|SYMBOLISM. Is what this is. And a chickadee.|
I'm sitting here staring at my Starbucks coffee cup, upon which someone has written the name "Bethy." And while I hate that name and will cut you down where you stand and burn the body if you call me that, it does bring back fond memories of the one person in the history of time and space who has ever been allowed to call me Bethy. So, let's talk about her. Because warm, cuddly feelings make me feel better. I'm having kind of a difficult week.
When I was in kindergarten, I peed my pants on the school bus. I know. Gross. But I feel that it's as good a place as any to start the story. There I was, five years old, on the school bus, surrounded by other children who were totally staring at me and my peepants. I remember thinking as it was happening of that joke where the little boy is reciting his ABCs, and he skips the P, and his teacher asks, "Where the P?" And he says, "IT'S RUNNING DOWN MY LEG."
That's why when our bus driver, Nila, asked me, "Bethy, are you okay back there?" I responded with, "IT'S RUNNING DOWN MY LEG." And then I laughed and laughed at my joke and maybe also started to cry.
But it wasn't my fault. If you want to get technical, it was the fault of whichever parent made me wear that summer jumper with the rainbow polka dots. It was clearly designed by someone who was thinking like an adult putting clothes on a child and not like an adult expecting a child to dress herself. My arms didn't maneuver in a way that would allow me to fasten those snaps over my right shoulder. And so, rather than going to the bathroom and facing the mortification of having to ask my teacher to help me put my jumper back on in front of my classmates, I had held my pee all day long.
All day long.
Well, at least until noon, as our kindergarten school days only lasted half the day.
But if you're going to pee your pants on the school bus, there is nobody better to handle the situation than Nila. She didn't make a big deal about it. She didn't embarrass me or make me feel stupid. She told my mom about it in a whisper when we got to my house, after I had run inside to change. And I never had to wear the rainbow polka-dotted jumper again.
Nila was not only our bus driver, but also our neighbor. She and her husband Carl lived even farther from town than we did, about five miles from our house. And there was no one in the world who was happier to see you than Nila.
"I could just put you in my pocket and take you home!" she always said to people, especially my little brother who was, to his credit, the cutest ever when he was little. (He called her "Milo.")
"I hate it when Nila calls me Bethy!" I said, sometime in second grade as I got ready to head out to the school bus one morning.
"Then, ask her to stop calling you that then," my mom replied. "But do it politely. Don't be rude."
Nila said, "Good morning, Bethy!" when I got on the bus. I didn't have the heart to say anything. Nila was always so nice and pleasant, even though she probably had to get out of bed at 5 AM or something to drive us all to school.
Eventually, Nila retired from driving the school bus. I was in fifth grade when she did.
"Wow! She must be old!" I said. "How old is she???"
My mom said, "In her 70s. Please don't ask her."
In what I assumed was her 80s, Nila was declared legally blind. The last time I went to her house, we sat in her kitchen and she showed us her clock that made bird sounds every hour.
"I can't see the numbers anymore!" she explained as her clock chirped like a cardinal. "Must be 2 PM!"
The last time I saw Nila was at my grandpa's funeral.
"Why, Bethy!" she said, in the little chirpy way she always said it. Nila herself was like a little bird, a chickadee or a finch maybe. She pulled me in for a hug, squinting as she tried to get a good look at my face and see how I'd changed. I was almost 30, and she was almost 90. Her eyes were blue and milky, her face crinkled like paper.
I wished I could have stayed in that moment longer than I did. I knew I would probably never see her again, and I was right.
There are few people you meet in your life who care about you unconditionally. No matter what you tell them, they say, "Good for you! I'm so proud of you!" Nila was like that for me, even if I never really saw her after I became a teenager and then an adult. To her, I would always be that 5-year old who peed her pants on the way home from kindergarten, and that 7-year-old who fell in the mud running to the bus, or that 9-year-old who punched her brother in the face one time and got in trouble (HE DESERVED IT).
I guess I'm not sorry that I never got around to telling her to stop calling me Bethy. In a tiny way it always makes me happy to hear it.
But if any of the rest of you call me that, I will end you. It's Nila's name for me, and hers alone, and it died with her.