If I could, I would go back in time. I would go back and seek out the 16-year-old version of me. The one who didn’t quite know herself. Didn’t quite believe in herself. Didn’t quite love herself, but did manage to fall helplessly in love with you.
If I could, I would find her and tell her about you. Warn her about you. Let her know that she can love you with all her heart, but you’re going to break it just the same.
But she would go on and love you anyway. Because some things she’ll just have to learn on her own.
If I could, I’d go back in time and talk to my 18-year-old self. The one who gave you everything she had. Every ounce of intimacy. Then watched as you flirted with other girls at your high school. And felt her heart break for the first, but not the last, time.
If I could, I’d tell her it’s okay to feel broken. And it’s okay to ache. I’d tell her that time does heal, but she’ll never be the same. I’d tell her being lost for a while is the only chance she ever has of being found.
But she’d ignore me anyway. And she’d cling to you. Because some mistakes are worth making.
If I could, I would go back in time and seek out my 20-year-old self. The one who looked in the mirror and decided to see beauty. The one who discovered being herself filled her up with infinitely more joy than living up to everyone else’s expectations.
If I could, I’d tell her that you cheating on her had nothing to do with her weight. Or the size of her bra. I’d tell her that the details are even worse than what she’s imagining in her head. I’d tell her that turning her back on you would be the hardest thing she’d ever do, but her future self would be forever grateful.
But she’d stay by your adulterous side. Sweeping up the pieces shattered around her feet. Hoping for the best. Because that sweet little girl’s tragic flaw was always relentlessly following her heart.
If I could, I would go back in time in search of my 22-year-old self. The one who finally saw all she was worth. And all she deserved. The brave girl who stood her ground and said, no more. No more.
If I could, I would wrap my arms around her so tightly. And I’d tell her it’s okay to be sad. And I’d tell her it’s okay to miss you. I’d tell her to let her heart weep. I’d tell her to long and mourn. I’d tell her to dwell on the loss of her first love for as long as she needed.
But she’d shut that out too. And she’d choose to never acknowledge the sadness, to never talk about the fear that maybe she was wrong. And she’d choose to let anger be the only emotion associated with you. Then she’d move on with the heavy burden of a bitter heart. Because there are some things that are worse than saying goodbye.
But this 27-year-old can’t go back. And she got here with only foolish emotions guiding her way. And all those bad decisions took their toll. And you still haunt her dreams. And that time never did come by and heal. Because she never let herself break down. And grieve the loss of a truly great love.
So to her I say, it’s not too late. And it’s still okay to think of you. It’s still okay to be sad. And it’s still okay to wonder. It’s even okay to remember. It doesn’t make her weak or pathetic. It makes her human. It makes her the woman she is. Built on the bones of her reckless 16-year-old, broken 18-year-old, devoted 20-year-old, and valiant 22-year-old selves.
She’s the glorious compilation of all the mistakes she’s ever made.
And if she’s lucky, there’ll be many more to come.
We used to make leaf piles. Rake the yard clean of fallen mahogany and amber and crispy browns until the shivering blades of grass beneath were revealed. We’d drag all those colors into the back corner of the yard. But we didn’t burn them. No we’d never let them go up in flames.
We piled them tall and wide until we created a mattress-sized heap of all the trees had shed that year. Then we jumped high in the air and let our bodies fall carelessly down to earth.
It was fall when I found you. Or you found me. And we both forgot – even if for just a moment – that our hearts were too broken to love again. And the time it took for a ruby-red Sweetgum leaf to dance its way from the highest tree branch to the anxiously awaiting ground below, that was all the time we needed.
We were falling too.
In a coastal town you have to seek fall out or you’ll never realize she’s there. When the humidity steps aside, backs away after a cleansing rain. And winter’s bite hasn’t taken hold. The sun is still warm, but the swirling breeze carries just enough coolness to make it possible to sit under those soothing rays forever.
I miss the way the Georgia trees paint the ground with colors. And spending all day in the backyard raking up those leaves just so I could fall with splendid abandon.
But the trees here don’t change with the seasons. And as quick as she comes to visit, fall will move on.
So I’ll just breathe in each precious moment. And be thankful that a childhood spent watching leaves tumble helplessly in the air was enough to give me the courage for my greatest fall. When there was no leaf pile to catch me.
