When I was 6, the boy with hair the color of cotton and eyes tinted sapphire came to live with us. He was the same age and size as me, but more timid and less secure. Depending on the day, we were either the best of friends or the worst of enemies.
His father had been summoned to the jungles of Vietnam to serve another tour of duty in a war that didn’t affect the little boy and me. Or so we thought. His mother, blonde and beautiful, had disappeared into the sky one day, his baby brother in tow, returning to her native Germany. She did not like America, so she flew away and never returned. Behind her, in a pool of tears and sorrow, she left two children. The girl, two years older, went to live with Aunt Ozelle, while the boy came to us. It was the least that Mama and her sister could do for their brother, a career military man.
As childhood memories go, I remember snatches of those days of my uncle’s tour of duty. I remember nights that the little boy and I slept in a tiny Army tent, bought from the commissary, under the stars in our backyard. I recall endless summer days of splashing in the creek behind our house; riding double-saddle on our quarter horse, Bob; picking wild blackberries; and making fishing poles from tree sticks, twine and safety pins. We sat for hours with those fishing poles on the bank of the bubbling brook that emptied into the winding creek. Once, we caught a tadpole, but never a fish.
There was the day he taunted me to absolute irritation, so I broke a thick stick over his head, the bruise rising up to show boldly through his crew cut. He found a bigger stick and, crying as though his heart would never heal, chased me through the yard. But he never caught me.
Of those days, though, what I remember most is this: Every night that the little boy lived with us, Daddy brought home a gift to us both. It varied in size and importance. Sometimes, a candy bar or a stick of gum. Often, he stopped at the Dairy Spot a couple of miles from the house and picked up delicious, thick chocolate shakes. Once, he brought a tiny puppy hidden in the inside pocket of his navy-blue medium-weight windbreaker. Another night, he delivered a package of plastic high heels and rubber jewels to me and, to the little boy’s pure delight, a holster with two toy revolvers. For days, he pretended to be Marshal Matt Dillon to my Miss Kitty, though, on occasion, he argued that I should play Fetus. I didn’t cotton so much to that suggestion.
It is only now with the maturity of age and wisdom that I realize what those gifts really meant, how they were, in reality, an ointment for a festering sore that Daddy had endured for years. He was once that little boy, left alone and scared.
His childhood had been loveless and hard. At 13, he ran away and hid in the barns of unsuspecting farmers until his beloved Aunt Fairy and Uncle Oscar Cannon took him in and raised him to adulthood.
Some 30 years later came his opportunity to return their kindness to another little boy who also was uncertain, scared and looking to be loved. In a way, I now suppose, the big, broad-shouldered man and the skinny little boy helped to heal each other. They stood together on a common ground that the rest of us could not imagine — fear and uncertainty.
Instinctively, they understood that love heals. That similar experiences bond. That the supreme kindness of an adult to a child matters long into the years of life. It is never forgotten.
For the heart remembers, always.
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