The Poured-Out Heart

Slender and freckle-faced, as plain as his name, my first true love preferred Western shirts with mother-of-pearl buttons and fancy piping, even though he mostly wore soft, plaid flannels or, in warmer weather, crisp cotton with just a hint of his mother’s starch.  On the first day of fourth grade, when alphabetical luck decreed we sit next to one another in Library Class, he happened to be wearing a blue-and-white check with a single pocket and short sleeves.  Forever after, it was my favorite.

As so often happens, proximity bred friendship. When the librarian told us it was time to share books and read to one another, I read with Tim.  Encouraged to search for shelved books by Dewey decimal number, we searched together.  Entrusted with the responsibility of choosing our own book report partners, we chose each other.

One day, Tim walked me home from school.  It wasn’t far: through the playground, across the cinder track and football field, and then across the track again, swerving around the big willow tree at the corner.  The first day,  he left me at my gate.  Later, he would stay for the cookies and lemonade or milk my mother brought before leaving us to climb the cherry trees behind the house or sit and look at the clouds. 

On my birthday, he gave me a new set of jacks. Stubby and thick, sparkling in shades of metallic blue, green and red, they were easy to pick up, and the hard rubber ball that came with them bounced higher than my dad’s old golf balls.  They were a perfect gift, a confirmation that Tim was, quite frankly, everything a fourth-grade girl could hope for in a special friend.

When Valentine’s Day arrived, Tim appeared at our class party with something red and frilly tucked under his arm.  He never hesitated. Parting the class like some Midwestern Moses he walked up, handed me the chocolates-filled heart with the huge, red bow and said, “Here. This is for you.”   How he found the courage I’ll never know, but I was as speechless as my classmates.  And yes, at the age of nine ~ I was in love.

Despite the fact that we hadn’t yet held hands, there was no help for it. We’d become an “item”.  As jump ropes slapped against concrete and markers tumbled over the hopscotch courts we began to hear the playground chant:  “Timmy and Linda, sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g.  First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes Linda with a baby carriage!”  It was a simpler day, a simple time, and perhaps it simply was assumed up and down the generational ladder that things might happen in just that way.  Tim and I never gave any of it a thought.  We were fourth grade friends, perfectly content, and life was good.

With the arrival of summer, young love gave way to the necessities of life.  Tim traveled to visit grandparents out of state. I visited my own grandparents and then went on to camp.  As the weeks passed and my friends and I began to anticipate the beginning of school, we were aware of whispers and rumors. Something had happened to Tim.  Nagged and prodded by their children, evasive parents and teachers concealed the truth as long as they could, and then confessed. Although comfortable with water and a strong swimmer, Tim had drowned in an unfamiliar lake and would not be coming back.

When I was given the news by my parents, I said I understood Tim was gone. Still, I had no way of anticipating the magnitude of my loss. On the day classes began, Tim was not there.  When we went to the library, my familiar friend was not sitting beside me.  As the Librarian called the roll, small voice after small, anxious voice quavered “Present”, until she came to the place where Tim’s name would have been. As she paused, we looked down at our hands, feeling the weight of a terrible absence  and the stinging pain of loss.  At the end of that empty and terrible day I walked home alone, unseeing, past the playground, track and tree that had been the markers of our life.  Finally, I simply sat on the front step and waited.  For what, I couldn’t say.

As the days and weeks passed, Tim’s absence became  more than I could bear.  I begged to be taken to the local cemetery where he was buried, but my own good parents, like the good parents of so many friends, were convinced that children needed to be protected from such things.   In the end, it was my fourth-grade teacher who recognized and responded to the depth of a child’s grief.  In a gesture both bold and compassionate – a gesture still possible in a day when teachers were like part of the family – she helped me pick a bouquet of autumn grasses from the schoolyard. Then, we journeyed through the late afternoon to the cemetery, to say goodbye.

Few memories of my life are as clear as the memory of standing at my friend Tim’s grave with my teacher’s arms around me, her voice urging me to cry until I could cry no more.  Tears poured down my face, splashing over Tim’s headstone and onto the earth until, at last, the tears were ended.  Emptied of emotion, I stood while my teacher wiped my eyes with a tiny, embroidered handkerchief and spoke the words that have echoed in my heart for years: “Sometimes, you have to be sad before you can be happy again.”

That might have ended the story, were it not for a funeral I attended decades later in a Liberian village.  As prayers were offered for a young woman who had died in childbirth, a libation was poured. Fresh palm wine splashed to the ground from a calabash held high in the air, running in rivulets across the hard-packed earth like tears washing over a gravestone.  The experience was strangely comforting, as though all of the grief, sorrow and pain of the family had been poured out in a single liberating gesture.

