I was a funny looking kid. I had enormous eyes, a small mouth and (later) a classic overbite. Throughout my childhood, I looked very much like a mouse. Consequently, people often gave me mouse-related toys, stuffed animals, play-jewelry, and books. Me, being me, I especially loved the mice books.
Even as a preschooler, before I could read, there were a few books that captured my overactive imagination and sucked me into the pages. I could disappear into the story with ease. I loved these books so much, I still remember some of their names: Moonie Mouse, I Am A Mouse and my all-time favorite, The Mice Who Loved Words.
My love of books followed me to kindergarten…and elementary school. It only grew to be an obsession later.
But first…kindergarten. During this phase of life, I had no front teeth thanks to a jumping-on-the-bed incident that included being catapulted by my sister into the corner of a headboard. I was skinny—a consummate picky eater who hated everything but cheese and candy. (Not much has changed.) Back then my head was small, but my eyes were huge and I had a lot of long, thick hair that my mother would brush into a cute flip whenever picture day rolled around—otherwise I went to school with uneven ponytails and crooked home-cut bangs. I didn’t think I was pretty. However, I knew what pretty looked like. I thought my neighbor Julie (three years older) was the most glamorous and lucky girl in the world. She had Tinkerbell lip gloss, a small container of Hyacinth-scented lotion, and a compact mirror that she kept in her very own purse! She was blonde, had blue eyes, and her bangs were never crooked. Compared to her, I thought I was as plain as…well, a church mouse.
One day in kindergarten, a boy named Jay Ray sauntered up to me on the playground and asked, “Do you have a boyfriend?” I honestly thought he was joking. My cousin, Nadine and I exchanged looks before I answered no. He said, “Good. I’ll be your boyfriend.” With that, he turned sharply and walked away. My cousin and I broke out into fits of giggles. In my heart, I really thought he was teasing—there had to be a joke at my expense in his question somewhere. But, alas, he was serious. Well, at least as serious as one can be at five years old. In kindergarten having a boyfriend meant sitting next to each other at circle time, standing in line together to get a drink out of the fountain, or walking out to the play-yard together. However, once we hit the playground, he’d run off with the boys and I’d play with the girls. Well, that was fine by me.
So, at five years old, purposefully being in close proximity to someone while standing in line or listening to a story was my complete definition of ‘having a boyfriend.’ In fact, the only time I’d ever heard the word before was when Marlo Thomas introduced Donald as her ‘boyfriend, Donald’ on the 1960’s television program called That Girl. (Ironically, when I was a teenager, I was told on numerous occasions that I looked like Marlo Thomas.) But, aside from hearing the term boyfriend on TV, it was not a word that was batted around in my world. So, although I never truly knew what Donald and ‘That Girl’ (I thought that was her name!) did as boyfriend-girlfriend, I imagined they sat together in movies and then went their separate ways.
One day, my dad picked me up from kindergarten. That had NEVER happened before. But, for whatever reason, there he was waiting for me after we sang our “goodbye” song and walked out the door. I don’t remember much about that day except getting into his truck. I waved at Jay Ray who was walking by my window. My little boyfriend scowled at me, but waved back. Now that I think about it—Jay Ray never smiled. Weird. Maybe it was his attempt at looking ‘tough.’ Who knows? Anyway, my dad asked, “Who is that?” To which I replied in all honestly, “My boyfriend.”
My dad’s face changed from passive to confused. “Your what?” He didn’t look happy so I tried to back-pedal. “My friend…that is a boy?” He said, “You’re too young to be thinking about boys!” The way he said it made me realize that whatever a boyfriend was…my dad didn’t want me to have one. So, I never mentioned Jay Ray again. I thought the whole Jay Ray incident was forgotten.
It was not.
At the end of the year, we had an actual kindergarten graduation that included paper caps and gowns and rolled up diplomas. At the pre-reception, my dad pointed at Jay Ray and asked, “Isn’t that your friend—that’s a boy?” I wanted to crawl under the folding table. “Uh, yeah. I think so.” As I watched in horror, my dad walked over to him and said something. In my burgeoning writer’s imagination, I honestly thought he was saying, “You ever see my daughter again, I’ll rip off your head and feed it to wild dogs.” My heart pounded. I clung to my mother’s hand, ready for anything.
As I stood there with my owl-size eyes fearing for Jay Ray’s life, he and my dad walked towards us. I wanted to throw-up all over my Mary-Jane shoes. Jay Ray wouldn’t even meet my eyes. I wondered if my dad had arranged a marriage or something because Jay Ray looked pale and massively uncomfortable. “Krissy, you two stand there. I’ll take your picture.” I wanted to die. I truly thought I could not have been more embarrassed. My dad arranged us side by side and then looked through the viewfinder in the camera. He looked up and then demolished the thought that I couldn’t be more embarrassed—because he said, “Hey, boy, don’t be shy. You can hold her hand for the picture.” Jay Ray was horrified. He turned bright red. He clasped my hand for a nano-second, my dad took the picture, and Jay Ray stormed off without ever looking at me.
