Station wagons puttered past me, hauling my classmates from St. Hugh’s. I scuffed my saddle shoes along the sandy berm of Charles Street, the only kid walking home from school.
Pines rustled and puddled shade on the pavement.
I had never outrun the solitary feel of being an only child my first seven years, and at times like this, loneliness caught me. I’d made friends in fifth grade. Getting my knuckles rapped with Sister Theresa’s ruler for talking in class proved it. But my parents never orbited me the way some of my friends’ parents circled them.
This morning I’d asked Dad if I could row the dinghy to the island with Kate after school.
Kate and I had spent Sunday afternoon planning what we’d take—a sleeve of saltines, four slices of American cheese, thermos of Kool Aid, bucket, spade, beach towel, and insect repellent. We planned to write words in the sand our brothers wouldn’t mess up. We’d scout for unburied treasure, build a sand castle on the far side of the island where we’d never built, and collect shells for our next craft project.
Dad said I had chores and homework, no time for a trip to the island.
I was used to Dad’s nos, but this morning I crumpled onto the fore cabin bench. Tears splotched my uniform.
R.J.’s spoon paused over his Rice Krispies, his four-year-old face inscrutable.
“I’ll give you something to cry about,” Dad said.
Even though I’d grown up with Dad’s pithy response to my tears, a switch flipped inside me today. I was done crying—for good. I sniffed in a big sniff and palmed the wetness from my cheeks. I grabbed my books and lunch and climbed, one-handed up the companionway.
At school the sunshine of praise for work well-done evaporated the morning’s drama. But each step I took down the road tugged me from St. Hugh’s embrace—back to the boat, breakfast, and Dad’s best shot at curing my crying.
I kicked a pine cone and it veered into the dirt yard of one of the shacks I passed each day.
A barefoot black boy peered up at me from the twigs he was building into a teepee. Instead of a Catholic school uniform, a limp T-shirt and ragged shorts hung on his frame. He’d probably view living on a sailboat one step above a mansion on Key Biscayne.
If I wasn’t such an Eeyore, if I had an ounce of gratitude, I would say my life was fine. Dad’s approval wasn’t essential like air, food, or water. Plenty of kids had families who didn’t get along. As much as I hated to admit it, Dad’s never-ending list of chores did little more than gouge my playtime.
Thirty-six years after I walked Charles Street home from school, an e-mail from a St. Hugh’s classmate a grade ahead of me landed in my in-box. The note arrived November 16, 2010, during a year I strained to wring out the deeper novel my literary agent was convinced I had in me. At a seminar I learned that I needed to scrape out my emotions and smear them on the page. But I’d only mastered shoving them inside.
The once shy St. Hugh’s sixth grader, now a fire captain, sat at his desk in Florida late at night when the memory of me plodding home from school flashed through his mind. He could never understand why his carpool wouldn’t give me a ride to the marina when they passed me every day.
Now in his fifties, he googled me and found my website. The man wrote, “I always thought how sad and lonely you looked.”
Through the firefighter’s words, Jesus pressed His fingers into my shoulder and said, “Yes, your childhood was sad.”
On my nineteenth birthday I was born-again Baptist. A few years later, I married a man in the middle of his Master of Divinity degree and woke up a pastor’s wife. I ran headlong into my new life and locked the one I wanted to forget behind Get Smart steel doors.
I welded into Jesus, who listened to my heart. My life was stuffed full of love from my husband, kids, friends and, more often than not, from my church. I lived by the evangelical playbook—studying the Bible, praying, carrying the Four Spiritual Laws in my wallet. I avoided alcohol, R movies, and four-letter words, just to be sure.
For three decades my early years and my emotions moldered. My children barely new I’d lived on a boat.
But the e-mail from a stranger rammed open the cell where my younger self sat. I wrapped the little girl who had been silenced in my arms. My past and present fused. I metamorphosed into the whole person God designed.
Hugging that little girl has made me messy because she’s messy. She thinks Catholics are cool and maybe, deep down, a piece of her will always be Catholic. Alcohol is almost as tasty as chocolate. Sometimes she tosses out a blue word just for the fun of it. She reads the Bible and other books—some playbook approved, some not. She weeps snotty tears. She laughs too loud.
God went out of his way to rescue a girl nobody listened to from a sad childhood. Then He used a fireman to rescue me again. For my sake. And maybe for someone else’s. Could someone out there need the color and intensity of my messy girl? Maybe they’ll see Jesus in a different way—because she speaks.