Throughout my time in Liberia,  I experienced the pouring of libation in a variety of settings.  It became impossible to witness the ritual without sensing the participants’ shared conviction that gifts of purification and new life were human possibilities.  After my return to the States, I saw echoes of the gesture everywhere, not as the residue of an inferior culture but as a primal gesture grounded in the nature of human life.  A purely intentional action pointing to a larger reality, libation resonates with sacramental grace, not unlike the moment when a priest elevates the chalice to remind the faithful of what was poured out, and to what purpose. Grace, of course, can make its presence felt anywhere, and the vessel itself is beside the point: jeweled or plastic, golden or gourd, it is the action which matters.

Today, remembering what the years have poured into my life and what has flowed away, I find myself increasingly compelled by images of the human heart as chalice, cup or gourd.  As vessels designed for both memory and hope, we must empty ourselves from time to time if life is to fill us with a flood of fresh offerings. 

It can be a difficult gesture.  The human propensity to clutch at life, to hold on to what has been rather than risk reception of what might yet be is so strong that pouring out our cup of days can seem impossible.  But that is what we are called to do, pouring out all the bitterness and disappointment, all the shattered dreams, all the unfulfilled longings, anxieties and fears into a great and swelling stream.  

My dear fourth-grade teacher was exactly right to comfort me with her words, “You have to be sad before you can be happy again”. But that is only the beginning, only the first half of the emotional equation.  Eventually, the sadness itself must be released if happiness is to dwell in the chambers of a receptive heart.  If we are to be filled, heart and soul, with any of the gifts which make us human, there must be a place for those riches to make their home.

For most of us, the process of emptying takes time: sometimes months, sometimes years or even decades.   However long it takes, when the  moment comes to pour out the old in favor of the new, the promise is that life stands ready to offer its gifts, saying, “Here. This is for you.”

 

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Published in: on February 13, 2010 at 12:47 pm  Comments (26)  
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  1. Ah, Linda, tracking the humanness of it all in another phase of life so life will flow, and telling it from the heart. You do it so well. Thank You.

    Sharon

    Sharon,

    “Telling it from the heart” ~ there’s the trick. I could read, spell and write at a very early age. The heart took a little longer to prepare.

    You know I always appreciate your presence. Thank you for stopping by.

    Linda

  2. Linda, your words fill my heart with hope and inspiration. This is a beautiful piece.

    I loved the story of your “first true love,” and it made me fondly recall my own experience as a child with a little boy who stole my heart for the first time. Such a sad ending to your tale, but, as always in your writing, you managed to turn sadness into peaceful, lovely thoughts.

    Becca,

    I’ve always appreciated Soren Kierkegaard’s words: “Life must be understood backwards; but… it must be lived forward.” Many events of my life, including my friendship with Timmy, have lain dormant for years. Now I’m finding I can write about them with a new compassion and understanding as I look backward into time.

    I’m glad you found inspiration and even more happy to hear you use the word “hope”. Without hope, the sadness wins.

    Linda

  3. Linda,

    Well… you must know your words spoke to my heart, as I continue to chip away at the icy grief left by my mother’s death though my own writing. Writing is good therapy and for me, a heart-felt written word makes the best of Valentines.

    My parents dealt with their grief by ignoring it, by putting it away somewhere in a box with the lid shut tight, to keep their loss contained until forgotten. Of course, the heart never forgets even as the memory slips below the surface of the mind.

    Perhaps this, at least in part, caused Dad to break and withdraw while Mom became hard and unfeeling. I say this not as judgment but rather in observation, knowing that my parents handled their losses in the best way known to them.

    We each find our own way, and maybe if we’re lucky as you were with your teacher, someone is there to show us a better way, a way to open our hearts to release our grief. It was this need that led me to become a Stephen Minister long ago — and that now leads me down a related path of listening to stories of the heart.

    My chosen way is to keep my grief like chocolates in a heart-shaped box — chocolates dressed up so prettily that they can’t be ignored for long — to take out and open up and taste as I must. Slowly, I will empty my grief, one bite at a time, until it’s all melted upon my tongue. And eventually my grief box will empty and all that will remain will be the pretty red heart-shaped box to remind me — what heart knows better than mind — that love never dies.

    Thanks for the Valentine.

    Janell

    Janell,

    The truth, of course, is that my teacher’s wisdom wasn’t absorbed immediately. It disappeared beneath the surface of my life as surely as your parents’ grief was shut away, and wasn’t available to me when other great griefs arrived.

    Even so, the experience remained, and my memory of it. Eventually I was able to begin drawing on its power, understanding there is a better way to face the sadness and losses of life than with coldness, emotional dishonesty and distance. That doesn’t mean it’s always easy, and it certainly doesn’t mean I don’t struggle like everyone else when difficulties arrive. But I know now how to deal with such issues, despite the difficulties.

