or my recent reflections on the four men I loved and, in three cases, dated before my marriage to Bob?

Perhaps it's that time of year when we review the past and build hopes and resolutions for the future.

Perhaps it's a side effect of aging, revisiting youth as time takes a physical toll and seems ever more limited. I remember my mother recounting her premarital adventures in love with great delight as my brother, sister and I rolled our eyes and sighed deeply. Oh, no! Is it possible? Have I become her?

Or perhaps my current reverie was inspired by listening to the bitter ruminations of a neighbor about the "narcissistic, selfish, stupid jerks I always seem to end up with!" And I thought about patterns that define our youthful love lives. Some women I know went through a phase of favoring "bad boys" and others mistook jealousy and possessiveness for love instead of the control and abuse it really was. Some talk with disdain about worthless ex-lovers, loser ex-lovers and others not meriting any backward glance. And it makes me sad that their past love experiences were so negative.

When you look back on those you've loved and lost or left, what do you feel? What did you learn from relationships that didn't work out, at least the way you had hoped or imagined? Even when your heart was broken, were there some important lessons that ended up enriching your life or increasing your wisdom?

Looking back to my increasingly far away youth, I remember times of longing and heartbreak and insecurity and times of fun and caring and lasting love. I've learned so much, grown so much as a result of loving four very different men in my single years before I met and married Bob Stover, my husband of nearly 43 years.

When I think about it, I was fortunate not ever to have been date-bait. I was never beautiful. I never learned how to flirt. Guys liked me as a friend, but nothing more.  In college, I had a wonderful classmate and friend, Tim Schellhardt. We were never a couple but we had fun and memorable times together -- going dancing, to movies, talking about past challenges and future dreams of careers in journalism. He helped me to lose both my fear of men and my terror of interviewing, the latter a major step toward my becoming a journalist. We supported each other emotionally through our years in the demanding journalism program at Northwestern (and throughout the decades since.) We laughed a lot. I felt so at ease with him and that I could talk with him about anything. Except for one thing: l was quietly, hopelessly, and very secretly in love with him. Totally unaware of my ardor, he unknowingly broke my heart by falling in love with and marrying someone else. But our friendship was built to last forever, thriving through the years. Tim is one of my dearest lifelong friends. We have never been lovers, but we will love each other forever. He is one of the greatest blessings of my life.

And I learned from this early heartbreak that there are many varieties of love -- all to be treasured.

When I look back on my three pre-marital lovers, I realize that the relationships were all built on the firm foundation of friendship. I feel only joy and gratitude that the pattern of my twenty something love life was a trio of men who were all, despite their considerable differences from each other, wonderfully kind. And I learned and grew so much from being with them.

Michael Polich was my first real boyfriend and, not so incidentally, my first lover. We were in our twenties when we met and in early stages of our careers -- mine in writing and, briefly, in acting, his in aerospace engineering. I felt comfortable with him immediately, though I sometimes dabbled in cynicism and snark at that point in my early twenties. I wasn't always gracious. Fresh from my dashed romantic fantasies in college, I sometimes unfairly displaced my negative feelings onto him. Fearful of finding my life limited by the power and control of a man, as my mother's life had been, I was unspeakably bossy and too often critical of Michael. I remember myself as a markedly imperfect girlfriend, a genuine pain in the ass. But, inexplicably, he loved me anyway.

Michael asked me to marry him several months into our relationship. I said "No". I felt I was too young to make such a commitment. I wanted more time to grow personally and professionally and I suspected that our dreams for the future were not a good match. Michael, whose father had abandoned him when he was a toddler to marry his mistress and start a new family, dreamed of having a warm and loving marriage and children he would never abandon. He yearned to have a daughter and, in his fantasies, had already selected a name for her: Gwen. He would support Gwen in whatever she chose to do with her life, love her unconditionally as she grew into the person she was meant to be.

But like many dreams from our youth, Gwen never happened. We dated for several years and my dreams for my own future continued to diverge from his -- away from home and family and towards a challenging career or series of careers. I finally left Michael for someone with different dreams. For a time, the hurt was deep. But somehow a trace of our love endured.

