A few days after Valentine’s Day, I told Ava about my childhood valentine.
I imagine every girl must remember her first – that moment when the holiday evolved from the pleasure of eating stale, molar-cracking SweetTarts to something closer to love.
I was in the fifth grade. Ryan was “dating” my best friend, which really meant she had exclusive rights to chase him around the playground, corner him in the oversized tractor-tire lying on its side, and swiftly kick him in the crotch.
I guess he got tired of the beating because on Valentine’s Day he gave her a run-of-the mill valentine punched from a sheet of 12 others with equally lame and somewhat insulting sayings (“You are DOG-gone cute”). But in my paper sack decorated with cut-out hearts and glitter, he dropped a delicate, heart-shaped chocolate. Not the waxy, hollowed-out Palmer’s chocolate that morphed into a pooey glob when it got too warm in your hands. This was an individually, hermetically sealed chocolate he had handpicked just for me. Ryan signed my valentine “your secret admirer,” but I recognized his distinct handwriting because I had been admiring it for some time. It was tiny, precise and full of what I imagined to be his heart’s intent.
After telling her this, Ava looked up at me wide-eyed and giddy as if I had just let her in on the most scandalous secret of my life.
“Did he become your boyfriend?”
He didn’t, but I’m not sure why. He moved away one summer and showed up years later in high school. I always meant to ask him about the chocolate, but I never took the chance. One day I’ll tell Ava that Ryan died shortly after graduation, fleecing my childhood of its already thinning innocence. But not today.
“Tell me another story, Mommy. I beg of you!”
I told her about John Brown, the boy who proposed to me with a turquoise ring in the first grade. Unaware of engagement protocol, I informed him that I was too young for marriage, but kept the ring. He moved away the following summer without ever saying goodbye.
“Were you sad?”
Again, I wasn’t entirely sure.
I told her about the girls I played “kitties” with during recess – one of whom I was profoundly jealous because she had a pet rabbit, a tree house and she could do the splits both ways. I told Ava about the time Jeff Doyle snatched a pink crayon from me, and how I cried when my favorite teacher blamed me for the disruption that ensued.
“Just one more,” she pleaded when I told her it was time for bed. It was – but I also couldn’t think of any more stories to share and the details were getting as blurry as her tired eyes. Thirty-four years and all I could muster were a turquoise ring and a pink crayon?
Since that evening, more memories have surfaced – the coloring contest I won, the time I pretended to live in my closet, the “smoothies” my sister and I used to concoct from toast crumbs and mustard and serve to our babysitters – stories that I file away to share with Ava when she asks to hear another.
She asks every night. I don’t know why she’s so genuinely interested in my childhood, but I’m surprised at how good it feels to have a captive audience in your child – how good it feels to tell your story and have someone listen and learn a little more about the person they thought they knew. To have someone look me in the eyes when I talk instead of into an iPhone.
At the same time, realizing how few things I actually remember depresses me. There are a seemingly infinite numbers of days in my past but only a sprinkling of half-remembered moments. I’m trying harder to find them. Ava tells me to “get them out of my head.” I’d like to. Sometimes she will say or do something that feels vaguely familiar, and I will desperately try to excavate that story from the corners of my memory.
I find myself doing this as much for Ava as for me.