    I know this, too. The grief box can be emptied.

    Linda

  4. I’m going to post two comments. This was a post by the Chicago Sun-Times Columnist Mike Royko that I cut out and saved probably 30 years ago. It was my good fortune to have known him a little bit when I was working for the Wendella Line tour boat company and we all used to drink at the Billy Goat Tavern…where the phrase “Cheeburger, Cheeburge, no fries, chips” originated.

    It helps very much to have friends, including so many whom I’ve never met.

    Many of you have written to me , offering words of comfort, saying you want to help share the grief in the loss of my wife, Carol. I can’t even try to tell you how moved I’ve been, and I wish I could take your hands and thank each of you personally. Others have called to ask when I’ll be coming back to work. I don’t know when. It’s not the kind of job that should be done without full enthusiasm and energy. And I regret that I don’t have much of either right now. So I’m going to take a little more time off. There are practical matters I have to take care of. I want to spend time with my sons. And I can use some hours just to think and remember.

    Some friends have told me that the less I look to the past the better. Maybe. But I just don’t know how to close my mind’s door on 25 years. That was our next anniversary. November. Actually, it was much longer than that. We met when she was 6 and I was 9. Same neighborhood street. Same grammar school. So if you ever have a 9-year-old son who says he is in love, don’t laugh at him. It can happen.

    People who saw her picture in the paper have told me how beautiful she appeared to be. Yes she was. As a young man I puffed up with pride when we went out somewhere and heads turned, as they always did. But later, when heads were still turning, I took more pride in her inner beauty. If there was a shy person at a gathering, that’s whom she’d be talking to, and soon that person would be bubbling. If people felt clumsy, homely and not worth much, she made them feel good about themselves. If someone was old and felt alone, she made them feel loved and needed. None of it was put on. That was the way she was.

    I could go on, but its too personal. And I’m afraid that it hurts. Simply put, she was the best person I ever knew. And while the phrase “his better half” is a cliché, with us it was a truth. Anyway, I’ll be back. And soon, I hope, because I miss you, too, my friends.

    In the meantime, do her and me a favor. If there’s someone you love but haven’t said so in a while, say it now. Always, always, say it now.

    Richard,

    As an Iowan, I first read Mike Royko in the Des Moines Register. My dad had a friend he affectionately called “Slats”, after Slats Grobnik, of course. Royko was just the best.

    This is such a wonderful, touching column – direct, honest and down-to-earth. And isn’t it just the truth? Even in the midst of this commercialized Valentine madness, there are people who need to hear “I love you”. I have a call or two to make myself.

    Linda

  5. I clearly remember the first girl I ever had a crush on, though I can no longer remember her name. It was in the first grade at the Hosmer Elementary School in Watertown, Mass. (Incidentally the town my father’s family settled in when they came to this land in 1630 and my mom’s family a couple of years later. Isn’t it strange that your parent’s families knew each other over 300 years ago?)

    Anyway, my first crush was the little Chinese girl who sat in the desk directly in front of me. God, but she was beautiful. I was completely smitten, but as the result of 300+ years of New England reticence I don’t think I ever said a word to her. Then, one day, she was absent and I was in a panic. I had NO IDEA where I sat. All I knew was I sat behind HER. I didn’t know what the kids who sat on either side of me or behind me looked like to indicate where my desk was. All I knew was that I sat behind the prettiest girl in the room and now she wasn’t there. Today I still have an unconsummated attraction to Asian women.

    Richard,

    I don’t know if I’d call it strange, but it is fascinating to think of your parents’ families knowing each other so far back. I’ve had some luck tracing one strand of my mother’s family back to County Down, but details about some of the others are pretty fuzzy. I do know a great-grandfather lived in a Nebraska soddy, though. I’m game for a lot, but I’m not sure that would have been fun.

    Your prettiest girl was the center of your universe, wasn’t she? In the most literal sense, as a matter of fact. But you can’t just leave us there! Where had she gone? Did she come back? Was she all right? Had the family moved, perhaps?

    Your story reminds me of a strange reality of blogging life. Every now and then someone just disappears. They’ve been there, happily posting entries – sometimes for months – and then, nothing. Sometimes it really bothers me. I always wish they’d leave a note on the door on the way out. It wouldn’t have to be much. “Bored” would do, or “Family going to leave if I don’t stop”. Whatever.

