2002 by Paula Gramlich
Photo by Richard Loller.
In the sixth grade I received a homemade Valentine from a friend. I kept it in the top right hand drawer of my antique dressing table in grade school, high school, and college. Not long before my wedding day I opened the drawer and took out the card. I knew there was no reason to hang onto it; it was the kind of thing a sentimental person would do, and I didn't consider myself that kind of person. I started to throw it away. I thought again. I plucked the candy I love you heart out of the middle of the card and popped it into my mouth. It was stale; yet, there was still a hint of sweetness in it as I read: "I love you, James."
James was the kid who sat across the aisle from me in grade school. Each Valentine's Day I catch a glimpse of him in his aviator cap ready to spring to his feet to hang up his coat after recess. It doesn't take much to get me started. A smile from a stranger, a whisper, a kid running to be first in line, the smell of cold air rising off the bodies of young children as they return to the classroom reminds me of Jim. . I remember sneaking up to the skating rink to meet him on Friday nights, and skating round and round the rink holding hands, considered the first step to a long life of promiscuity according to our parish priest, who often showed up and chased us home.
I remember singing 8:30 mass on Saturday mornings with Jim, Sherry, and Bobby and being bawled out in the parking lot by two ladies because we missed our cue. A smile from Jim made me forget everything they said to us that day. His attitude was, "Hey, I'm here, I'm doing my best so quit bellyaching." He had a realistic outlook on life. He knew he couldn't sing, but he loved to stand next to those of us who could.
In eighth grade he ditched me for Barbara. I envied her for the full two weeks that she was his girlfriend. What a relief it was when she told her friends Jim was not her type. He was not Fabian, Dion, or Frankie Avalon that's for sure. But a strange thing happened to Barbara after those two weeks. While surfing to Beach Boy's music on her parent's kitchen table, she fell off and chipped her front tooth. When we teased her about the accident, the Barbara, who never smiled, positioned her lips into a dazzling smile, and let the whole class see her chipped tooth.
Jim had an effect on all of us. Bobby's shyness didn't seem to be such a big deal when Jim was around, and Mark got a lot of attention from Jim he didn't get from his parents. I changed too. For the first time in my life I thought of myself as smart, not dumb. Jim had his share of problems. A distant father and a gang of older brothers, who were better than him at sports and school, couldn't have been easy to handle. It was tough being compared year after year to his all-star brothers, who didn't have speech problems or handwriting that nobody could read, but he never complained. He never let it get him down. That's why we loved him. We elected him class president and editor of the school newspaper. We listened to him tell us how great it was to sing, how cool it was to skate backwards, and how all our problems could be solved if we could talk the nuns into letting us watch the World Series.
"No way, they'll never let us!"
We told him this every day, but it didn't stop him. He'd pounce on any opportunity to interject the World Series into classroom discussion. Round one! Round two! Round three! It went on and on until we all got into the argument to shut him up.
Finally, a vote was tallied, and the World Series was a go. Even the Herman kid, who answered Sister's questions by barking like a dog, took a reprieve for the days we watched the Series. It was our crowning achievement of grade school.
At the end of our 8th grade year the girls shredded their uniforms and beanies, signed autographs books, and looked for the last time at faces of friends they had seen daily for eight years. The only thing on our minds was high school. Soon we'd be driving.
I saw Jim again my sophomore year at a parish mixer. He still knew how to talk to people and make them feel they were the most important person in the world. His hair stuck up in a tuft on the crown of his head, which he patted down as he talked, and he still had that smile. There was one difference. He drove and he wanted to take me out.
"I was going to play tennis tomorrow."
I guess he saw the, " I couldn't hit a tennis ball on a bet," anxiety on my face.
"How about a movie?"
I smiled this time with an unwrinkled brow.
I never went out on a date with Jim. The day after I talked with him at the mixer, he was killed in a head-on collision. He wasn't drinking, speeding, or being an irresponsible driver. His only fault was he picked the wrong road to go home. A huge truck took one of the many curves too fast and veered into his lane. Limestone cliffs lined both sides of the two-way street. There was no shoulder to squeeze against to soften the impact. It could have happened to me. It could have happened to any one of us.
The day of his funeral I stood beside his coffin with the words, "This is not Jim," playing over and over again in my head like a stuck forty-five. I couldn't believe he was dead. I didn't want him to be.
When I saw his mother at Mass on Sundays, I'd slip out the back door so I wouldn't have to talk to her because I couldn't stand it when she cried. At school I stayed away from any conversation in which his name was brought up. As hard as I tried, I could not get him out of my mind, and I could not erase him from my heart. His spirit walked with me down through the years In a college Algebra class I thought about the day Jim turned to me in fourth grade and asked, "Do you know how to do long division?" After I showed him he went from first one kid to the next telling them how smart I was. I didn't drop the college math class. I knew with a lot of hard work I'd make it. No, I would not grow up to be a mathematician, but I was smart, and I could pass this class. As a young wife and mother I went to Wednesday night choir practice even when I didn't want to because I remembered all those times we sang mass together.
I thought a lot about his smile when I got divorced and was a single parent for years because it made me feel less alone and less afraid. I couldn't help but think of Jim when my daughter announced the name she chose for her baby, my grandson, was James. Now I say his name everyday. When I sat down to write this essay, I felt my insides tied into many tight knots much like the mess kids make with shoestrings. As hard as I tried to untangle these knots, there were times when I wanted to give up. I couldn't. Jim wouldn't leave me alone. I thought about all the articles he asked me to write for the school newspaper and stuck it out for the rewrites.
Why does Jim keep resurfacing in my life? He was my Pachelbel. Canon in D is the music played at the beginning of many plays in college and commercial theater. It's there to say over and over again to the actors, "You can do this. You know your lines. Just take it one step at a time." It's makes everyone believe in themselves as Jim's spirit helped me to believe in myself.
When I ate the candy I love you heart years ago, it was my way of saying, "I will never forget you." I never have. None of us have.
Recently I saw a grade school friend at the grocery store in my old neighborhood. In the prescription line Sandy turned and smiled a warm brown-eyed smile that melted thirty-seven years of distance in a second.
We shared memories of grade school at the check out stand that spilled over into the parking lot that Indian summer afternoon. Jim's name hadn't been spoken by either of us; yet, as we stood by our cars, our backs warmed by the sun and our faces cooled by things to come, he was on our minds. On a beautiful Indian summer day many years ago, we lost a good friend.
Sandy broke the silence.
"Do your remember Jim?"
I smiled and shook my head yes. It was all I could do.
She, too, had a secret drawer inside
her heart for Jim. I guess we all did. We always will.
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