I can hardly believe you are five years old. Five! That’s a whole hand. Palm opened, fingers spread, its many lines and perfect prints on display for all to see. Five is a big deal, but you probably know this already.
I remember turning five. It was my first birthday in our new house in Lincoln—the house with the prism-casting windows and the sloping green yard, the big-knobbed banisters and popcorn-speckled ceiling. It is gray now, but it used to be blue. It is the house where I grew up. The one where Grandma Jayne and D still live.
My fifth birthday was themed after The Little Mermaid. There was a Little Mermaid cake and Little Mermaid plates and napkins. I had Little Mermaid sheets and pajamas and a spectacular hand-painted sweatshirt (Grandma Jayne is very talented, you know). All of my aunts and uncles and cousins came to celebrate on a Saturday afternoon late in September. It was cool enough to wear my new sweatshirt, but still warm enough for shorts. There were games and presents and candles and singing. There were sloppy joes and baked beans and fruit salad and chips. There was everything a new five-year-old could want. Except for five-year-old friends.
When you are new to a school or neighborhood or an entire city, sometimes it can take a while to make friends. The fall after I turned five I started Pre-Kindergarten at Trinity Lutheran School. That is where I met Tiffany. We were playing on the big wooden fort with the swinging bridge, the double sandbox, and the great round fireman’s pole, (all of which have since been torn down because they were terribly unsafe), which is where Tiffany was standing in front of me. At the end of recess I asked her if she wanted to be my friend, and she said yes.
Yes! To me!
Twenty years later I still remember how that felt. I can see it in my brain like a little movie of my 5-year-old life.
That afternoon when Grandma Jayne picked me up from school, she asked about my day.
“I made a new friend!” I blurted, all smiles and excitement.
I could hardly settle down enough to take a nap that afternoon (or most afternoons for that matter), I was much too busy entertaining thoughts of my new friend Tiffany, someone I could sit beside and play with and talk to each day.
One year later I turned six and my parents had a party for me at the Amigo’s down the street. This time most of the guests were my age—my next door neighbors and the girl in our carpool, some of my classmates, and Tiffany, of course. I wore a sombrero and unwrapped Barbies, but mostly I rejoiced in being six.
That fall Tiffany and I were in different Kindergarten classes. She went to school Tuesday, Thursday and every other Friday, while I went to school Monday, Wednesday and the rest of the Fridays. I was displeased by this situation, not only because this meant I would never get to have French Toast sticks for lunch (which were only served on Tuesdays), but because Tiffany and I no longer saw each other at school.
By the time Tiffany and I were in the same class again, it was first grade and I was almost seven. A whole year had passed and Tiffany had new friends. I had some new friends too, but friends can be hard to rely on. Some days they want to sit by you and some days they don’t. Some days they ask you to play Power Rangers or X-Men at recess (which you participate in even though you aren’t allowed to watch Power Rangers) and some days all of the colors are already spoken for (and no one wants to have two yellow rangers). Sometimes you are invited to the first sleepover ever, and sometimes your name doesn’t make it on the list.
This year you will be in Pre-Kindergarten. In school all afternoon, five times a week, along with all of your energy and joy and spirit. Johanna uncut. Johanna at full force. When you walk through that door and into your new classroom you will look for your friends from preschool, but many of them will not be there, including your best friend, Olivia. Many of your friends will be in the other Pre-Kindergarten class, leaving you alone with this small smattering of strangers. And while your other preschool friends will still live not-so-far-away among the houses in Menomonee Falls, Olivia is moving to a completely different state.
I think about how much that will hurt your small and vulnerable heart and it makes my heart hurt too. Not only because I love you (and you know that I do), but because that pain is very familiar, that pain of losing a friend, of being left.
You see after Tiffany there was Kylie, and then Nicole and Sarah and Beth and Annie, and though I considered each of to be my “best friend” for a season of my life, none of those relationships lasted. Some of them moved away and some made other friends; some seemed to stop caring and some transferred to schools on the other side of the city. And each time one of them left, my heart broke just a little, in bits and pieces that left me feeling damaged.
There are many ways to deal with pain. One is to build walls. Walls can guard and protect your favorite and most special things—like your birthday crown or your baby blanket, the things you want to hold onto and keep away from other people. But a heart is not meant to be treated this way. When you build walls around a heart it might keep you from getting hurt, but it will also keep you from being able to fully love. I hope, my little Jo, that you learn this lesson early on. Because living a life behind walls is not really living a life.
When you go to school, I want you to be brave. Not just when it comes to learning new things and honing your fine motor skills (I’ve seen the excellent way that you handle your crayons), but when it comes to making friends and letting them into your heart. That requires risk. Sort of like going down a fireman’s pole or climbing a fort made of tires. It is a risk to ask someone to be your friend, to invite them over for play dates or to trust them with your secrets. Because it’s possible they won’t come. It’s possible they won’t tell the truth. Then again, it’s also possible that they will.
You must risk and risk again if you are ever to learn what it means to truly love. That is a big lesson for a little girl, but it is one that I hope you begin to learn now, before you have built barricades that take years to break down. Before the sting of early rejection keeps you from freely offering love or readily granting forgiveness. To live without risking rejection is to live without the chance at acceptance. You may never hear someone say “no,” but neither will you hear them say “yes.”
I may not be Olivia, my dear, but I will be your friend as much as I can from this side of the country. I will love your small vulnerable heart with my weathered and tattered affections. I will listen when you sob through great tears and smile when you giggle and dance. Risk your heart, little flower. Go and share yourself with the world.
All my love,