islands in the storm

This entry is part 16 of 19 in the series Memoir

I ran across a copy of Hearts in Atlantis the other day, and I started thinking about the way an adult sometimes comes into the life of a child for a short period — weeks or months or a few years — and in that relatively short time, causes great changes in the child’s understanding of the world and herself. If you’ve never read King’s Hearts in Atlantis (or seen the film, which is quite good), it takes on this subject with  insight and sensitivity. Lonely kids, kids from dysfunctional families, smart kids who are without an outlet, these are the ones who are most open to a friendship with an adult, and often, most in need of such friendships.

When I was twelve, I got to know a couple who lived in an apartment building around the corner. She was a nurse, and he managed a store. They must have been quite young, married for just a couple years, and they had a baby named David.

I don’t know what Judy saw when she looked at me. An awkward kid who asked a million questions, that much is clear.  I never talked to her about my mother or the situation at home, but she must have intuited something because she was endlessly patient, and I could visit almost anytime. I remember asking her about nursing school, about her work, whether she believed in God, why she never took her wedding ring off, about David’s birth and how she met her husband, about her family in Indiana. And I have not one single memory of her being impatient. I was hypersensitive to adult reactions, and I would have slunk away and never come back if she had showed any irritation or boredom.   I was a smart kid who isolated herself from her classmates for fear of having the truth about an alcoholic mother come to light. She offered conversation and a baby to coddle — a heady mix for my twelve year old self. I believe I would have remembered her even if I had never seen her after she moved away, but I did see her.

It was a great loss to me when they went back to Indiana.  I wrote to her every week, and she wrote back almost as often.When my mother died,  I actually remember sitting over the piece of paper with a pen in my hand trying to find the words to tell her about it. What I don’t remember is whether or not I put down any details. It would be interesting — and frightening — to see that letter again. The extraordinary thing is that she wrote back immediately and asked if my younger sister and I wanted to come spend part of the summer with them in Indiana. It was an act of kindness beyond imagination. My father, who was dealing with his own aftermath, agreed without much discussion and so when school ended, we got on a Greyhound bus and headed to Kokomo.

As an adult I can hardly imagine such a huge gesture. She took on a twelve and fourteen year old who were still reeling from the violent changes to their circumstances when she had a toddler (Kim had been born in the meantime) and a three year old to handle. We spent a month or six weeks — I can’t remember exactly — as a part of that household, and that was my first personal experience of a stable home life. The things I remember are detailed beyond any other memories from that time in my life, illuminated  flashes of emotion that I struggled to keep within bounds. Judy  provided quiet support, answers to endless questions, trips to the pool and into the country to visit her parents, and room for me to tell the story I had kept tucked away for so long.

We stayed in touch. She wrote when Wally died at 48 of a sudden heart attack, and I wrote too. By the time I was in my late twenties, our correspondance had died out, though I still thought about her a lot and wondered where she was and whether she was well. She had given me so much, and without fanfare or expectation of return. When the Girlchild was born, I wanted her to know. I tried to get in touch but I couldn’t find her.  I called directory assistance for every town in Indiana I remembered in connection with her, but without luck. It felt to me like a great loss, that I couldn’t tell her about my own daughter. In the last twenty years I  continued looking, but I never found any trace of her.

And then in mid May, I got a letter from Judy. She had remarried, which was why I couldn’t track her down, but I recognized her handwriting on the envelope immediately, and my pulse began to race. I think if I answered the doorbell and my father was standing there, I couldn’t have felt anymore breathless and lightheaded.

There wasn’t anything earth shattering in Judy’s letter, just news about herself and her kids (grown up with families of their own), how well her life had turned out and how content she was. And she wrote that she had often wondered about me, and one day not so long ago, tried to find me on the internet. She wrote that she was so proud of me, and the things I’ve done. All that generosity of spirit I remembered was still there, on the page in my hands.

Here’s the most incredible thing of all: She was looking for me, too. In all the years, that  idea never occurred to me. Now it  feels as though a bridge that was washed out long ago has been rebuilt, against all odds and expectations.

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