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“I Love You”

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William J. Vande Kopple

It happened at the most startling—and often inappropriate—times.

I was collaborating with colleagues Nancy Hull and Gary Schmidt during Calvin College’s interim term to lead a group of students around significant literary sites in eastern Massachusetts. Often Gary, who insisted that he simply could not learn how to change his cell phone from ringing to vibrating, would get a call, examine the screen, press a tab, and say, “Hello, my dear.” It would be a call, we all learned, from his wife, Anne.

As I noted, these calls came at startling times. We were exploring Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord at night, when it was almost certainly illegal for us to go wandering around—or so Gary had told us, cautioning that we should be as quiet as possible and should, if spotted by a police officer, say that we were from Hope College. As we followed his whispered instructions to rub the shiny top of Henry David Thoreau’s gravestone, his phone rang loudly. He fumbled to find it so that he could talk once more to his “best beloved.”

On another occasion, we gathered in a meeting room near the House of Seven Gables in Salem, entranced by a Nathaniel Hawthorne impersonator. With tears in his eyes, “Hawthorne” described how he could not have written a single work without the support of his beloved Sophia. Our students, remembering the romantic messages etched on windowpanes of the Old Manse, added a sympathetic “awwhh” as Gary’s phone rang again. His mutterings as he rushed out of the room changed to “Hello, my dear” as he reached the door.

What I haven’t mentioned is that at the end of each call, Gary would say “I love you” with the cutest rise-fall inflection any of us had ever heard. That’s what got me started. As Gary talked during one of our stops about the relationship between Thoreau and Emerson’s wife, I called “I love you” from the back of the group, imitating his intonation perfectly. Or, elsewhere, as Gary carried on excitedly about the actual mirror before which Charles Dickens had practiced his speeches while in Boston, I picked the perfect moment to sing out once again, “I love you!” I thought my call had a fine narcissistic edge.

The students would howl, and for a while they too called out “I love you” while Gary was speaking. After a while, though, they became deeply reflective, as was their custom, and asked, “How about you? Don’t you say ‘I love you’ every time you call your wife?”

“Every time? Are you kidding me? Why would I do that? I use the same toothpaste tube she does every day. I scratch the itch on her back where she can’t reach. And we make room for each other in the same bed every night. Every once in a while— like when I leave for a trip—I tell her I love her. So all of a sudden I’m not sure of that anymore? I have to tell her over and over? That sounds an awful lot like insecurity to me.”

They weren’t sure I was serious, but, just in case, they let me know that they weren’t happy with my response: “What about the reassurance? Think about it. What about the romance?”

“Romance, schmomance. We’ve been married over thirty-one years. You think after all that time Wanda still needs me to tell her I love her? No way!”

Back home, showing Wanda my pictures of the trip, I remarked, “Can you believe those students? So young, so idealistic. They wanted me to tell you I loved you every time we talked. When I told them their point smacked of insecurity, they felt so sorry for you they were about ready to have flowers sent to you under my name.”

“You know, though, that every time you called me from Concord or wherever you were, you closed by telling me you loved me.”

“Guess you’re right. The students must have made me self-conscious. But if I remember correctly, you didn’t always say ‘I love you’ back. A couple of times you just mumbled ‘g’night.’ What was up with that?”

“You almost always called me really late, usually when I was already in bed. By the end of our talks, I was so tired, I could hardly focus. I must’ve just forgotten. So?”

“Well, it wasn’t the biggest deal in the world. I mean, it didn’t keep me from falling asleep or anything like that. But it did make me wonder a little.”

William J. Vande Kopple teaches English at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.