The rest of the graduation ceremony took my mind off the embarrassment of having my parents snicker at Jay Ray’s quick departure. The teachers had us entertain our parents by dancing to two different songs. My dance partner’s name (as I recall) was PeeWee. He was not my boyfriend, but he had to hold my hand and dance with me. The mortification of the Jay Ray incident was soon forgotten; the ceremony continued and we were called up to receive our diplomas.
Looking back, I wonder if my dad was some kind of genius. He certainly figured out how to get rid of a kindergarten boyfriend rather effectively–and make it look as if it were the stupid boyfriend’s fault!
I was nervous when I first started elementary school. I was an observer. I liked to take note of the playing field before I joined-in. However, once I got my bearings, I became friendlier and a lot more outgoing. By the second month of first grade, I felt confident enough to be myself—my talkative, always-ready-with-a-story-or-a-joke self. This change from shy to extrovert came as a surprise to my first grade teacher, Mrs. Stamm. One day, she called me aside and reprimanded me. She said that she’d told my parents how quiet and polite I was and now she was forever having to tell me to stop talking to my neighbor. Even moving my desk didn’t work. She threatened to write a note home if I didn’t stop the chatter. I don’t think I ever stopped chitchatting and to my knowledge, she never sent that note. At recess, I became Jacks, jump rope, and hopscotch proficient and then I went on to become a champ. Unfortunately, that was the extent of my athletic ability. If there had been a Jacks team or a hopscotch crew in high school, I might have been a jock, but, I digress. Bottom line, I was never interested in talking to adults so I was quiet and reserved around them, but get me around a group of kids and I was extremely social.
My next non-book romance came in the second grade. I’d like to say that I had blossomed into a beauty by then, but I’d be lying. Although, I now had teeth…they were too big for my face. I had a classic overbite which changed me from looking like a mouse to more closely resembling a deranged rabbit. Or so I thought anyway. A boy in Mrs. Deshe’s class called Rusty James must’ve thought differently…or perhaps he had a predilection for bunnies. I’m not sure if Rusty James was his real name, or a nickname, or if that was a nickname and a last name, or a nickname and a first name. When you’re seven, I guess you just don’t think to ask those kinds of questions about your significant other.
By a couple of weeks into the new school year, Rusty had chased me around the playground during every recess. I hated it. Not because I was being chased by a boy, but because I hated to run. Despised it. So, one day instead of running from him, I just let him catch me. He grabbed my arm. “You’re it,” he said and took off running. When I didn’t chase him, he looked wounded by my non-pursuit. “You’re it!” he demanded. To which I replied, “So?” He informed me it was now my job to chase him around the dusty playground. Well, that wasn’t going to happen for two reasons. One…as I stated before, I despised running. Two…by the ripe old age of seven, I’d played the ‘you’re it’ game dozens of times. One day, as I was chasing my cousins around my grandmother’s back yard in a never-ending game of TV-Tag—and hating every minute, something occurred to me. I didn’t care if I were ‘it.’ I remember thinking that no one had ever defined what ‘it’ was, so why should I be compelled to chase someone just because they tagged me ‘it.’ I remember thinking, ‘It’ could mean powerful queen, or beautiful magician, or a just nice person. After all, who said being ‘it’ made chasing whoever tagged you obligatory? If you ask me, that’s some pretty mature logic for someone with a 7:45 bedtime. Bottom line…I hated to run!
When I informed Rusty James that I would not chase him, he informed me that if I didn’t chase him, we would have to get married because it was Wednesday and everyone knows if you’re in elementary school and touch someone of the opposite sex on a Wednesday (otherwise known as Weddings-day) you had to marry that person.
I contemplated this for a microsecond. Marriage or running? I shrugged. “Fine by me. We can get married. Just leave me alone.” Rusty’s eyes lit up. He looked happy and I couldn’t figure out why. I swear. After recess, during Music class, Rusty declared himself my ‘husband’ in front of everybody. I didn’t care—just so long as my recesses were free from any running whatsoever. In the end, Rusty and I became pretty good friends. We always sat next to each other in class and sometimes in the cafeteria. He was rather bold for a second grader. He told me that in order to make our marriage official, I needed to kiss him before the end of the year. I agreed. The end of the year sounded like an eternity…by then, he might have touched some other girl on a Wednesday. Problem solved.