    But you understand that. You left a note ;-)

    Linda

  6. Linda, the story touches my heart deeply.

    I too lost my special friend when he and I were eleven years old. He too died in an accident as he fell from his bike and was catapulted over a bridge into the river below. I was lucky in that in the Librizzi culture young children are allowed to say their goodbyes to friends and family members. But the ache of the loss is still very much alive. His sister Maria is still my dearest friend from my childhood, an unbreakable bond and connection.

    Your story is beautifully told, sensitive, and touching.

    Maria

    Maria,

    Such experiences are universal, aren’t they? Love, loss, grief ~ no one is immune, and every culture has their own ways of coping. My father’s people were Swedish, my mother’s Irish. Needless to say, there are significant differences between those cultures. Sometimes I laugh and say that as I age the Irish in me is overtaking the Swedish – in my case, at least, a good thing.

    You remind us, too, that positive consequences can flow from such experiences. The bond you forged with your other Maria will endure for life ~ what a blessing for you!

    Thank you so much for your kind words. Your own sensitive spirit enriches us all.

    Linda

  7. Thank you, Linda, for this Valentine’s gift, the story of your first love.

    I lost my husband on Valentine’s Day, five years ago, murdered in a rural ER by an incompetent drug-addicted doctor. Your story brought both tears and healing. How wise was your teacher. How lucky we are to know you.

    Sue,

    I’m so sorry, and yet so glad to know the grief has been somewhat tempered by new joys. There never, ever is any predicting what life has in store for us. Sometimes I think the telling of stories is the best preparation of all ~ when the next, unbelievable thing comes down the road, we can at least say,”Well, yes. I’ve heard of something like this.”

    I’d change only one thing in your comment. I’d say we’re lucky to know one another.

    Linda

  8. “Your story is beautifully told, sensitive, and touching.”

    Linda, I have copied this sentence from Maria, as it says it all. Such a heart-wrenching story, but uplifting at the same time.

    My first love I am lucky to still have, not as “a lover” but as one of my oldest friends. In July we will have known each other 53 years.
    Our ‘connection’ has drifted in and out over the years, just as the tide laps on the shore, but he rang me on Monday morning to send me his love and offer a pair of ears if I needed them. His first real Valentine to me? A very small bottle of perfume by Dior, called J’adore.

    Aptly suitable for a Valentine gift, don’t you think?

    Sandi

    Sandi,

    A wonderful gift, indeed! I’ve always thought Valentine’s gifts should be grace notes, not arias ~ appetizers rather than main courses.

    It may sound strange, but to my mind the best thing about flowers, perfume, candy and other such gifts is the very fact that they’re consumed. Flowers die, candy is eaten, perfume is used up ~ they’re ephemeral and extravagant, like the first stirrings of romantic love.

    On the other hand, relationships that endure over time are one of the surprise gifts of getting older. They’re the very opposite of ephemeral and extravagant ~ they tend toward the sturdy and practical ~ but they have their own joys. When Mr. Sturdy-and-Practical shows up with flowers – Happy Valentine’s Day! :-)

    Linda

  9. Linda, this is a heart-wrenching and heart-refreshing piece. Thank you. And what a marvelous memory for detail you have, going back into childhood days.

    Mary Ellen,

    Memory’s a funny thing. I have terrible difficulty with dates – ask me what year I graduated college, or the year my father died, or even my own age, and I have to do some calculating. But I can call up visual memories from as early as my high chair days and tell you exactly what was happening ~ how people were dressed, what was on a shelf, whether it was cloudy or sunny, and so on.

    The most famous example is the day my mother trapped a mouse with a dishpan under her kitchen sink. I wasn’t a year old, and yet I can perfectly describe the scene. I even know it was 8:15 in the morning – not because I could tell time, but because I can “see” the image of the clock. When I got old enough to tell time, I could interpret the image.

    In any event, thank you for the kind words, and I’m glad you found refreshment for your heart in the end.

    Linda

  10. I am also touched by the detail of your story.

    I was so removed from my self as a child. I didn’t know how to feel. I sit in wonder reading what you wrote, observing a child in such a relationship with another child, and experiencing it with deep feeling. It wasn’t until I was 30 that a doctor challenged me to think of feelings as friends. We do have to know when to let them go, those feelings of grief. And a ritual can be very helpful.

    Ruth,

    Reading your comment, I’m reminded of Bob Dylan’s famous line, “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now…” In some ways, my adulthood has been a process of recapturing the wisdom of my childhood ~ becoming “younger”. Thinking about the image of the “curious and shrinking” little girl on your blog, I suspect you know something about that yourself.

    For me, it hasn’t only been a matter of learning to relinquish grief, bitterness, disappointment and so on, but also reclaiming trust, openness, and a hopeful view of life. The difference between then and now is a healthy dose of realism. We can’t avoid feelings of sadness, inferiority, or anxiety any more than we can avoid the inevitable people who prefer to deceive, manipulate and inflict grief on others. When I discover them lurking, I treat them very much as I do negative feelings. I simply acknowledge their presence and move on. Sometimes, the process is complicated and difficult, but it can be done.

