I’ll never forget the first time Erica asked me to spend the night with her. We were in the seventh grade, brand new to junior high school -a full year younger than my own daughter is today. I think the only class we had together that year was gym. We didn’t know one another before seventh grade gym class. It was a Friday afternoon when she called. We must have exchanged telephone numbers that same day. She asked if I would come over and spend the night. My Mama didn’t know her Mama and so they talked briefly on the phone before she agreed to drop me off later that evening.
That was the first night of many spent inside Erica’s four bedroom walls – the ones that were purple before she painted them a perfect black and white stripe. Inside that room we spent hours telling secrets (her on her day bed, me on the floor), rummaging through her ungodly amount of CDs and me ogling over the amount of clothes she had in her closet that still had the tags on them. I discovered Dave Matthews Band in that bedroom. That was also her Daddy’s name and for at least a few hours one night she had me convinced that her Daddy sang lead vocals on Under the Table and Dreaming. I also discovered Kenny G in Erica’s bedroom. I always insisted we listen to Kenny G as we fell asleep at night. She never complained.
Over the years I became quite fond of Erica’s family. She was an only child, save for the family Scottish Terrier named Pepper. Erica’s brother passed away as a toddler. Her Daddy was a music man who loved the Beatles. Her Mama, a school teacher, who always kept the refrigerator stocked with Pepsi and Gatorade. If you know the Matthews family at all, you also know English muffin pepperoni pizzas. They were Erica’s favorite. I loved that family for many reasons. I loved that they ate dinner at what seemed like 4:30 p.m. every afternoon. I loved that her grandparents lived right across the street, and that they had a fully stocked bar in their basement. I loved that Erica’s parents trusted us to roam the neighborhood late into the night and that they let us sleep uninterrupted late into the day. I loved that for many weekends over a span of many years they tolerated me, fed me, kept me warm, gave me a soft place to land and welcomed me into their home. But what I loved more than anything about the Matthews family is that they gave me something I still carry with me today, a memory I will forever treasure along with a lesson I will never forget.
It was a week or so before Valentine’s Day. Neither Erica nor I had a “valentine” that year and one afternoon we found our 15 year old selves sitting in her black and white bedroom sulking, complaining and wishing things were different. We knew that in less than a week we’d painfully bear witness to swarms of girls leaving school with red and pink balloons, heart shaped candy boxes, and vases stuffed with red roses and baby’s breath while we left empty handed. We even joked about skipping school that day just to avoid the humiliation. But we didn’t and as much as we wished it away, Valentine’s Day came anyway. It was late in the afternoon when the school secretary began calling students to the office to accept the deliveries that had come in for them throughout the day. Just like we expected, there were red and pink balloons, heart shaped candy boxes, and vases stuffed with red roses and baby’s breath. One 15 year old girl after another came skipping back to our classrooms with their proclamations of love in hand and then the secretary called my name. Confused and a little scared I made my way to the front office and there waiting for me was a small vase and inside was a single red rose complete with baby’s breath. The card on the outside read “Happy Valentine’s Day, from your secret admirer.”
I wasn’t the only one that received a single rose from a “secret admirer” that day.
Erica got one, too. Her parents must have overheard our gripes and moans the week before and arranged for us to receive a delivery on Valentine’s Day so we didn’t leave school empty handed. They never said a word but I knew it was them and I’ve never forgotten the feeling I had walking out of school with my perfect single flower that day. Since that day I have had many special Valentine’s Days but none as special as that one. You see, Erica’s parents didn’t have to send me that rose. I wasn’t their child. They weren’t beholden to me. They could have very easily sent Erica a flower and left me out, but they didn’t. The Matthews sent 15 year old me a rose that Valentine’s Day because they wanted to and they will never know the impression this small gesture left on me and the valuable lesson I learned from it – the lesson that love isn’t an obligation. Love is a choice. Love tries. Love tries hard. Love is empathetic. Love understands.
Love is your cheerleader, your fire, your teacher, your best friend. Love does not have to. Love wants to – on Valentine’s Day and every other day of the year.
Happy Valentine’s Day, Erica, David and Sue. Thank you for the memories.