It is often said that when a man pursues romantic impulses he is subconsciously driven by a desire to replace his mother; and a woman, her father. Perhaps it is a kind of familial yearning for those qualities absorbed from a parent during early childhood. Qualities that eventually become valued in a way that is difficult to understand, and even more difficult to replicate. In part because such qualities invariably change from generation to generation, and are sometimes lost altogether through a process of cultural attrition (i.e., neither men nor women are who they were a generation ago).
I can remember first experiencing that compelling search for ‘familiarity’ around the age of four. My mother was inside the small corner grocery buying something for dinner. She had left me outside (apparently because I had lately become too much trouble inside) with a stern warning to stay where I was, and “not budge an inch!” So there I stood, scuffling what little was left off the soles of my shoes, when I noticed a curly-headed little girl in a car parked across the street. She leaned out of the window and began wiggling her finger for me to come over.
As I stepped off the curb I can remember smiling for the first time in a moronic way that I later learned was reserved especially for those moments just before doing something totally stupid; usually for the same reason. The next thing I remember is the smell of engine oil and a babble of frantic voices. It was also very dark, and I couldn’t see very well–but what I could see was very close to my nose and looked like the oil pan under an engine. That’s when I felt a hand grip my arm, and then being slowly pulled from under the car that had hit me the moment I stepped off the curb.
The consequences were little more than nausea and a few sore spots that gradually went away after a few days. Nothing so severe as I was to experience in years to come, while pursuing the same compellingly elusive goal. I was to learn many times over what power was contained in, and wielded by that symbolically crook’d and wiggled finger.
As I look back on it, nothing in my conscious mind can explain the sudden appearance, then disappearance a few weeks later of a girl like Suzanne. It happened somewhere around the middle of the second grade and demonstrated not only that the strength of romantic attraction had begun to grow, but also that it now involved a much stronger sense of selectivity. The power of a crook’d finger had now become greatly amplified (or reduced) by an increasingly sophisticated evaluation of its owner. Suzanne was French (had recently arrived from France with her parents), and had the voice, looks, and a soft, warm, womanly bearing that one might imagine of a young Catherine Deneuve. She also taught the painful lesson that selectivity works both ways. Her finger crook’d for Ronnie Cleland…and sometimes for Rollie Blevins…but for me she could at best muster a polite smile, but little else.
It was not until I met Sharon Yeager (around age eleven) that the full range of my romantic idealism came into view. I only saw her five or six times, and only spoke to her once…and then just briefly. Her father was a contractor who was building a new house just two blocks away from ours. Sometimes, if he worked on a Saturday, he would bring her along for company. She was a shy, quiet, and very pretty young girl. We watched each other furtively, from a distance, the first time we noticed each other. After that I would get up very early each Saturday morning and wait in a house under construction across the street, hoping they would come. I would wait for hours. Sometimes they didn’t come, and sometimes he came but she wasn’t with him. These were cruel, miserable days, and equal to all the words ever written to express such feelings of disappointment. But at the same time they also served to heighten enormously the joy I experienced those few times she did come.
It was not easy for me to gather the courage to approach her on the day that I finally did. I had to force myself to cross the street, clutching in my hand a small robin that I had spent hours carving and polishing for her. I carried it as though it were my heart, hoping that she would like and accept it, but prepared just the same to be seen as a fool.
As I came near she took a few tentative steps toward me. Then we stopped, a few feet apart, both looking down. I set the bird on the ground, mumbled something unintelligible, then backed away a little…poised, I think, to turn and run. She came forward, bent down, picked up the robin, and looked at it quietly for a few seconds. Then she stepped forward and held out a small envelope she’d pulled from her coat pocket. As I reached to take it I could see that there were tears in her eyes. Not knowing what else to say or do, I turned abruptly and began to walk quickly away. When I got home, I went into my bedroom and sat on the bed. With heart pounding, I opened the envelope. On a small piece of paper she had written, “I love you,” and her name.
I never saw Sharon Yeager again. And that note is long gone…as likely is that polished little robin. But we both gained something of extraordinary value in that brief exchange on that day. It wasn’t love, but we had touched and validated in that brief moment the extraordinary capacity to both feel and express it. In effect we affirmed our belief that at some point in life we might find another who feels as strongly and deeply as we did at that moment…no matter how long, or painful, the wait may be.