When I left my hometown of Florence, AL, I rarely went back. My parents had moved to Wilson Lake, a sanctuary of beauty outside the city limits. I loved seeing my parents in their rustic lake home, but I am, to this day, uncomfortable in downtown Florence. I have never gone to a single class reunion of Coffee High School, the Class of 1967, and I may never go. I have taken part in doing a few workshops at Kilby School there and a reading with Fannie Flagg at the University of North Alabama, but I have kept my ex-husband's name (for the benefit of my daughter when she was young), and I haven't recognized anyone, and no one has recognized me. I have always been relieved.
When I cut ties with Florence to escape the pain of what happened to me there in 1962, and the stigma I carried as the sister of a brilliant "suicide," I really cut them, all the way through. And to many of my good, kind, faithful friends, like Denise, who lives in Huntsville now. And I turned my back on Susan, who was my best friend, for so many years in Florence. I may not even have known why at the time.
Yesterday evening, I received a phone call from the past. And, surprising to me, that call did not bring up sad memories, but good ones, about both a shared young childhood, and moments of a shared teenage blossoming, at least for me. When Pat, said his name, at first, I could not even compute the distances in time over which I traveled.
Pat had given me my first kiss when I was 6. He and his older sister, Jackie, and their parents were moving away from Florence. He walked me to a stop sign. I can't remember who went on after the stop sign, but it was there that he, shaking a little, gave me a tiny kiss. And my heart was broken to be losing my friend.
Our parents were friends who shared a mutual love of playing canasta and, sometimes, when we visited them in Baton Rouge, of crawdad fishing in the Mississippi River, where I once lost a red canvas tennis shoe in the Mississippi mud, and Jackie, Pat's sister, came out screaming because a few leeches had attached themselves to one of her legs.
While our parents played canasta, Pat and I, and my sister and Jackie, about the same age, got into all kinds of mischief, but mostly good mischief, like playing in the kiddie pool or setting leaves on fire beneath a magnifying glass in the sun--or climbing trees. I think at one point I sided with Pat and Jackie, who had chased my sister up a tree. When my sister came down, she shook me until my teeth rattled, and said, "You always side with family. Family is the most important thing in the world. Don't ever do that again." And I didn't.
At fifteen, several years after my sister's death, my parents and I visited Pat's family in Baton Rouge. I was painfully shy, gullible, naive, inexperienced. Pat, with blond hair and (I think) blue eyes (or maybe they're brown?) was the most handsome sixteen-year-old boy I had ever seen. I fell in love for the first time. I didn't eat a bite--or maybe one or two--the whole time we visited. It was a kind of "love anorexia"? Pat was smitten with me, as well, although he had a sexy, blond, long-legged girlfriend when I arrived. However, just "for the moment," he pushed her aside. We were so silly--but how wonderful it was to be in constant ecstasy, and not even knowing why--exactly. Just holding hands had so much electrical power, if I could have directed it, I could have lit up New York City--and Las Vegas--and all of Canada. And, it was more than electrical; it was the mystery that was waiting for me, a time when my heart would grow up, along with my body.
At that point, I had never been kissed as a teenager. Pat, as I told him yesterday, was more "experienced" at 16. He struck me as a "man of the world" at that time. He disavowed that, laughing.
He did tell me at some point that he was going to kiss me before I left. That upped the non-eating another level or two. Mostly, we just stared at one another and acted very goofy. As for me, I was completely out of control of goofiness.
True to his word, before I left, Pat did kiss me one morning on his way out the door of his parents' house. Very gently and quietly. I had been "sanctified" as a young woman, entering the crazy circle and dance of what would become the everlasting struggle and joy--or optimism without hope--of male-female relationships for the rest of my life.
He did tell me before we left--that year I was 15--that it would be necessary for him to return to his old girlfriend since I was leaving, and, of course, I was heartbroken over love for the first time--but scarcely--the-tip-of-the-iceberg-scarcely, last time in my life.
Pat is now happily married, still in love with his wife of 21 years. He has four children, and numerous grandchildren. Like my parents, his have gone on, as well. We shared our memories of the others' parents--their talents, eccentricities and unconditional love--and even what our houses looked like then--the brown stone on the outside of his house; the "little house" (next to our regular house) where my mother sometimes stored potatoes to keep them cool. We shared disaster stories of hurricanes, stories of how our parents met and what they did during the war (welding or working at Reynolds' Aluminum), and stories of our children, long-grown-up now, their own people.
He really believes that even though I don't have any money right now that it's important for me to live my dream of returning to Paris and staying at the Esmerelda, next to Notre Dame. He said, "It's really easier to get to Paris than you think." (He's not a nay-sayer.) While we were talking, he looked up the Esmerelda on his computer and found the cost per night to be $91. Not at all bad for Paris--and to be right next to Notre Dame.
Pat has traveled, as an oil man, all over the world. (I never thought an oil man would be like Pat. I'm prejudiced that way.) He said what he loves the most about traveling are the people, getting to know them, their cultures, their ways. Pat has turned out to be a kind man, who has lived a rich, full life.
I feel honored and happy that I received my first "kiss" at 6 and my first "kiss-kiss" from this person, who called me from the Pluto of a closed-off part of Florence, Alabama that is now more open.
He and his sister Jackie, who also has four children and a huge heart, are going to teleconference phone me on Saturday. Not all visits from that part of the past are bad. Sometimes they're healing, like two totally different kisses, that were really not all that different, but linked the past to the present, at least twice, and changed my life.
I'm not saying I'll be glad, ever, to return to Florence, or won't get knots in my stomach if I do, but I'll go there with an old friend beside me, at least in my heart and head, if I do. And maybe I won't feel like such an outsider, and Florence won't feel overwhelming or lonely, especially down by any stop sign in town.
Causes Bonnie Roberts Supports
The Southern Poverty Law Center, The National Resource Defense Council, The ACLU, Doctors without Borders, Save Darfur