Sue is not her real name, but rather the name that somehow became attached to my visual memory of her over the years. She was shorter and smaller than the other girls in my 2nd grade class; her hair was usually matted to her head; and there were sometimes smudges of gray dirt on her face. Her clothes fit poorly and were often torn. Sadly, the rest of us were not kind to Sue. We were scared of her. She was different. She had a slight speech impediment, and she always seemed to say the most awkward things. We did not invite her to play, or sit with us at lunch, and when we had to line up to move between classrooms no one wanted to stand next to her. Some kids taunted her, but most of us just completely ignored her. After a while, Sue never talked at all. She was never invited to any birthday parties, and I never saw her smile–until the day she met my mother.
The retrievable details are few, but I recall that my mother volunteered to read to my class one day. We all gathered round her cross-legged on the floor and my heart swelled with pride. She held up her selected book, title lost to the ages, and started to read. When she read aloud her voice always held a tremor of excitement, as if she knew a really amazing secret she couldn’t wait to tell us. Everyone was enthralled, and then I noticed that Sue was slowly creeping around the edge of the circle to be closer to my mom. She crept right up to my mother’s side and snuggled against her arm while my mom read steadily on without missing a beat. Toward the end of the story my mom pulled Sue close and hugged her, whereupon Sue looked up into my mother’s eyes, smiled radiantly as a single tear fell, and said, “I love you.”
My emotions teetered between jealousy and embarrassment (I suddenly and painfully saw the humanity I’d been horribly pushing aside), before something else entirely emerged. It wasn’t pride in my mother’s ability to transcend Sue’s outward appearance, but rather true wonder as it dawned on me that transcendence wasn’t even part of the equation. If it was, that would have implied something sad, unattractive, or undesirable in Sue that had to be looked beyond. None of that was true—my mother’s unconditional love and respect for every child in that room was present in her being before she ever walked into it. It didn’t have to be earned, or deserved, or even wanted. It just was. I couldn’t have articulated this then, but the awareness of it instantly came alive inside me like an animal presence. It was the moment that I first actively contemplated the true nature of love.
My mom gave us an amazing childhood. She taught us archery, helped us run backyard fairs, hooked me up with a local dig the summer I decided I wanted to be an archaeologist, and never missed a school concert or track meet. She also was (and is) ridiculously fun, and really knows how to party down with Santa.
Most importantly, without ever needing to explain it, she showed us love in action. I didn’t exactly become a perfectly loving being overnight, but I saw something more in Sue after that day, and I was kinder to her in the best way I knew how. I wanted to emulate this new, mysterious thing I’d seen my mom do even if I didn’t fully understand it. I never forgot the magic in the room that day, and I draw upon it often. Merry Christmas, Mom. I’ll be on my way first thing in the morning. I love you.