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the journey is worth it

February 28, 2012

This is a short story of a time when someone met me where I was.

I didn’t date anybody until I was 17. The teenage dating world was a lot of pressure and just too damn much input.

Then I did, for about 8 months, and I was in the thing with both feet and up to my knees and probably at least eight of my fingers. And also it was made of wet concrete. But he was maybe in it with one and a half feet, and the idea of the thing was better than the reality of the thing, and it really shouldn’t have gone on even that long, and it came to a Very Dramatic Teenage End.

My cousin Ashley took me out to a bakery when I was able to quit crying long enough to drive up and meet her, and we talked about our future and leaving high school and about how we were going to be free. We had fancy chocolate somethings, maybe tiramisu, and felt very ¬†adult and sophisticated, and she told me that Dorothy Parker had said she always wrote better when she didn’t have a relationship to sap her energy and drag her down. I felt brave when I laughed at this instead of crying again.

Afterward, we drove back to her parents’ house, where we found her mom, my Aunt Penni, sitting in her home office tying up some loose ends from her day’s work. She had recently started her own business as an agent for bluegrass bands and was the only person I knew who worked in the creative sector like this. Her work was very glamorous to me, because she was always traveling to Nashville and New York and meeting Very Famous People, and very gutsy, because she had just gone out and done what she wanted to do and was living her dream.

I hadn’t seen Aunt Penni for a few months when we showed up that evening, so we sat in the office for a while to catch up. She knew what was going on with me, because I was 17 and pretty transparent, and maybe because Ashley had filled her mom in on the nature of our chocolatey mission, but also probably because of my chronically flooding eyes and wobbling lower lip. I found myself spilling my guts about how hurt I was, how humiliated to have been dumped when I’d been trying so hard at this whole relationship thing, how I was afraid now because I’d imagined my life going one way and here I was in uncharted territory, and how could I trust any plans I made from here on?

Now, by this point, a lot of people had done a lot of things to try to comfort me. And I knew they were doing it and I knew why, and I felt lucky to have so many people who cared enough to try to fix things for me. But there was a part of me that felt really alone in where I was. My parents had been high school sweethearts. My little sister was young enough not to have endured a breakup yet. Even Ashley was, at that time, already dating the guy she would eventually marry, if my memory doesn’t fail me. I knew intellectually that lots of people had had their hearts broken, but nobody yet had been able to speak directly to that experience for me, no matter how much empathy they could bring up.

Lots of people had told me very true things about the healing power of time and how nobody could take away who I was. My Aunt Penni, that night, did not tell me any of that. Instead, she got up from her desk and left the room, and came back holding an old photo album. When she opened it, I immediately recognized her teenage self in the pages – but the boy with her, standing outside in the summer heat, lounging around vintage cars, I didn’t know. He wasn’t my uncle, although I knew they, like my parents, had gone to school together.

He was her high school sweetheart, she told me. The boy she’d thought, at my age, she would spend the rest of her life with. And she hadn’t. It had fallen apart, even though they’d been in love. Even though she cared about that relationship. It just didn’t work out. Sometimes things don’t. Even things we care about.

We flipped through the book, the three of us, questioning and remembering and laughing. Nobody served up the lesson to me – by the time we finished the book, nobody was talking about my aunt’s teenage dating life. But I didn’t need more than the comparison to make the light come on.

Her two-dimensional smiling face on the page, laughing in her bathing suit from the summers of the seventies, and her real-life smile in the office she’d designed in her house, running her business with the sounds of her family life in the background. Her past, my present, her present, my future, none of it what we planned, but all of it good. All of it part of us. All of it worth honoring.

She didn’t tell me what to think or how I should feel. She let me be where I was. But she let me know that she’d been where I was, and that she was in another place now, and the journey had been worth it.

And before I left, she told me she was proud of me.

I don’t know if she remembers, but I have never forgotten that.

the dynamic duo at Ashley's wedding

2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 28, 2012 10:17 am

    That is such a great story, and I remember it well. I’ve always thought my mom had a special way of dealing with things that most adults don’t have… she never minimizes or tries to rationalize away anyone’s pain. Where most adults would go on with things like, “You’re just a teenager, you’ll understand it wasn’t really love later on” and so on, she has always understood that feelings are feelings and sometimes there is no explanation, you just have to feel them. If it feels like the worst time in your life, then it doesn’t matter if it really is or will be. If it feels like it, that’s real enough. She has always let me just say my piece and then let me be to work through it, and to me that is the best anyone can do when I am upset. Thank you for illustrating that aspect of her here, I don’t think that is something I would have been able to put into words!

    • February 28, 2012 10:30 am

      That is a really good way of putting it. Yeah. She doesn’t minimize things. She sees them for what they are. She doesn’t try to dictate the terms on which she can help; she assesses the situation and puts herself in it instead of reframing it to fit her. I don’t know many people who have that gift.

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