“All our handling of the child will bear fruit, not only at the moment, but in the adult they are destined to become.”
A couple of months ago, Mr. S, a childhood neighbor and family friend, suddenly passed. The deep feelings of loss generated by his death caught me off guard - it had been over fifteen years since I had seen him. Why would the loss of someone whom I hadn’t had contact with in so long generate such profound grief? This didn’t make much sense to me.
As I pondered my feelings, I reflected upon the time I spent with Mr. S and his family when I was a kid and I began to see exactly why his passing left me with such deep sadness.
Mr. S and his family lived two doors down from my home growing up. After school or on the weekends, in my tattered shorts and tennies, I would eagerly skip down there to see if Mrs. S would let me help her tend to her chores. As a spirited grade schooler following her around the house, I had to have been a bit of a nuisance, but it was lost on me. So, I stayed, played with their kids, and helped Mrs. S take care of her horses. And oh how I loved her horses! Grooming them, feeding them, mucking their stalls and, on the occasion, if I was lucky, riding them.
Eventually, I started babysitting the S children, which horrifies me in retrospect because I was practically a baby myself. Different times, I guess. Or, perhaps babysitters are so hard to come by, you take what you can get. Either way, I didn't mind at all, not only did I get a little babysitting money, I also got to rummage through their kitchen cupboards to see if they had better food than at my house, which they usual did.
Mr. and Mrs. S were quasi-parent figures and often played that role. They would feed me, help me with my homework, even admonish me, like when I accidently flooded the engine of their mustard colored Volvo playing carpool with the kids. Or, when I accidently forgot to feed their very old fish when they were away on vacation. Poor little Nemo was floating belly-up when they returned home from the Big Island. At least I fed the horses.
I spent a healthy chunk of my formative years at the S house, even staying with them when my parents would go away. As I sorted through all these memories of time spent with the S family, the way in which I experienced Mr. S emerged.
Mr. S was always busy, either puttering in the garage or in the yard. He would often whistle while he worked - with vibrato! – and I remember wanting to learn how to whistle like that. He always seemed to have a pleasant look on his face, too. I’m sure, being human and all, he was crabby and scowled every now and then like the rest of us. But, as I remember him, Mr. S was affable and didn’t seem to mind my always hanging around.
Mr. S was formidable in stature. Upwards of 6’4, he did not go unnoticed. His hair was thick, sprinkled with salt and pepper, and I remember thinking it looked nice when he ran a comb through it. To little ol' me, Mr. S was practically a giant. He had giant hands, too. I remember his hands clutching his coffee mug or his wine glass as he leaned against the kitchen counter, one leg straight, the other slightly bent, knee akimbo. He would often assume this position when he was talking to me,
So, Michele, how’s school?
Not so good, Mr. S, the boys have started calling me Brute.
Because I keep slide tackling everyone when we play soccer at recess.
Well, perhaps you should stop doing that.
I can’t, it just happens.
Ha! Well, you can blame your brothers for that.
No boy likes a Brute, Mr. S. My life is ruined.
Ah, chin up, you’re a tough girl, lots of boys like tough girls.
Not the boys at my school. Alas, this is a hopeless situation.
Well, how about we go in the backyard and do backhand springs?
And that is what we did. My most powerful and explicit memories of Mr. S are when he would spend after school evenings spotting me while I perfected the backhand spring in his backyard.
There I stood at one corner of the yard with Mr. S strategically placed in my path, right about where he anticipated I would leap into a backhand spring. Behind Mr. S was the corner of the yard where the planter met the horse stall. If I overran it, I would land with one leg in the boxwood bush and one leg tangled in the metal bars of the horse corral, so I had to time it perfectly. Beneath the dirty soles of my bare feet was the wretched St. Augustine grass, which I’m convinced is single handedly responsible for the coining of the term, blades of grass.
As the late afternoon sun sank into a dinnertime dusk, I idled there in the corner of the yard looking to Mr. S for the go ahead. As soon as he nodded and said, Go! I broke into a run. Once I reached the designated mark, I tumbled into a cartwheel landing on both feet. Then came the moment of truth. With the residual bounce leftover from my landing, I pulled every ounce of power and prayer from my skinny little legs and thrust myself into the air, arching myself into a backhand spring, flipping my legs over my head, and landing - Mary Lou Retton Style! - on both feet with my arms stretched above my head in the shape of a V and my grass-stained hands spread into high fives!
Bam! I did it! Well, not at first. There were a few questionable tumbles, but eventually, I did do it, over and over and over again. At one point, I’d gotten so good at doing a backhand spring that Mr. S suggested I try a backflip.
Really, Mr. S?
Sure, why not?
Because I might break my neck.
But Mr. S didn’t deter from the threat of broken bones, necks or otherwise. If he wanted to do it, it got done. Such was the spirit of Mr. S – The Sky’s the Limit, Possibilities are Boundless - and he infused me with this same spirit and joie de vivre during those evenings spent challenging my physical prowess tumbling (and stumbling) around his backyard.
Unbeknownst to him, Mr. S was having a profound impact on my budding sense of self. Aside from the fact that he was making me feel important simply by spending time with me, he was also engaging and celebrating the one thing I really liked about myself – my toughness and physical strength.
I grew up with two older brothers and was always pushed to demonstrate my toughness either by defending against endless jabs and noogies or running for my life. Plus, I was an inherently wiry kid with boundless energy. If I wasn’t playing soccer with my brothers, I was playing football with them. If I wasn’t riding my bike, I was riding my horse. If I wasn’t riding my horse, I was pretending I was a horse, loping around the backyard jumping over anything that would stand still.
Is Michele back there pretending she’s a horse again?
Doesn’t she ever get tired?
It doesn’t seem so.
Should we go out there and throw her a carrot or something?
Growing up, my identity emerged around athletic endeavors because that is where I excelled. This made me feel important and empowered. When I played soccer in grade school, I really couldn’t help the fact that I would slide tackle all the boys – it just happened. And they really did call me Brute, a nickname that generated both pride and heartbreak.
I loved that my toughness was recognized and labeled by the boys at school, as I wanted them to notice the thing about me I believed most valuable, thinking they would find it valuable, too. But in reality, it backfired, because it ranked me as one of the boys, not girls. The boys weren’t interested in Brutes, they liked the girls who sat at the lunch tables and braided each other’s hair. But not Mr. S, he liked my toughness and valued my strength, which meant he liked me. Why else would he spend so much of his time helping me hone the backhand spring?
Like all children, I needed the important adults in my life to see my talents, those attributes that made me unique and fabulous. And I needed to see in their eyes, in the expression on their face, and to hear in the lilt in their voice that they thought me as fantastic as I thought myself. I needed my formative self affirmed and re-affirmed through praise, interest, curiosity, and time spent together. And like many children, too often these needs went unmet. But Mr. S managed to carve out some special time just for me, to engage the one thing I loved about myself, and to reflect back to me that he loved it, too.
I remember liking Mr. S and feeling liked by him as well. And it is this mutual recognition and affection, kindled by time spent together doing backyard gymnastics, that indelibly impressed itself upon my fledgling identity. The experience of Mr. S and my time spent with him wove itself into the fabric of my life, and it is why his passing feels as though a swathe has been torn from that very fabric, leaving a hole where there shouldn’t be. It is why, after all these years of having no contact with Mr. S, I feel a deep sense of loss and sadness that he is no longer here. I didn't even get to say Good Bye…..or, Thank You.
In Loving Memory of Mr. S. Thank you for making me feel important during a time in my life when, too often, I felt unimportant.