Valentine’s Day is almost over. Flowers have been delivered. Chocolate wrappers litter depleted candy boxes. For some it’s a time to celebrate their love. Others struggle with the letdown that goes with unrealistic expectations. As for me, I’ve been thinking of past loves. I thought of Charles who was my first love, and Armand who was my last. Today, I ‘m about to tell the story of the one who opened my heart, not the one who closed it.
His name was Charles. I met him when I was nine. You may call it puppy love, but it was important—a promise of things to come, a memory to be savored years later. It inspired the story I am about to share—a story as true as memory can recall.
Charles Stroud was my first true love. Yes, I had cared for others…kid stuff. There was Buster with whom I shared a galvanized tub of cool water on hot days, licking condensed milk from oversized spoons. Buster brought me my first love offering, a popsicle delivered to my front door. My father had just forbidden me the coveted trip to the ice cream truck because I had picked at my dinner. Yet, when faced with the eyes of a love-struck three-year-old, it was my father who melted. The popsicle was mine!
In kindergarten I had a brief crush on Michael, the milkman’s son. It seems fitting that I shared milk and cookies with him at the snack table. However, Damon Cooper was my true champion. After our kindergarten teacher announced to the class that Damon “uses his fists too freely,” no one teased me when he was around—not even Chucky Porter who hid my art projects, and grievously wounded my clay elephant. But that’s another story.
In first and second grade I gave my heart to Tommy Clark. We walked home together after school. Tommy lived on Water Street, aptly named because the street sometimes flooded. All the homes had been built to keep their main floors above the flood line, and a long flight of stairs led up to Tommy’s front door. We often slipped under those stairs for a few stolen kisses before parting.
Sometimes David Marin chased me home from school. Over lunch, I announced to my mother that David liked me.
“How do you know,” she asked.
“Because he hit me,” was my reply. Any sensible little girl can recognize a love tap when she receives one.
There was also Clinton Dorn. He chased me on the playground and kissed me if he caught me. I never cared for Clinton. He picked his nose.
By the age of nine, I was no stranger to love. Still, all my past affections paled in comparison to my feelings for Charles Stroud. I saw him, for the first time, the day I entered the fifth grade. In general, that was a dark year. Mr. Lydell, our elderly teacher, a religious fanatic in poor health, should have retired years earlier. His penchant for acting out the Old Testament convinced the whole class that Judgement Day loomed. We were surely facing Hell fire and damnation! Then, there, in the midst of it all was Charles.
Charles’s mother, Velma, was something very unique in a 1950’s Pennsylvania steel town. Divorce was almost unheard of and she had been divorced, not once, but twice. Following her most recent marital failure, she returned home to the welcoming arms of her own mother. Despite her reputation as a chain smoking, hard-drinking woman, Velma’s heart was in the right place and she loved her boy more than anything in God’s world.
Charles was more sophisticated than the local boys. Before his arrival in Birdsboro, he had lived in distant, exotic Florida, and even attended private school there. Although he was not a great scholar, Charles possessed a wry sense of humor. He was the best natured boy I ever met.
When I close my eyes, I can see him on that first day of school, standing tall, his blue eyes brimming with good humor and his blond hair surrounded by light…just like the light in the Jesus picture prominently displayed in my Sunday school class. That’s how he looked to my nine-year-old eyes, and that’s how I remember him now.
It was soon obvious that Charles reciprocated my feelings. We were the couple of the year. Many thought it more than a coincidence when, during the Christmas gift exchange, we received each other’s name. There was only one rule to follow; the gift we purchased could cost no more than one dollar. Being a stickler for rules, I agonized long and hard over the perfectly priced offering and settled on a pencil box with a built in ruler and pencil sharpener. What, I wondered, would my sweetheart find for me?
