It seems that a lot of beloved celebrities have left the world in the last several months to a year. Maybe it’s more than usual, or maybe it’s just that many of them now are associated with my own childhood or other significant memories and so I feel it more.
I probably don’t have to tell you (but I will) that something is distinctly different about Jonathan Crombie’s death. Of course, in my practical mind, I know he is a very real, flesh and blood person—someone’s son and sister and friend, and all those people are grieving him as such. But for millions more of us, Gilbert Blythe is dead, and this strikes us in a deep place that is hard to articulate.
More than one woman I know has tried—very unsuccessfully—to explain to a husband or significant other or just any male in general why this is a loss. I know my own husband has given me more than one “are-you-kididing-me” look since I heard the news. And I almost feel silly. Why did I actually cry over this? Is this like weeping through Titanic and Rose’s heartbreak as she pushes Jack’s body off the frozen iceberg? Is this like watching The Notebook? Is this chick-flick madness run amuck?
I’m going to have to say no. There’s a reason—a far better reason than a beloved book or excellent onscreen portrayal of a character. Gilbert Blythe is so much more than the heartthrob male lead in a love story. I mean, of course, he was perfect. His boyish grin that stayed with him from the schoolyard days when he had that unruly mop of curls all the way until he was a distinguished medical student—sigh. He was handsome and smart and charming. Even when he called Anne “carrots,” we were already falling for him.
When he clapped like a goofball after her performance at White Sands. When he gave up the Avonlea school so Anne could stay with Marilla. When he was heartbroken after Anne rejected his proposal and told her he knew she’d marry some fool who’d sit and read her Tennyson by firelight and he hoped he’d break her heart, whoever he was. Heck, even when he was at death’s door because of scarlet fever and revealed he’d broken off the engagement with Christine because there’d never be anyone else for him besides Anne—he was perfect.
But there’s still more. Gilbert Blythe meant something to so many of us as young girls because he sent a message through his unyielding love for Anne that countered practically every other message we receive as women every day of our lives.
Gilbert was hope.
Hope that smart actually was better than pretty (or at least as good as, because come on, Anne was lovely). Hope that we could be smarter than a man and instead of being threatened by us, he would celebrate us. Hope that we could have days when we were at our worst, days that could possibly include smashing slates over his head or knocking him over with our basket of flowers, and he would still want us. Hope that our pasts did not define us. Hope that it was really ok to not be like the other girls. Hope that it was ok to crave both romance and something more. Hope that ambition in a woman was not unattractive. Hope that we really could give a dramatic performance or write a book (or any other creative endeavor), even if no one around us ever aspired to such things. Hope that if our imaginations got the better of us and we ended up in some bizarre scrape (like hanging onto a bridge for dear life because our little skiff sprung a leak), he might tease us a little, but at least he would bail us out.
The fact that a man like Gilbert might love a woman like Anne meant that maybe we actually were not too much. This was perhaps the biggest hope of all—that with all of our fiery emotions (and possibly bad tempers) and lofty ideals and propensity for mischief and artistic bent and flair for the dramatic and tendency to make mistakes because we were so outspoken, maybe we were not more than a man could handle. Maybe we were just right, exactly as we were.
No wonder a fictional character managed to be the first true love of so many young girls. Maybe it was silly. Or maybe it was exactly what we needed to keep us from losing heart.
And when I look at the man I’ve married—well, perhaps he’s not quite so eloquent and refined as Gilbert. But goodness, he has always embraced all of me—the good, the bad and the crazy. He champions me. He cheers me on when I chase my ambitions. He laughs at my dramatics . . . and occasionally gets a little dramatic himself. He picked me because I wasn’t like all the other girls. He’s not threatened by my strengths. He’s my safe place.
Like Anne, it took me a little bit to find him because I went looking for my ideals outside myself too. But even there is another gift Gilbert gave us—the hope that if it took a long journey to find ourselves, we would eventually find our way home, find our way to the love we’d always needed.
I don’t know if this will help our men look any less bewildered as we cry over a fictional character, but pondering the significance of this beloved character and how he actually shaped me has helped me to understand my own heart a little better and to appreciate my husband a lot more. And I’ll take both of those things any day.
So, rest in peace, Jonathan Crombie. And thank you, thank you for immortalizing the reminder of what kind of love we could hope for and giving us courage to be true to the women Anne inspired us to be.