    Some years ago I injured myself at work. It wasn’t particularly serious, but it was occasionally painful. The doctor told me to avoid over-the-counter medications. As he put it, “When you begin to feel the pain, you’ll know it’s time to stop for a while. Without the pain as an indicator, you could do more damage.” Very wise, and not unrelated to the point your doctor was making.

    Linda

  11. Linda:

    Yes, my Chinese girl came back. She’d just been sick. But we moved and I attended a different school in the second grade. In fact I attended five different schools in the first seven years. I was ALWAYS the NEW KID. I hated it.

    On my father’s side I can trace my family back to the 1100s in England and on my mother’s side it goes back to Banquo the friend of Macbeth. I saw that in a genealogy when I was in high school.

    It turns out that I have some rather well-known relatives including Winston Churchill (his mother was an American, you know), Stephen Decatur, Robert Frost and, my favorite, Frank Cady who played Sam Drucker on Green Acres. In my family there were a lot of sea captains and writers. Nathaniel Philbrick is a distant cousin.

    Richard,

    Ah, good. I feel better ;-) All of that moving must have been hard, though. I didn’t get into the moving mode until college age, and at that point it didn’t seem as disruptive as exciting.

    Interesting to see your connection with Nathaniel Philbrick. I only discovered him recently. Some of the wood from the oaks that were killed by Hurricane Ike is headed to Mystic Seaport, for the restoration of the whaling ship there. In the course of learning about that ship, I bumped into the story of the Essex, told “In the Heart of the Sea”. It’s a fascinating book, which I might re-read now that I’ve been reminded of it again.

    Linda

  12. That is beautiful Linda. I am really sorry to hear that your first love died in such a way. It was very sweet and I was touched by the story and your words.

    Thank you so much, Lex.

    He was such a good friend, and a nice boy. We had lots of fun while we were together, and sometimes I think how wonderful it would be for every child to have such a relationship.

    It makes me happy to be able to tell a few people about him – happy that for just a few days, he’s remembered again.

    Linda

  13. Everybody says work is good for ya. Well if work is so great, how come they gotta pay ya for it?– Slats Grobnik

    You’re right. Royko was one of the best. So was Molly Ivans. The world’s a better place because they were in it and I don’t know who’ll take their places.

    oldsalt,

    The best thing about Molly was her equal-opportunity approach to satire. It made no difference to her – the Texas legislature, the Bushes, Southern Liberals, vegetarians, San Francisco effetes – they all got whacked by Molly. It wasn’t her salty tongue that offended folks as much as her unerring eye and insistence on speaking her mind. Regardless.

    I wish she’d had another decade or two. I would have loved to see her take on the politically-correct crowd. ;-)

    Linda

  14. Linda,
    What a touching story. It made me think of how at seven, I was perhaps too young to properly grieve for my sister when she died, even though I attended the funeral with the whole family and lived through my parents’ sorrow which lingered for years thereafter.

    Thanks also to your commenter Richard who copied that Royko column. Mike Royko was my Dad’s first read every day, and I can still remember him laughing over him.

    ian,

    There’s another custom gone the way of pay phones and collect calls – family newspaper reading. If Dad hadn’t already gone out to get it, I’d run out for the morning paper and skim it while he was shaving and getting dressed. Every day he’d come out and ask, “Anything in the paper?” His morning routine was front page, stock quotes, editorials. Then, at night, he’d finish reading it while dinner was fixed. Mom would have read it during the day and I’d look at it again after school – and we would talk about what we’d found during dinner.

    It sounds like the Pleistocene era, doesn’t it?

    Funny that with so much conversation about news and events it was so hard for us to talk about things like Timmy’s death. Things are different today, although I’m not certain they’re necessarily better.

    Linda

  15. Hi Linda,
    What a lovely Valentine story – thank you.

    Time certainly is a great salve in the healing process. It’s amazing how one day we don’t think we can go on, and eventually, we can be happy again. The resilience of humans! As you pointed out, the releasing of those emotions is so good, too. How many of us were told, as children, not to cry! I indulge in a really good cry now and then, and the feeling of peace and release afterward is astounding.

    There have been times, particularly with my children, when I have desperately wanted to take on their pain, to save them. But it wouldn’t stand them in good stead, would it… they need their own experiences to build the strength to face life.

    Happy Valentine’s Day and love to you.
    Qu

    qugrainne,

    I just had a listen – for the first time in years – to an old song by the Four Seasons. Big Girls Don’t Cry, they sang, and wasn’t that the lesson we learned, in a thousand different ways? Not crying was the sign of a “strong” person, or so we were told. That was one lesson well worth the un-learning.