Even though we never saw each other again after our breakup, we kept in touch and updated each other as life happened. We both ended up getting married in 1977.  My husband Bob encouraged my career ambitions and didn't want children. Michael's wife Shahin was older, already had teenaged children and it was biologically too late for her to start a new family. But Michael enthusiastically embraced the family he had married into -- and found his Gwen-substitute in the daughter of his step-daughter. Her name was Jasmine and he wrote long enthusiastic letters about her -- her many talents and the fun he had driving her to swimming and ice skating events and encouraging her to both excel and to enjoy her life, up to and including her young adulthood.

He was unfailingly kind and gracious to me, calling me at major life transitions -- when my parents died, when his wonderful mother died, when I faced major surgery in 2003. When I had written to him about the latter, he called me at work, his voice filled with concern. "What can I do for you?" he asked quietly. "What do you need? I'm here for you." And he was forgiving and/or graciously forgetful of my youthful snarkiness.

 Some years ago, I asked Mike if he would mind if I wrote a blog post about our relationship. He replied with gentle humor: "How else am I going to be famous?"

When he read the blog post, his reaction was to tell me that I was being way too hard on myself, that he remembered the love, the mutual kindness and the fun we shared. He said that my cynicism and snarkiness must have been largely within and that he had always known the fear that fueled my bossiness and was never annoyed. And even all those years later, I felt immense relief and gratitude.

We had a celebratory ritual: writing to each other on our birthdays and at Christmas. So when I didn't hear from Michael last Christmas, I felt a pang of fear and loss. I Googled him and discovered that he had passed away suddenly six weeks before. And I felt a wave of grief that surprised me with its intensity -- and that recurred on his birthday in February and mine in April and once again as another holiday season has come and gone.  I'll always miss that handsome young man with the bright blue eyes and the sparkling smile -- and the very special person he became, at a distance but forever warmly in my life.

The life lessons I took away from Michael were ones of the importance of being in the moment with another instead of dragging past resentments into a new relationship, the value of kindness and patience and forgiveness as well as the value of shared love and experiences, whether or not one's dreams ever match.

My next love Maurice couldn't have been more unlike Michael -- except for his essential goodness and his immense kindness.

My relationship with Maurice Sherbanee threw my parents into a panic. He was from a foreign country. He was 15 years older than I. And, worst of all, he was an actor, albeit a steadily working actor.

"What are you thinking??" my parents shouted in unison. I reflected on their distress and my surprise at finding myself in this relationship. Maurice had been a casual friend for some years, ever since my days in the new talent program at Desilu. He was an established actor then, often playing foreign heavies or heros-- Arabs, Italians, Armenians, Turks -- in television and films, including foreign language films. He was a gifted musical theatre actor who appeared in a number of professional musical shows in L.A.

One night, I went with an actress friend of mine, who had a crush on him, to see Maurice play Panise, the second lead, in a major L.A. revival of the musical "Fanny". I mortified my friend with my tears and barely stifled sobs over his death scene near the end of the show. When we went backstage to congratulate him, my eyes and nose were still streaming. I was a tearful mess. Somehow, he found me irresistible and asked me out immediately.

Startled, I said "No." I knew that my actress friend was hoping to date him. He began to call me on a regular basis and I continued to say "No" until my friend said "Look, next time he calls, please go out with him. He's never going to ask me out. The least you can do is to validate my taste. He's talented and brilliant and handsome and kind. What's your problem?" So I went out with him...for nearly four years.

And in our time together, I grew up a lot. He encouraged me to open my mind and my heart and to embrace others' points of view, even when I didn't agree, even when it was hard to understand. He nurtured me in a way I had never felt growing up and helped me tame my snarkiness with humor. He also dreamed someday of having a daughter and, in the meantime, entertained me with stories and funny impressions of his much-adored grand niece Tiffany. We sometimes argued about his mother -- who lived with him and who had varying degrees of hostility toward any girlfriend he might have, though she cut me considerable slack because I was such an obviously unsuitable match -- not Jewish and too young. When I asked why he didn't settle his mother in a little apartment or in assisted living, he would look at me sadly and say "In my culture, we don't discard our older people. We cherish them. You will never understand what we have been through together."

