Sarah Hill

Funny You Should Ask: Does Absence Really Make The Heart Grow Fonder?

Funny You Should Ask

“Funny You Should Ask” is The Big Idea Magazine’s recurring segment in which UH professors are asked to weigh in on an idiomatic saying, and their musings on this edition’s adage couldn’t be more different. The pandemic was indeed a strange predicament, as social distancing and isolation became the new normal. We changed the way we worked, interacted with family and friends, and sought entertainment. Our uh community members responded to the following age-old question: does absence really make the heart grow fonder? Their takes on the topic are earnest, witty and even poetic, at times.

The heart specialist…

This past year we have seen our lives change from our normal routine to one of constant uncertainty, where our expectations of life events — from the simplicity of going to the grocery store to major events — have been flipped upside down. As we each came from our rooms — either attending an online school session, teaching an online class or discussing research data via a Zoom meeting — we met together and discussed our days while enjoying lively family meals. We enjoyed taking our dog Poppy on long earlier-morning and late-evening walks. Now, as light is appearing at the end of a long 18-month tunnel, the daily home interactions that I had grown to love once again became moments of merely crossing paths or FaceTime calls to bridge our distance. The absence of those unique bonding moments over family meals has made the heart grow fonder.

As a research scientist studying heart disease, I look for ways to increase the function of a diseased heart or even repair it following a heart attack; to cure the broken heart, one might say. Over the years our family of five will surely grow larger as our young adult children pursue their dreams. As we move forward from the pandemic, I am not only dreaming of making discoveries to repair the broken heart, but also am looking ahead to a time in which we will continue to embrace family and friends with the vigor of the pandemic, and in this way repair the heart’s absence.

Bradley McConnell is a professor in the College of Pharmacy at the University of Houston. He teaches pharmacology and runs a laboratory researching ways to better understand cardiac signaling mechanisms, developing therapeutics for heart repair. McConnell looks for ways to increase the function of a diseased heart and repair them following heart attacks. McConnell and his wife, a high school biology teacher, have three daughters.

The hospitality expert…

This is an interesting philosophical question … If one is not really fond of someone or something, I would argue that absence would do nothing to change that feeling. In fact, absence might make one even less fond of that person or thing. I could also make the case that limited absence that results in missing a person’s warmth, personality, passion, and even oddities would increase one’s fondness for another. However, should that time apart increase to a point where one no longer misses or needs those things — or even finds other sources for them — then the opposite can be true.

Looking at this from an epistemological perspective prompts a different question. What is fondness? Is it amiability? Affection? Or is it simply partiality? I am, for example, partial to a glass of nice wine with dinner, but I do not necessarily feel affection for the vin de table. And while the European tradition of table wine with lunch is laudable, it is not a partiality for me.

The best answer, perhaps, is found in asking this question: do you want absence? If the answer is no, then absence does make the heart grow fonder.

Dennis Reynolds, Dean of the Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management and a wine aficionado in his own right, found his heart definitely growing fonder of places he couldn’t visit during the pandemic, such as the Walla Walla Valley wine region in Washington or Stellenbosch, South Africa — the birthplace of pinotage grapes, and, of course, Bordeaux, for which he has a particular affinity. A well-aged Château Lafite Rothschild would be the ideal vin de table, the absence of which would definitely make his heart grow fonder!

The creative writer…

After the vocabulary lessons: coronavirus; epidemic; pandemic; social distancing; flattened curves. After the long walks, movie marathons, virtual happy hours and family game nights. After physical isolation and miniscule covid pods and FaceTiming with parents and siblings. After warily sending our daughter back to school. After being fully vaccinated. After mourning from afar. After 16 of the quietest, most reflective months of our lives (bouts of anxiety aside), we excitedly embarked on a family vacation/reunion.

As we drove the final hilly leg of an 800-mile drive, and pulled up to the Franklin, Tennessee estate we’d rented for the week — with 12 family members! — the bubble we’d been living in, like my ears, popped. Car doors slammed. Children screeched. Grandparents beamed. My sister cried.

We hugged.
We kissed.
We chose bedrooms.
We laughed.
We fired up the grill.

We got drunk, figuratively at first, and then, quite literally. That evening, sitting around a fire, the kids roasted marshmallows while the adults boisterously made plans for future epic vacations. Colorado. Costa Rica. Italy.

By the time my wife and I slid into bed, I was giddy. Our old life in NYC — years and years ago — had been like this. Obscenely loud. Surrounded by generations. Rarely alone. Back then it sometimes felt stifling. A bit overwhelming. Which factored into our desire to set out and forge our own path. But after so long apart? It felt like a piece of me, unwittingly severed and misplaced, had been re-attached. My heart was full.

The following morning as the kids rampaged through the house, doors slammed, and people shouted good morning! And who wants coffee? As if they’d never heard of inside voices, my wife and I startled awake. Eyes full of sand, head heavy, I turned to her and chuckled.

“Who the hell invited all these people?”

Giuseppe Taurino is the Associate Director of UH’s Creative Writing Program. Previously, he served as the Executive Director of Badgerdog Literary Publishing in Austin, Texas. His work has appeared in American Short Fiction, B O D Y, Epoch, Green Mountains Review, New South, The Potomac Review, and elsewhere. These days, besides writing, he enjoys running and playing chess.