    As for your other point – the importance of building strength to face life – the phrase that comes to mind is “emotional immunity”. I’ve always been extraordinarily healthy, and while I suspect my out-of-doors, rather solitary lifestyle has helped with that over the past 20 years, it’s a fact that today’s obsession with cleanliness in childhood would have been thought ridiculous when I grew up.

    We played, we tussled, we ate dirt and chewed on toys that had been carted back and forth from who-knows-where. And we didn’t die. I suspect what we were doing was building our immune systems. Insisting a child live in any sort of bubble – physical or emotional – is no favor to them.

    Isn’t sharing our memories with one another wonderful?

    Linda

  16. Linda,

    I have no words to respond. This is so poignant, and so true. “… pouring out our cup of days can seem impossible.” But only by emptying our inner self can we be filled again. I learned that in terms of spiritual blessings, but here you’re suggesting that it works for other aspects of life too.

    But of course, it’s not easy to pour something out that has already internalized and become a part of you. But if all the “bitterness and disappointment, all the shattered dreams, all the unfulfilled longings, anxieties and fears” are in the way of new blessings, we must learn to pour them out as waste water. Clean the vessel for new, fresh filling.

    What a moving message. Your story of your first love is one of the best love stories I’ve read. Remember our discussion? Romance is ephemeral, but love endures… and that includes the healing effects of self-love. I thank you for this reminder.

    Arti,

    Oh, yes ~ I certainly do remember. I was reading and re-reading your discussion of Emma while I was working on this, long before I left my comment. When I finally spotted the distinction you made between romance and love, it supported some of my own conclusions.

    One of the sadder aspects of Valentine’s Day isn’t commercialization per se, but that those who seek to exploit its commercial possibilities focus almost totally on romance – with an occasional nod to mothers. When we had our childhood valentine parties at school, we weren’t celebrating romance, we were learning lessons about love: that it’s all right to express affection, that sometimes you give someone a valentine not because you like them but because they need it, that no one should be left out.

    At the end of the day, everyone went home from our valentine parties with their hand-decorated valentine box filled to the brim. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if life were that way?

    Linda

  17. I’m amazed you had a teacher with that much compassion. It has been my experience, growing up in the time that you did, give or take a few years, that teachers were singularly unfeeling. But, what a blessing to have this one.

    As a teacher myself, we don’t always realize the impact that we have on children. It makes me shudder to think what would have happened it she would have just ‘shrugged’ this situation off. I have tears in my eyes that she held you after taking you to the cemetary.

    It’s interesting that when I was in fourth grade a boy in my class drowned, too. We had a terrible flood that year, and he was playing with his brothers in the big cement drainpipes. Apparently the water was too strong, and he couldn’t hold on any longer. When his brother ran for help he must have let go, because when the grown-ups came to the scene he was no longer there. I remember the dreadful quiet in the classroom the next day, just as you describe, but I did not have the deep affection for him that you had for Tim. Your experience was much worse.

    It is these kinds of experiences that form us into who we are today. Build a foundation of our moral character, our capacity to grieve. I’m often amazed that children can stand so much pain. My own son lost his father when he was only six; I don’t know how he bears it to this day, and he’s now nineteen.

    Bellezza,

    My grade school teachers were remarkable as a whole. I still remember those years with a great deal of pleasure. Whatever my teachers intended, as I look back it seems they were as committed to fitting us for life as imparting “book knowledge”. I suspect at least one would be a bit surprised at the depth of her influence ~ or perhaps not.

    There is so much grief in the world it’s a wonder any of us survives. But survive we do. And we remember, and sometimes we remember out loud and that helps others remember their own griefs and joys and pains.

    I can’t help but remember something Annie Dillard said once, in a speech rather than in a book: “The secret is not to write about what you love best, but about what you, alone, love at all.” I think it was her way of saying the most personal is the universal.

    Linda

  18. Not very often does a post move me to gut-wrenching tears like this, Linda. It would make a very powerful movie, actually. Have you ever tried your hand at script writing? I’m serious!

    Ginnie,

    Script writing? Me? I wouldn’t have a clue. Of course, two years ago I never would have imagined writing such a story for public consumption, so there you are.

    You do remind me that I know a blogger who does wonderful work with digital story-telling. I’ve admired her work but never really looked at the details of how it’s done because I didn’t think I had any story to tell. Might have to re-think that. :-)

    Linda

  19. Oh my goodness, reading this made my eyes fill with tears. Physically people may pass, but they live on in our memories. Thank you for sharing this.