It took me years to understand. I never did totally until I started reading some of the blog posts of his niece Rachel Wahba (mother of Tiffany), a psychotherapist and writer in the Bay Area who has shared stories of their dramatic and traumatic family history both online and in print. I knew that Maurice was cosmopolitan and spoke a number of languages, that he had been born in Iraq, moved to India when he was 11 and then to Japan after World War II. I discovered through Rachel the stories behind these travels: how Maurice, his parents and his sisters were Holocaust survivors, having lived through the infamous Nazi-inspired Farhud in Baghdad where hundreds of Jews were killed in their homes and on the streets during one terrible weekend in June 1941. Maurice, several months away from his eleventh birthday, hid from the attackers, first on their roof under blankets, then with a Muslim family his mother had befriended, trying not to hear the shots and screams on the streets below. Then they fled to India for the rest of the wartime years. They fled for their lives once again when India erupted in civil war and lived stateless for some years in Japan before being allowed into the U.S. These are details of his life that Maurice still can't bear to discuss.

We parted as lovers largely due to our age and cultural differences, but have continued to enjoy a loving friendship through the years. He never married. (His mom lived to be 104!) But he has lived a full and loving life. And he has taught me so much about kindness and courage and tenacity and gracious acceptance of what is. As his health has faltered and he has grown too frail to continue to work as an actor on a regular basis, Maurice has concentrated instead on his love of music, composing beautiful classical guitar pieces that, performed by others, have a major presence on You Tube. He has taught me to embrace change, including finding ways to grow past the limitations of age and to find new possibilities.

I got a note not long ago from his niece Rachel, who has become a friend of mine and with whom he spends an increasing amount of time in her San Francisco area home. "My uncle and I were talking about you the other day," she said. "And he had only the sweetest things to say about you. I think it's so wonderful and inspiring that you have shared such love and such kindness for each other for so many years."

Yes. Maurice is an inspiration and a blessing indeed.

My mother was over the moon at my next love: Dr. Chuck Wibbelsman. He was the tall, handsome, Catholic doctor she had always dreamed I'd meet.

Chuck and I met when a health educator I knew suggested him as a source for an article I was writing about male development and sexuality. I was stunned when I saw that he was young and handsome and sexy. The subtext of our interview was steamy as we mentally undressed each other behind our careful professional demeanors. But we didn't date until several months later, after Chuck came to my office for an interview for another article. Shortly before his arrival, I got the news that one of my closest college friends had been murdered. As soon as he arrived, Chuck noticed the distress I was trying so hard to hide. He shut my office door and embraced me as I cried on his shoulder. He asked me out to dinner. And what followed became a memorable part of my romantic history.

Chuck was lively, fun and caring in all areas of his life. We talked about marriage and children and books we might write together. It all seemed not only possible, but also inevitable.

Our hopes for the first two were dashed when, a year into our relationship, he realized with new clarity and considerable pain that he was gay. "I thought those feelings would go away if I could just meet the right woman," he told me tearfully. "But you are the right woman and still...." My mother was crushed by this turn of events and she blamed me for not being attractive enough or submissive enough to hold his interest. But he and I knew that wasn't so, that as much as we had loved and enjoyed each other, his long suppressed sexual orientation needed to be honored and expressed.

However, our third wish did come true: we wrote a very successful book together -- "The Teenage Body Book" -- which was first published in 1979 and which has had seven U.S. editions as well as a number of foreign language versions through the years. The latest U.S. edition was published in 2016. The book led to us appearing together on "Oprah" and a number of other national and local television shows. It helped to propel our respective careers -- his as an adolescent medicine specialist and mine as a writer -- onto a new level. We collaborated on three other books together over time and have built a loving friendship from the ashes of our long-ago dreams.

In my relationship with Chuck, I learned a lot about letting go and having fun, about the importance of honoring the truth about ourselves, even when it changes our lives and our dreams, about the joy of an enduring friendship built on the foundation of love, of loss and mutual forgiveness.

All these lessons I learned from my early loves served me well when I met and married Bob and as I've grown through the years. It strikes me that we expect to grow through a long and loving marriage.

But, too often, we don't realize what we might have learned and how we've grown from the loves that came before. I feel blessed to have known these very special men whose kindness illuminated my youthful life path. The memories make me smile all these years later and fill my heart with love and gratitude.