When she finally stirred, light poured through the cheap blinds, draping the scratchy comforter on the hotel bed in even stripes of sunshine. Her head throbbed as the room spun around her. The stench of cheap bourbon and cigarettes hung in the air and mingled with something sweeter – like day old perfume or the lingering scent of shampoo on a pillow. It might have been mid-afternoon, but the clock next to the bed blinked 12:00 and gave no clues to the time of day.
Rolling onto her back and covering her head with a pillow, she groaned as snapshots of the night flashed in her head. A speakeasy with a password. A bartender with a crooked smile. And the darkest eyes she’d ever seen.
Trying to free herself from the memory of it all, she sprung up from the bed. Dropping two unsteady legs onto the floor and leaning on the doorway to the adjacent bathroom for support. She stumbled in, not quite willing to let go of the wall.
A shower. A shower would make her feel better. She turned on the water and sat dazed on the cool toilet seat as steam began to rise toward the hum of the fluorescent lights.
The water stung, pounding her shoulders in uneven bursts, but she didn’t budge as her wet skin turned pink in the heat. She looked unconvinced at the frail bar of cheap hotel soap. Surely it was going to take something much more substantial to wash it all away.
A good intention. A bad idea. A hotel with a room. A heart with a vacancy. And do not disturb. Do not disturb. Do not disturb.
But it was far too late for all that. She was more disturbed than ever before.
She tried to remember that saying about forbidden fruit, as she was fairly certain it would apply, but her mind was clouded and slow. All she could think of were the shape of the lips that bit into hers last night. The feeling of the tongue that swam inside her mouth. That made her body throb and her mind race. That made her want to somehow surrender and escape at the same time.
Stepping out of the shower she wrapped herself in a thin towel and avoided her reflection in the foggy mirror. She began piecing together her outfit, discarded haphazardly around the room. A black pump. A lacy bra. A braided gold hoop earring.
She spotted her top, halfway draped over the nightstand. As she grabbed it, a small piece of paper fluttered to the floor. Hesitantly, she bent down to retrieve it.
A receipt from the bar. With a note on the back in rushed red cursive.
We all make mistakes, love.
But please believe me when I tell you,
this is not one of them.
If I had a baby girl, I’d tell her she was pretty. But that it didn’t matter anyway. Because pretty is just a label society creates. And those labels might as well be written in Greek. They have no meaning here. You’re not pretty or smart or skinny or fat or successful or stupid. You are my baby girl. You are perfect in every way. Society’s Pretty never met no one like you.
If I had a baby girl, I’d tell her she is worthy. A complete worthy being. Just for being born. Just for existing. And one day some freckle faced boy who thinks he’s a man is gonna come along and try to change your mind. You’ll think he’s giving you the world when really he wants to take it all away. And you might make a mistake or two. Thinking you’re in love. But when it’s all over and you’re crushed and confused, I’ll tell you you’re just as worthy as you ever were.
If I had a baby girl, I’d tell her life doesn’t start when you’re 13 or 16 or 18 or 21. Life isn’t womanhood or adulthood or maturity. It’s all the mistakes and magic that happen in between. Life is sneaking out at night with your best friend or losing the biggest game of the season. Life is the first time you drive a car. The first time you ruin dinner. The first time you kiss a boy. The first time you get caught telling a lie. Don’t spend a second thinking you can’t wait until … .Until is now. This is your until. Live in every moment of it.
If I had a baby girl, I’d tell her we’ve come a long way in how the world thinks about women. But we’ve still got a long way to go. And someone is going to look at you like an object. And someone is going to tell you what you can and can’t do with your body. And you’re always going to be seen first and foremost as a woman. And you’ll get used to that because you have to.
You’ll probably do more cleaning and cooking and laundry and child-rearing than your other half despite the fact that you too, have a full-time job. You’ll probably be expected to put your career on hold if you want to start a family. You’ll be expected to lose that baby weight and stay in shape and look beautiful or else lose your value in the eyes of society.
So you’ll have to create your own sacred space where society cannot reach you and tell you who to be and what to become and what parts of you are important and what parts aren’t.
If I had a baby girl I’d tell her that girls aren’t sluts for having sex. And when you think you’re ready, you’re probably wrong. That food is not the enemy. That all bodies are different and perfect and right. I would tell her that life is really tough sometimes, but that’s part of the journey. And I’d tell her to trust the soft little voice in her head that always knows the right thing to do.