    Carol,

    How kind of you to stop by. It’s nice to be able to make someone live again, if only for a while. I still had a few tears to shed myself.

    Linda

  20. Oh Linda, that is so beautiful and sad. All these years later and Tim’s impact on your life is still so present. Shows me that even short lives make tracks upon the earth.

    Jeannine,

    Short lives leave tracks, and so do the so-called “unimportant” ones. When I think about the people who have influenced my life most positively, Tim is very near the top – an unknown child. It just strikes me ~ wasn’t there something in a book somewhere about “a little child shall lead them”? :-)

    Linda

  21. Even though it is many years later, I am sorry for your loss. I hate that it is so easy to underestimate the impact that certain events can have on children. I look back to when my own daughter was 6 and we moved from Tulsa, OK to Kansas City. While I know we weren’t cold and callous about it, she didn’t voice many concerns or much sadness and it took us a long time to realize how much this hurt her and how long it took her to get over it. Still makes Mary and I sad today to realize just how much we missed it with that situation.

    Your post made me think back to my own childhood loves. “It was a simpler day, a simple time…” It really was, wasn’t it? Sometimes you cannot help but long for the days when relationships were much more frank and upfront and not burdened with all the nonsense that sometimes comes along with adulthood. We all grow up, but maturity doesn’t necessarily come right along with that. Not without some severe growing pains.

    Carl,

    Thank you for your sympathy ~ I appreciate it so much.

    And yet, how ironic that without the loss and the grief, I might not have remembered Timmy at all. I have a few class photos from Grade school, and when I look at them, I have no idea who many of the children are. If Mom happens to remember a name I can pull a few back to life, but some are just gone. They’re nothing more than nameless faces.

    I had to smile at your story of the move – not for the sadness or regret, but because it seems to be such a common experience for parents and children. Very recently my own mother made a comment about junior high and I said, “Junior high might has well have been one of Dante’s circles”. She was astonished. She thought it had been a wonderful time for me. Sometimes children hide things to spare their own parents, after all ;-)

    The nonsense that gets imposed on children today bothers me. We grew up knowing extraordinary freedom – to play, to injure ourselves, to make choices, to accept punishment when we crossed the lines. Children who know freedom will cherish freedom as adults. I wonder if today’s regimented children will ever experience the joy of freedom. I’ve convinced of this – without the freedom to make choices and accept responsibility for them, real maturity isn’t possible.

    Lovely to have you stop by – I think of you often when I’m enjoying my television-free existence!

    Linda

  22. Linda,
    What a beautiful, sad and yet hopeful story. I’m so glad you decided to write about this small slice of your life. I’m always struck by how a relatively tiny window of time during childhood can continue to inform our lives. You did allow Tim to live again in this piece. I enjoyed it very much.
    Bella

    Bella,

    Funny you should use the word “decide” about this piece. Somewhere, sometime, I read someone’s musings on the writing process, and the point was that certain pieces simply come along, tap us on the shoulder and say, “write me’. This was one of those pieces. It’s an interesting experience when it happens.

    And it was nice for me to bring Tim “back to life”. Sometimes I think about individual existence as Cheshire-cat like. Even when there’s only the faintest shadow of a smile left, you still can grab the tail and drag them back ;-)

    Linda

  23. Beautifully written words to help bring meaning to what this holiday is about.
    That is my short response. Apparently I have neglected to comment for too long and your blog forgot I had signed in before.
    Guess my previous lengthy and wordy response was soley for myself. It did, however, end with thank you.

    Nanette,

    Goodness – no idea what happened with your comment. Time shouldn’t have anything to do with it. Ah, well. Cyber-life.

    In any event, thank YOU so much – especially for your comment elsewhere that teachers are the glue that help to hold us together. It’s true, just not often acknowledged. They not only teach us “stuff”, they teach us the joy of learning and passing on lessons ourselves. What could be better?

    Linda

  24. Linda, Linda – I arrived this morning to reassure myself of the power of GOOD WORDS, GOOD THINK, COMPASSION THINK, a place I can come and learn to observe the world around me with better clarity.

    Having raised two boys – that ran naked on the beach when babies, ate dirt, fell from trees, took kayaks out on their own, spearfished etc… much to the horror of my neighbors & my suffocating over protective mother –this paragraph touched me with resonance; Linda it holds more truth then you can imagine:

    The nonsense that gets imposed on children today bothers me. We grew up knowing extraordinary freedom – to play, to injure ourselves, to make choices, to accept punishment when we crossed the lines. Children who know freedom will cherish freedom as adults. I wonder if today’s regimented children will ever experience the joy of freedom. I’ve convinced of this – without the freedom to make choices and accept responsibility for them, real maturity isn’t possible.

