i was going to write about the time my father took me to see out of africa. i was in fourth grade, and now know that i probably didn't understand many subtleties in that movie. but watching that movie with my head on my dad's shoulder, i fell in love with robert redford. the way his blond hair fell across the forehead of his wise face. his voice and the rhythm in which he said his lines. the way the skin creased around his eyes when he would laugh. while watching that movie i also learned the valuable lesson that if robert redford plays the male lead, the movie may not turn out as you want. this is code for: he might die. and when he did, i didn't quite understand. i leaned over and whispered to my dad, "but he is alive isn't he?" he shook his head no. and i cried and cried. the first big love of my life breaking my heart. all in about two hours.
i was going to write a story about a 13 year old falling in love for the first time. she would be sitting cross-legged on a blanket under a tree in the backyard of her family's home, her hair in a long braid down her back. and she would be in the arms of mr. darcy as she turned page after page of the book on her lap. mr. darcy, could there ever be such a man as her mr. darcy?
but during this brainstorming, i talked with my father, and he told me that eleanor had passed away last week. she was the woman who took care of me during the first few years of my life. i remember her dog peaches and the cookies she would make and that the table in her kitchen was a booth. i remember that there were sometimes other kids in the house to play with. i remember that her husband bob had a huge cookie jar collection. and i remember love. i always felt love at eleanor's house. i think she understood me in ways i didn't even realize.
i was blessed to have the love of my parents during those first years, but also the love of two other women: eleanor and my grandmother. and as I think about this idea of first love, my mind has turned to the idea of someone who taught me about love and acceptance: mrs. lewis.
mrs. lewis was my pre-school teacher, and i loved her with the fierce determination of a three year old wanting to mirror her every move and the sound of her laughter and the calm of her presence. she taught me to love the sound of someone's voice reading aloud, and in turn, to love reading books aloud when i could read. she taught me the importance of sharing and how to always tell the truth. but most of all, she accepted me in a moment that could have been full of shame. and for this, i will always hold her deeply in my heart.
as a child, i was terrified of the dark. i always slept with a bright night light and my bedroom door open. my pre-school class was at a play or maybe even a marionette show and the theatre was pitch black. mrs. lewis had me on her lap because she knew how scared i was of darkness like this and how any hint at an "evil character" would cause me distress. and in the midst of my anxiety, i did the unthinkable. the thing that i hadn't done all school year. the thing i watched another student do every day during naptime while i would wait and then think, "why does he do that every single day? i would never do that." but i did. i wet my pants. and even worse, i wet my pants while sitting on her lap.
she just scooped me right up and took me to the bathroom where she cleaned up both of us. i don't remember the logistics of all of that, i just remember that as i cried and cried worried she was going to be mad or not like me anymore or not let me come back to school, she soothed me in a way that let me know that she was not angry. how this happens when we are afraid sometimes. how i was not going to be in trouble and that no, my parents would not be angry either. she helped me know that it was okay. i was going to be fine. and she was fine too.
no one but my parents and mrs. lewis knew what happened. how she kept it from the other students i do not know. i am sure i was quite a story in some ways, but she never invited me to feel any shame. she never brought it up again. even now, to this day, she welcomes me into her classroom with a huge hug and introduces me to her students. i try to visit her every now and then. and when i do, i am always reminded that love is when you invite a person to become even more than they already are through encouragement and acceptance. love does not invite shame.