On Valentine’s Day, the class passed out little cards to each other. Mailboxes made from shoe boxes (with our names clearly marked on top) were lined-up on the low bookshelf by the windows. During the class party, we would find the recipient’s name and stick the card inside. In those days, you didn’t have to give a Valentine’s Day card to everyone. There was no such thing as politically-correct-card-giving and as heathen Lord-of-the-Flies-type schoolchildren, we used this to our full advantage. It was mean, but the 70’s were a horrible dog-eat-dog kind of era. Your popularity was determined by how stuffed your little mailbox was by the end of the party. Anyway…Rusty’s and my relationship almost came to a screeching halt when he presented me with a heart shaped, cellophane-wrapped box of conversation hearts IN FRONT OF EVERYBODY INCLUDING THE TEACHER. Our classmates made kissing noises and began to tease us relentlessly. I gotta hand it to Rusty, he was freakin’ BOLD for a second grader. He decided to take this opportunity to try to kiss me. I adamantly refused and may have broken his heart by running away and hiding in the cloak room. I wonder what Rusty James is doing nowadays? International playboy, I’d assume. Anyway, I hid that box of candy from my dad because Rusty had affixed a sticker on the front with his name and a big heart around it. I was savvy enough to know my dad would either not like it, make me return it, tell me I was too young for a boyfriend—or worse, break out his camera and chase this boy away, too. That afternoon, my mom found the candy and told my father that I had an admirer. But, oddly, he didn’t say a word.
My dad left the house for a while. When he came back, he had a bouquet of roses for my mother. He also set two vases of pink and blue carnations on the counter. One of the vases was a ceramic kitten and the other a was puppy. He handed me the kitten vase and gave my sister the puppy vase. My sister asked, “Why are you giving us flowers, dad?”
I will never forget what he said.
“Because I love you. And I wanted to be the first man in your life to ever give you flowers.”
I was flabbergasted. I had never been given such a heartfelt gift before. Flowers! Just like my mother! And the grown-up women on TV! In that moment, I felt special—and very loved.
Throughout my school years, I continued to have ‘boyfriends’ and my dad continued to scare them away. When I was a young teenager, I wasn’t allowed to be alone with a boy. I could go to an after-school dance at Kennedy Middle School with my girlfriends, but could not ‘go’ with a boy. My sister and I weren’t allowed to date until we were fifteen and a half. I used to get so angry because if my dad answered the phone and it was a boy, he’d say, “She’s busy!” and hang up.
In Middle School, if any boys were brave enough to come to the door, my dad would glower at them as though they had horns and cloven hooves. He’d say, “She can come out to the porch, but she can’t leave of the yard. And I’ll be right there in the living room.” He’d point to the large window that had a perfect view of the porch. At the time, I thought my dad was being unreasonable, perverse, and overprotective. I was utterly embarrassed to be treated like such a baby. After all, some of my friends were allowed to listen to records IN THEIR ROOMS with boys. In our household? Any boy brave enough to cross our threshold—even when I came home from college—wasn’t allowed in the hallway leading to our bedrooms. My father’s rules used to rankle me to my core. I once asked him why he didn’t trust me. He said he trusted me…but he’d never trust any hairy, bow-legged boy. He told me, “Any boy who has good intentions toward you won’t question the rules I set down. Remember that.” Oh, I remembered that all right! At the time, I rolled my eyes with righteous indignation at my dad’s old fashioned ideas.
Looking back, I think it must have taken a lot energy to, at first, keep scaring off little boys, and then eventually scaring teen boys into respecting his rules—or else risk his wrath. Now, I realize he wasn’t doing it to make me angry or make my life hard. He was doing it because he was protecting something he thought was worth protecting. That’s an incredible message for a girl. I was worth protecting. I never let a boy treat me poorly because my dad had instilled in me the feeling that I was worth more. I was a treasure that must be protected. I internalized that message without even realizing it.
I wish I would have told him ‘thank you’ for that while he was alive. I wish I would’ve told him how I remembered the kitten vase with pink and blue carnations every Valentines Day—and how precious that memory has always been.
In the end…my dad won. He was the first man to ever give his girl flowers. No boy could ever take that away from him. He was the first man in my life that would have walked through fire for me. He was the first man whoever thought I was worth defending and protecting. He was the first man whoever loved me. Because of his insistence, I chose wisely when deciding who to date and later…who to marry. As I grew into a young woman, I made sure the young men I dated treated me with respect because my dad had the forethought to demand it from boys when I was too young to know how.
My husband gained my father’s approval from the first time they met. Maybe because they were so much alike in their ability to truly love me for the woman I was—and sometimes despite who I was. They were two men who made me want to do my best—two men who have helped me to become the woman I am. Aside from being a mean, scary guy to unsuspecting potential boyfriends, my dad was a happy, fun-loving man. My father treated others with respect and he garnered the upmost respect from those who were lucky enough to be in his life. I’ve been doubly blessed with a husband who has the same gift of selfless love. Both men were born with a light that comes from within—a light that other people gravitate towards. Having such men in my life? That is the best gift ever!
My dad made me feel special. I was mi hita–his girl. Yes, I was his baby girl. I always will be. And he will always be my first Valentine.