My mother had warned me. “Watch out for the quiet ones, they’ll surprise you.” She shook her head and smiled.
When I was in fourth grade, a tall, quiet, redheaded boy walked across the classroom and handed me a homemade, red poster-painted Paper Mache heart on Valentine’s Day. Our classmates tittered and buzzed about the lumpy 6”x6” heart. Everyone else had exchanged multipack cutout cards, including me. I was baffled. How was I going to fit his heart into my decorated shoebox with the other Valentines? And why would the redheaded boy be interested in a skinny, quiet, mousey-brown haired girl like me? I carried his heart home from school, showed it to my parents, and placed it on a knickknack shelf with my collection of china figurines.
Another gift followed, a green, faux alligator-skin purse with gold clasp and dark brown lanyard string carefully laced around the edges. I almost lost that purse during our family’s summer vacation to see the folks back home in northern Maine. Not accustomed to carrying a purse, I left it in the restroom of a gas station along Route 1. My parents got the station’s phone number from directory assistance and called. Evidently the tale of young love prevailed because soon after I received the purse in the mail, coins and treasures intact.
As it turned out, the redheaded boy’s father and mine were colleagues of sorts, and our mothers also likely had something to do with our families getting together at the redheaded boy’s house that summer of ‘61. He showed me his toys—including his collection of model sailboats—while my older and younger sisters played with his older and younger sisters. Then we all climbed trees in the yard. At home, while dusting my knickknacks, I noticed the paint on the Paper Mache heart flaking off and the heart falling apart. Eventually, I had to throw it out.
The redheaded boy and I were not in the same fifth grade class; in fact, I don’t remember sharing a class with him ever again. But in high school, I’d see him walking the halls, his red hair now long with bangs, and tossing his head to keep the bangs from covering his eyes. Mid-way through high school, he disappeared. His family told my parents that he’d dropped out to sail boats in the Caribbean.
A few years ago, while cleaning closets, I came upon the little green purse. Out of curiosity—and to fulfill a class writing assignment—I searched Facebook and found my fourth-grade sweetheart. His picture showed a lean man with short, graying red hair, beard and wire-rimmed glasses. According to his profile, he had settled in upper state New York after his Caribbean years and returned to school. He listed a degree in Intercultural Communications and his family: a married son, grandson, married daughter, and two sisters.
I didn’t leave a friend request. But part of me wanted to tell him that I’d kept the green, faux alligator-skin purse he made for me and that my mother was right. You have to watch out for the quiet ones, because they give you a heart you’ll never forget.
Last week before our small group meeting, our leader emailed, “Bring your best memory of Valentine’s Day, probably from grade school.” I shared a version of this story.
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