My husband dreads Valentine’s Day. Maybe because the poor guy married a writer. While I can come up with pages and pages about how much I love him and why I love him and how long I’m going to love him, he can’t really do that.
For him, ‘I love you. I miss you. I have worked a 19 hour day’ pretty much says it all in the Valentine department.
I’m not really complaining. Like Wesley in The Princess Bride, I know my darling writes his love letters in as-you-wish. His love is told in piles of folded laundry. His love is cast in walls painted cobalt blue and apple green and palest yellow. His love is told in miles spent driving home to me on I-95 in the worst holiday traffic of the summer.
That’s my kind of love.
But some wicked little part of my Valentine heart still wants one of those deep, meaningful love letters like they used to write during the Civil War.
Maybe I watch too much Ken Burns. But when I think of a love letter I think of the letter Union soldier Sullivan Ballou before the Battle of Bull Run. He poured his heart out to his wife Sarah in one of the most famous military love letters of all time:
Sarah, my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me to you with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me irresistibly on with all these chains to the battlefield. (Hear the whole thing right here.)
That might be a little over the top for today’s love letter. But sometimes ‘I love you’ doesn’t say quite enough. Sometimes you need to say more—especially when deployed. But what is a non-writer guy supposed to say exactly?
I say that you totally steal from Sullivan Ballou. That guy knew what he was doing. If he was standing with our soldiers today, this is the advice he might give you about how to write a love letter.
1. Write it in a way she can keep it with her. People might have written on paper during the Civil War, but in the digital age, email is forever. A picture of her name scrawled across a hillside. A hundred photos of things that remind you of her. A text that she can print and show her friends could be the next forever.
2. Describe your surroundings. All the best love letters start by describing where you are. You may not be surrounded by two thousand soldiers on the eve of battle, but describing where you are sets a romantic tone. Is it quiet? Is it loud? Is anyone with you? Is it hot or cold? Set the scene for her. Or take a picture of the desk or bed or dashboard where you are writing.
3. Tell your story. Be sure to mention the first time you saw her or the last time you saw her or what you were thinking the day that you met. Maybe it’s not the most romantic story. But it is the story of the two of you—and no one else.
4. Remind her how lucky you are. Remind her how you almost didn’t meet. Think of the thousand things that might have kept you apart. The more fate-driven your story is, the more you show how you value what you have.
5. Time is swift and our days are numbered. The thing that makes Ballou’s letter great is how conscious he is that he and Sarah could lose everything they had. He is urgent in telling her now and making sure that she knows how he loves her and their children and their country. Tell her how you could not bear losing her and how you could not bear being lost.
6. Send it. The words you have in your head are nothing compared to the words that make it to the page. Write something. Send something. Do it now.
Valentines Day can make a grown man cringe. Such high expectations are not easily met. If you still can’t think of anything go ahead and send the link to Ken Burns reading of Sullivan Ballou with a note: I heard this and I thought of us.