We have lots of firsts. Memories of many bury themselves deeply within our minds because they seem inconsequential to our daily lives, but there they stay. There must be some reason that the vestiges of those firsts remain in our memories—perhaps to aid us when we experience similar things in our lives, or maybe they dwell there simply to give us a smile on a winter’s night when an old friend pops up and says, “Remember?”
He is an old friend, and he did pop up a few nights ago on Facebook and said hello. He’s an important old friend, someone with whom I shared entry into the world of true romance.
We were seven. He is upper left; I am the blonde smack in the middle.
It was early fall and second grade had just begun. I had little interest in boys beyond how hard I could kick them in the shins when they got too close (yes, I was a bit of a terror), or which would play the best “Batman” on the playground to my “Catwoman.” Our Batman play involved a large, heavily rooted tree on the edge of the asphalt playground. We ran around and around the tree before taking off to the monkey bars that would, today, cause cardiac arrest for any observing safety inspectors. We would then return to the playground over a cracked and weed-infested concrete area with tall chain link fences at either end that was once a tennis court; our school had been a high school a decade before. After traversing the tennis court, the running around the tree began again. I am not sure how our play re-enacted the Batman show, but that was how it worked.
The boy that caught my attention was not a Batman. He stood off to the side, often staring at me, and I didn’t know what to do with that. He didn’t come close enough to kick him, so he was a complete enigma.
He drew me away like no one has done since. How could one not investigate such a mystery?
When we recently chatted he casually mentioned being near “The Portables,” which were portable classrooms outside of the main school whose use was reserved for cool second graders, because who else was there in the Universe?
He mentioned the grass near The Portables as if it was just grass. It wasn’t. It was the grass of the kids who were separate from the rest for good reason—we were cool second graders with cool portables. There was a small hill of mown grass near The Portables on which only cool kids could sit (including some older student usurpers), and of those cool kids, only those who were romantically involved.
We had only the slightest idea of what romantic meant, but we were placed in a situation where we needed to learn quickly. If we had not, the older kids might have chased us off of our little hill of grass, and the weight of that embarrassment could not be borne.
I followed the boy with the brown-red hair to be near The Portables. I pretended I had a reason to be there and kicked other boys when necessary, to prove I had a reason. That boy with the brown-red hair had nothing to do with my being there. I didn’t like him at all. I went home and expounded on how I didn’t like him at all.
A couple of days ago when I mentioned his name to Grandma Beanie, her eyes lit up with recognition. She knew I didn’t like him at all. That is why we all remember his name forty five years later. He meant nothing. Nothing.
He meant everything, but it was a hard sell to get me to admit that when I was seven. I wasn’t going to like him, because that was not what self-respecting tomboys did. They didn’t like boys, not at all.
During the time I was not going to like him at all Grandpa John often said, “We are going to have a bunch of little Gooshwalls running around here.” The whole family teased me with that for years—no—decades. The last conversation I had with Johnny as he taught me to reload shotgun shells included hunting, field dressing game, baby powder and Gooshwalls.
My old friend will recognize that murdered name. I hope he will know that we all remember his real name and appreciate him. I hope he will understand that all of my family could not have recognized his name if I had not spoken of him constantly when I was a very romantic seven year old child.
He was my first.
He held my hand on the mown grass outside of The Portables when we seemingly had no idea of what romance was about. But we did know. We knew romance in its purest form. We knew it in the best form.
We didn’t have any Gooshwalls running around here, but we all have irreplaceable memories because of my dear old friend that said hello a few nights ago.
Thank you, Jerry. Thank you for then, and thank you for now.