Let's talk about love.
When I say this to the women, they're silent at first. They've gathered for a seniors' Valentine's Day party in the basement of Holy Family Lutheran Church, a cinderblock box in Chicago's Cabrini-Green public housing complex. But despite the pink gift bags and the cardboard Cupids, the party wasn't essentially about Valentine's kind of love until I dropped by asking for love stories.
"I fell in love with my husband over 50 years ago," says Henry "Miss Hen" Johns, 72.
This was in the country, she says, in Arkansas. She was 17, and they'd met as kids walking to school.
"In '51," she says, "we came to Chicago. We had five children. He's been gone 10 years, but I still love him. I got mad with him sometimes, but I always knew I loved him. I'd tell him, `Get out,' and by the time he got out, I'd be staring out the window looking for him."
The other women nod. That's love, all right.
"I was 14 when I met my main love," says Dolores Wilson, 74. "It was the Depression. He quit school to help his family. My father didn't like him because he didn't have a suit or tie. But even without the suit and tie, he was a wonderful husband."
After 33 years and five children, he died. "My youngest son said, `Mama, don't cry. Think about all the love you had.' And whenever someone loses a love, I say, `Think about all the love you had.'"
Mae Johnson, 67, volunteers.
"My first love was also my husband, but mine didn't last 50 years," she says. "I came to Chicago from Alabama when I was 12. I was 18 when we met, 19 when we married. We were married for four years. I think I was 28 the next time I fell in love. He was the love of my life, I thought at the time. He didn't work out either. I was 35 the next time. I was more mature." She laughs. "But he wasn't."
Lena Gosberry, 70, speaks up. "My best love was my children. My next biggest love was my mother."
Each of her nine kids--the first at 14--brought her joy beyond belief, but, she adds, "All of them didn't turn out the way I wanted."
She looks down, looks up. "One was killed in a fight. One was killed in the Army. One was killed on the street. And my first born, her husband killed her." She half smiles. "But I have good memories."
Mildred Campbell, 72, met her great love in 6th grade. "He got drowned. Swimming in a lake. As I got older, I didn't think about being in love for a long, long time. When I met my husband in '51, I didn't think about love. I didn't love him the way I loved my childhood sweetheart. We were married one year. I dedicated my love to my kids after that."
At 52, Magnolia Fleming is the kid in the crowd and the one who hasn't married. "Eight or nine years ago," she says, "a man at church gave me my first Valentine's candy, and perfume and a rose. I was working on my weight. Somebody said, `Did you throw the candy away?' I said, `Are you kidding? My first Valentine's candy?'"
Her Valentine admirer died of a seizure soon after.
There's just one man in the group, Robert Hunley. He met his first love at 18 in Mississippi. "Just to have me a girlfriend, that's all I was thinking at the time. The love came after I had my first kid."
Five kids and 29 years after moving to Chicago, he and his wife separated. But love lives on at 71, he says. "I definitely keep a girlfriend."
Listening to these stories, you can't help but think how varied love stories are, and how universal. The long marriage, the short marriage. The love wished for, the love abandoned. The love of a child. Or of a parent. Love that outlasts the life of the beloved. In its intricate variety of hope and loss, love is the same across classes, places, colors, generations.
You never stop thinking about romantic love, the Cabrini group says, but you grow to realize that love is, more important, companionship. And compassion. It's what you find sitting with old friends, just talking.