Heart Art and a Boy Named Chuck

Written by Leslie Criss

“Nobody has ever measured, even poets, how much a heart can hold.” — Zelda Fitzgerald

My Arizona-born mother was an art major. That makes me the daughter of an artist.

There are still childhood friends who would scoff at the fact there’s artsy DNA in my body.

These are the same pals who questioned my lineage after we took a summer art class together. The teacher, my mother.

With each pass of my paintbrush over the paper, these friends were convinced — and tried to convince me — that I was adopted; because it was clear as crystal I’d inherited none of my mother’s artistic abilities.

From nursery school and kindergarten through my early elementary school years, art assignments made during the fledgling days of February remained true as an arrow: Design and decorate handmade valentines for moms, dads, grandparents and siblings.

Many of my peers delighted in the task, diving in like little Michelangelos and drawing heart after heart in freehand. But refuse red construction paper continued to pile up on my desk.

For me, the sight of scissors, paper doilies, construction paper and paste made my stomach hurt.

Teachers tried to help. One showed us how to fold construction paper and cut half a heart. When the paper was unfolded, there was — for most — a near-perfect heart. For me, time after time, I unfolded my paper only to unveil a seriously deformed rhomboid.

If I completed even a couple of acceptable valentines for loved ones, I was lucky. Still, my parents, God love them, gushed over my annual attempts at heart art despite the great gobs of glue gushing forth. I know for a fact my mother saved some of my efforts for many years.

My artistic inadequacy is one reason Valentine’s Day is not my favorite date on the calendar. A boy named Chuck is another.

We were fourth-graders, Chuck and I. He and his family had just moved to my hometown, but rather than warmly welcome him, we ostracized him. How cruel children can sometimes be.

Despite my unkindness, Chuck liked me — he really, really liked me. He’d call me at home, interrupting my homework, to ask if I’d “go” with him. At the age of 10, I had no inclination to be anyone’s steady girl, especially Chuck’s. He persisted. And though I never hung up on him, I was not nice — my father told me so. But Chuck kept calling.

On Valentine’s Day, he hovered nearby during recess. He waited until my friends and I were well involved in a dusty game of playground hopscotch before he approached me, pulling something from a crumpled brown paper bag.

It was a box of valentine candy. It was for me, and I was mortified.

All these years later, I am still embarrassed by my horrible response to his gesture: I refused his gift.

Later, when the bell rang ending our school day, I made my way down the hall of Lizzie Horn Elementary School. As I emerged from the chalk-white building, there was Chuck, waiting on the sidewalk with the brown paper bag in hand.

As I walked past him, he handed me the valentine candy. With no others around to see, I took it. And without a single word of thanks, I kept on walking.

After a time, Chuck stopped calling. He no longer sought me out on the playground. And I was glad.

Some years ago, I learned that Chuck had died, far too soon. I almost wrote his mama a letter of apology for a fourth-grade girl’s cruelty, but I’d have done it to make myself feel better.

I feel certain Chuck gave us superficial folks little thought as he moved on to fifth grade and beyond.

Still, if I could have a few moments back, I’d be kinder to the fourth-grade boy. I’d thank him for the candy and invite him to join my circle of friends.

And I’d wish him a very happy Valentine’s Day.

Leslie Criss is the executive editor of Invitation magazine. Read her columns at invitationmag.com/between-the-lines.

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