If I had a baby girl, my heart would break each time she walked out the door. And I’d hope my words were enough to keep her safe. Or at least enough to keep her going.
I don’t think I’ll have a baby girl. I’m just not that kind. But if you do, please tell her she’s the brightest light in the universe. Please tell her all she ever has to do is shine.
I am of the South. I sprouted up, all pink and squirmy, out of red Georgia clay. Ate apple pie and drank Coca-Cola and sang Amazing Grace.
As a little pudgy girl with rosy cheeks and big, curious brown eyes, you could find me chasing fireflies at dusk. Poking holes in mason jars. Brimming with wonder at nature’s nightlight.
After supper, I’d lay on my back in our grassy front yard. Counting the stars. Hoping to catch one flying by. Flying on to oblivion.
Even if you tried, you couldn’t count the hours I wasted jumping on trampolines. Or swimming in the neighborhood pool. Or trying to dig to China.
I rode my lavender bike on make-believe trails through the backyard. I hunted four-leaf clovers. And made club houses out of empty refrigerator boxes.
I trampled through the creek in our backyard, looking for arrowheads, scared half to death of garden snakes and water spiders and southern boys.
Oh yes, the South runs through my veins.
I went to Sunday school. And learned to recite the books of the Bible. Genesis. Exodus. Leviticus. Numbers.
I wore curlers in my hair. Sponge rollers. Hot rollers. Curling irons. And everything in between.
My cousins were in beauty pageants. True southern belles with mascara on their lashes and Vaseline on their teeth before they ever had breasts or hips or a choice.
And that’s part of the South too.
The other part. The lonesome part. The part that won’t budge as the rest of the world spins on. Firmly rooted in pride and tradition. Arms folded crossly on her chest. Stubborn as an old mule.
The South isn’t all sunshine and swimming holes.
I have seen her darker side. Her demons. Her ghosts.
I have seen hatred and ignorance and long-lost souls. Anger and malice from hatchets not buried deep enough. Feuds not quite left behind.
I have met plenty of folks that never learned how to think for themselves. Never cared much about it either.
I have seen poverty. Trailer parks brimming with lawn chairs and empty beer bottles and McDonald’s wrappers and babies on the hip.
I have seen good men waste their lives to coal mines and poker tables and all-you-can-eat ribs and local bars.
Oh yes, the South has her own bleak, battered kind of underbelly. Sometimes that darkness is all I can see.
Until I remember the joy of a Sunday potluck after church. Or listening to my grandpa say grace.
Until I imagine the simple pleasure of picking fresh ripe figs. Pulling watermelons off the vine. A porch swing on a rainy day. A sprinkler party in the front yard.
And don’t forget about the fireflies. You can’t ever forget the fireflies.
I’ve seen big dreams lost to the small city. People, like me, who couldn’t quite escape. Moved away only to find that our roots are just anchors; we are tethered to the South.
But no one complains when they end up here. There’s still shade beneath the Georgia pines. And the waters of the Chattahoochee still flow murky and cold.
No, they don’t complain. They just pour themselves another glass of Country Time lemonade, find themselves a rocking chair.
And wait, and wait for the fireflies.
This is a poem my sweet mother, the greatest writer I know, wrote in 2003. It deserves to be shared.
Maybe there were too many green-soldier
men stacked in closets, then rustled down
from shoe-boxes – green soldiers from
the Buster Brown shoebox versus
green soldiers deployed from the Ked’s shoebox.
Maybe there were too many “choose sides”
backyard football games where
boys sized each other up, salivated
for the win, gripped that pigskin
like it was a leather god.
Bullies were born in school halls or
afternoon playgrounds where push and shove
became tug-of-war for childhood warlords
establishing mini-territories they would carry in their back pockets along with the
tattered baseball card of Mickey Mantle,
or the tiny gray frog they thought could live
in the dark of their jeans’ pocket, at least
until they were called to supper and wandered
home to roast beef, carrots, potatoes,
biscuits warm from the oven and, of course,
These are the leaders of our country – boys
with frogs in their pockets and
rockets’ red glare in their eyes.
And these boys have issued an ultimatum to Tommy Bilbrey in Fourth Period English
he stares straight ahead at chalkboard words.
Meet us out back after school – or else.