Rules be damned! Velma marched her boy right down to the local jewelry store. When I opened my gift in class, I beheld a heart shaped, gold locket that contained a smiling photo of Charles. The box also held a matching bracelet. Both pieces boasted a small garnet, my birthstone. Despite the fact that my offering paled in comparison, ever the gentleman, Charles managed to look genuinely pleased when he opened his package. I’d gotten him just what he wanted, or so he said. Once the gold locket circled my neck, I forgot about that pencil box. All eyes were on me. Surely, only love could offer up a gift of such magnificence.
Even his ardor couldn’t stop Charles from having a bit of a laugh at my expense. It was nothing mean spirited and, in retrospect, it was funny. In those days, no little girl wore slacks to school, dresses only. During the cold winter months, my mother insisted that I wear leggings under my dress…bright red wool, itchy and absolutely mortifying! I hoped Charles wouldn’t notice. Of course, he did. Who could miss them? Picking me up and upending me on the playground, he sang, “She’ll be wearing red pajamas when she comes… scratch, scratch.” My flushed face matched my flailing, woolen leggings. Embarrassed but flattered, my heart raced. What a thrill to be in Charles’s arms…even upside down.
That was the year I decided to make an original Valentine for every boy and girl in my class. An ambitious undertaking, the cards were completed on time and deposited into the makeshift classroom mailbox, all except the one I made for Charles. To show my devotion, and perhaps to make up for the discrepancy in our Christmas gifts, his was one of grandiose proportions. Since it was too large to fit into the mailbox, I had to place it underneath to await delivery on Valentine’s Day. Seeing whose name was prominently displayed on the envelope, several boys began shouting “Oh, Charles!” The recipient of all the attention turned an alarming shade of fuchsia; however, I could tell he was pleased.
Although I made close to thirty cards that year, I only remember the one I made for Charles. Its front featured a draft horse with a yoke around its neck and a funny hat on its head. The head actually moved back and forth thanks to an artfully placed tab. Inside, it said, “No horsing around. I go for you.”
Our romance lasted through the sixth grade; it didn’t survive junior high. I earned a spot in the accelerated class. Charles did not. New friends vied for my time and attention. I can’t even remember seeing him in the hallways or the gymnasium. It was as if he simply disappeared. To be honest, I rarely thought of him back then. Youth is fickle. What’s more, I had problems of my own.
Within the year, my father lost his job and our family embarked on a series of moves that left me emotionally overwhelmed. As I struggled to survive socially at one new school after another, I longed for that little town in Pennsylvania where I had been happy.
My parents moved back to Pennsylvania many years later. On occasional visits I received news of Charles, none of it good. The funny, easy-going boy died on the killing fields of Viet Nam. An angry man came home, depressed and drinking heavily. His marriage crumbled, but he had a little girl whom he adored. Unfortunately, he never sat at her graduation ceremony or walked her down the aisle. Instead, cancer took him at the age of forty-two. His broken-hearted mother blamed it on Agent Orange.
While Charles’s life unraveled on the East Coast, San Francisco seduced me with her charms. After years of moving from place to place, I finally found a home.
Every summer, I returned to Pennsylvania to visit my widowed mother. It was my habit to run in the morning, and I frequently stopped at the local cemetery to visit my father’s grave. It was a tranquil place, part of the geography of my heart. Surrounding me, old friends slumbered beneath marble markers: the shopkeeper who’d sold me penny candies, the old ladies who fussed over me at church, the teachers who tried to mold my mind, the neighbors who watched me grow.
Then, one day, I stumbled over a simple stone lying almost flush with the earth itself. Its inscription read…”Charles Stroud, Born – 1948, Died – 1990, Rest In Peace.”Seeing that marker, old feelings rushed back, feelings I had buried for more than twenty years. Surprised, I found myself on my knees, my face wet with tears. Were they for the boy who never returned? For a lost love, long gone, but never really forgotten? Or, perhaps, they mourned an innocence we both had lost. I only know that, without warning, memories of a childhood love opened my heart, like my long lost locket, to reveal a laughing boy with golden hair. Oh, Charles, you were there all along.
Valentine’s Day comes once a year. Make every day a special day. Tell someone, “I love you.”