    I grew up over-protected, stifled, locked in a room with dolls (thank Goodness I had a library card),I was determined to give my kids what I had never known – choice. While I still carry the residuals of my upbringing – I pray I broke the parenting cycle I had known. When I decided life depicted in My Greek Wedding would not be my future…I entered the world completely unprepared, much as you described. Your paragraph reassured me, I took the right road.

    I only discovered freedom, choice and my own voice through the raising of my children….

    Surfmom,

    Now you know why sailing is so important to me – that’s when I was able to really push the boundaries of that over-protected, doll-littered world and learned to meet challenges head-on. I’d never done more than climb an occasional tree, and that only until someone spotted me and made me come down. “I want to do it MYSELF” was the cry of my growing up years – but I never had the full freedom to choose my goals and set my course until I found myself a secret world on the water. You know something about that, yourself ;-)

    Your children were blessed by your willingness to push some boundaries of your own. In the end, I suspect it will be the pockets of freedom we provide that help to ensure freedom and choice for generations yet to come.

    Linda

  25. I don’t know if you knew that for 10 years I worked (volunteered) as a grief facilitator at a children’s grief center here in Lansing, leading middle school groups (our center had kids from 3-young adult and their parents). During the course of that time, I learned a lot about grief, grieving, and the very specialized area of children and grief. While it’s an issue that is gaining ground in explaining better ways to deal with things than just sucking it up, I’m continually surprised at those who still think, “it’s part of life; they’ll get over it.”

    (In fact, this issue is becoming so prevalent, Sesame Street is presenting a new show called “When Families Grieve” on April 14 in prime time.)

    Last night I had dinner with one of my colleagues from that time. As always, our discussion turned to children’s grief and we recalled how complicated it can be (one girl whose dad died talked only about her cat for the first year. Yet we could see she was “working it out”).

    Now there are better strategies and resources than ever before, but they can be boiled down to just a few words. Listen. Remember. Honor. And that can mean honoring the bad memories, too, and giving them their due; not every death that touches us is someone we loved, and sometimes that’s much more complicated because of the guilt.)

    What your teacher did was so amazing. So perfect. So compassionate. She listened. She remembered. She honored and gave you permission to do that, too.

    This post has brought me to tears, and your image of heart as chalice is so incredibly divine, I am in awe, as I often am when I read your words. But this time, they touch me in a deeply personal and meaningful way. I remain touched and in awe.

    Jeanie,

    I didn’t know about your work at the grief center. I’m glad that such places exist, and that some of the old stereotypes are falling. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve heard the phrase “Stop crying” in my life, directed toward me or other people. Another unfortunate response can be “Why are you crying?” Far too often it sounds like an implied criticism rather than a real question.

    I do wonder now and then if the institutionalization of “grief counseling” doesn’t have its own downside. I admit to some scepticism when it comes to certain of the helping professions, born of my own experience in social work. Sometimes things are made too complex. A simple human gesture can be worth any number of degrees on the wall – but you know that

    How right you are, though, that the death of someone NOT dear to us can be extraordinarily complicated, as can other losses that life brings: divorce, job loss, and so on. And that triad – listen, remember, honor – is exactly right.

    I do know this. There have been other griefs in my life, and none of them has scarred me, however difficult they were at the time. I suspect that my wonderful teacher laid a foundation in those earliest years that continues to help me today. Thank goodness for all of the teachers, family members and friends who take grief seriously.

    And thank you for your extraordinarily kind words. I appreciate them more than you know.

    Linda

  26. You said…
    “I do wonder now and then if the institutionalization of “grief counseling” doesn’t have its own downside. I admit to some scepticism when it comes to certain of the helping professions, born of my own experience in social work. Sometimes things are made too complex. A simple human gesture can be worth any number of degrees on the wall – but you know that.”

    I think it depends on how it’s handled. For example, if you just think you can go to a counselor and get out of the hole, you’re in for a sad surprise. Can’t get out, must get through. And through with others makes such a difference.

    The thing I liked most about Ele’s Place was that parents had to come (in their own group) — and in hearing other parents talk about their grief, their kids’ grief, they better understood their own. IN working with the kids, we were in a group, so they, too, knew they weren’t alone — that other kids experienced similar loss, if different situations and feelings. They were able to share their anger, their frustrations, their memories. And do it while they were doing art projects or playing games or in the activity room. As facilitators, we were well trained but knew our limits — we were, after all, volunteers and not social workers. I liked to think of us as “guides” to help the kids get in touch with their feelings so they could better handle them.

    You are SO right about the simple human gesture — so many times kids would say, “No one even said ‘I’m sorry.'” Sometimes it is SO those little things. And that’s a good lesson for us all to remember.


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