I only remember snippets of it as I must have been only 4 or 5, but I recall waiting in a velour red dress at the base of the neighbor girl’s spiral staircase. You were there in a gray suit laughing and conversing with her father. Each us us girls – myself, my older sister, and the neighbor – were given corsages made of carnations which was a tremendous thrill! We had yet to grow up and be spoiled by giant bouquets and wedding nosegays.
At some point, we all must’ve made our way to a Daddy Daughter dance because my next recollection is of being in a large, brightly-lit room filled with cookies and punch. It doesn’t appear in my memories to be a particularly familiar place but it may very well have been the local elementary school or community center. Age and time have a funny way of changing one’s perspective so that what is now well-known seems altogether foreign.
Within this dream-like memory, I recall a competition taking place; one that required us to dance together to “Twist and Shout.” The details are quite hazy. Did the rules stipulate that we not stop moving? Did a judge call people out based on some sort of criteria? Who knows. But I do know that we were somehow one of the last groups on the floor. We were going to win! I just knew it! I was so so excited and then… a side cramp hit and we were out.
Just like that.
I was devastated. Heartbroken. We had lost and it was all my fault! The term “devastation” may seem over-the-top but the fact that this memory stays with me after a good 25 years seems to indicate that the shoe fits. But you know what else has stuck with me through all these years? Your reaction. You gave me a hug and acknowledged that losing can be hard but that dancing together, not winning, was what made you most happy. In that moment, you taught me to go easy on myself and helped me recognize in your gentle way that losing is an inevitable and essential part of life.
Fast forward a decade and some odd years. I am sitting on my bed, a miserable sobbing mess, as you eye my report card. As I nervously await your response, I am sure that I am doomed. Doomed! I had failed a class. Me! Miss teacher’s pet. Miss overachiever. Miss people pleaser. Surely, you would make me feel your disappointment in a way that would shake my bones. Surely, your anger would fill up the room and rain down upon me.
But it didn’t happen.
Instead, you pulled out a paper shredder and let it eat up all those terrible feelings that had been gnawing me to the core. You saw my shame and, instead of exposing it, wiped it clean. It was an act of tenderness and love that I will never forget. In that moment, you showed me the power of compassion over punishment. With that single action, you empowered me to move forward and not let guilt impede my future achievements.
In those days, boys came and went. I was certainly no serial dater but when I did fall, I fell hard. Their gifts of roses and jewelry made me feel special; and the feeling of being wanted, as you know, is just about the pinnacle of teenage objectives. You were always polite toward those few boys who made it through our front door but there was a noticeable absence of enthusiasm on your part. It didn’t sting or feel particularly meaningful at the time but, looking back, it spoke volumes. You were pleading with me through that stillness to see that neither roses nor their absence should ever define me. You needed me to know that my self-worth should never depend on the affections of a boy. I got there… eventually.
The years passed quickly. You saw me through both high school and college graduations (never again coming even close to failing a class thank you very much). I saw myself as a bonafide adult while you continued to see in my eyes that freckle faced little girl of my youth; and, in many ways, I was.
I had no idea what I was in for when I decided to move halfway across the country to be with the man I would spend the rest of my life with. But you helped me load up a small moving truck and drive far away from the only home I had ever known anyway. I was ecstatic. You, I’m sure, were not; though you never let on. In my doe-eyed, love struck stupor, I was certain that eternal bliss was within grasp.
Of course, you knew better. Anyone who has ever been married knows better. But you also knew we would have to figure that out ourselves; so without betraying your insight into my blind optimism, you pulled me into a giant bear hug when all the unpacking was finished and simply said, “I’m not sure I’m ready for this.” I playfully rolled my eyes and mentioned I would be home to visit soon but we both knew that our lives were changing forever. And, in that moment, you showed me the strength in letting go, of giving your love away willingly to someone else even when it hurts.
We have spent countless precious moments together. Teachable moments. Moments that have stuck with me, that have made an impact, even when they seem to have slipped by unnoticed. I want you to know today that I do notice them. I cherish them, even now – perhaps especially now – as I parent my own children and strive to follow your example. You were my first and best teacher. And while it may have been years since I last sat behind a desk, Lord knows those freckles still come out when the sun shines and your little girl will always be thrilled by a carnation from her daddy.
**C also writes for POMP USA, a start up company promoting businesses owned by service members, veterans, and their spouses.