Once upon a time, many long decades ago, St. Peter‘s, the Catholic school where I had happily (mostly) spent grades one through three, was closed. I was terrified by the prospect of having to attend the dreaded “public school” where there were people who were NOT Catholic, and NOT guided by the principles of the Peace Tree and Sisters Catherine and Catherine Anne, both of whom I loved an adored and both of whom were close to my family, understood our father-less situation, and kept me safe and encouraged.
The fall of fourth grade, that first day, I honestly thought I might die. I was not a big hit. With kids or teachers. I was in fourth grade but I was reading on a college level. Everything they were teaching fourth graders at Liberty Elementary was something we had already learned at St. Peter’s – except for the social skills; something at which I NEVER quite caught up.
As luck would have it, I was taken under the wing of the kind (unto sainthood) librarian, Mrs. Lyles. Mrs. Shirley Lyles. She was ridiculously good to me the entire three years I spent at Liberty Elementary, a good portion of which I spent in the library with her. I became what would now – I suppose – be called an aide. She made it clear to my teachers that I should be sent to her whenever I had nothing to do in class – which was incredibly frequently. I was ALWAYS asking to go work in the library – and they ALL hated when I asked, which I now get – it must have been frustrating for them not being able to teach me – but at the time, I didn’t understand why they would care, didn’t get they’d find it – perhaps – a bit insulting. All I knew was that I was safe and valued in the library, alone with Mrs. Lyles.
I would even spend part of my summer there – whenever I could arrange it. Nowadays, of course, all the time we spent alone together would not be allowed. But those were more innocent and kinder and nicer times, and she was a wonderful woman who behaved as mentor, friend, and parent figure. I loved her. I worshipped her. I went back, often, during my early high school years – (high school then being 7th through 12th) – until I turned into the crazed sort of emotional roller coaster substance crazed nut-job I became.
Those years in the library; she let me do EVERYTHING she did. I catalogued, I ordered books, I did her administrative tasks, I was made to feel like a responsible adult. EXCEPT!!! I was NOT allowed to touch her African Violets. EVER.
The sill of African Violets
She had shelves and window sills FILLED with them. SO beautiful. SO glorious. And she told me FROM THE GET GO that they were EXTREMELY delicate and sensitive and that they would trust ONLY one person, so, much as she would have LIKED for me to be able to feed and water them, they would NOT allow such a thing.
Later, when we’d gotten to know one another much better, and she had told me parts of her life story, and I had told her mine (or, more accurately, she had divined my secrets – some even I didn’t then know) – she told me that once upon a time she had had experiences which made her like an African Violet, unable to trust anyone – closed off to the possibilities that there were good people in the world who would feed and water you without letting you down; and she WORRIED that I was becoming that person – an African Violet, who was closed off and would only bloom and drink and eat from one person, or, worse, from no one. She explained to me that the world was indeed full of people you should NOT trust, but that there were also a lot of good, trustworthy folk and if I closed off – I would never experience them and so I would have to learn to balance the risk with the reward.
I tried. For many years. But, now, here, sitting a house where there is a sill full of gorgeous African Violets, and where – coincidentally – lives ANOTHER woman who is every bit as glorious a human being as Mrs. Shirley Lyles – and who, like Mrs. Lyles, recognized that I was drowning (am drowning) and afraid and terrified in whatever classroom the hell of the last few years has been – and has taken it upon herself to welcome and comfort me in her own “library” – and so, how synchronous that I was, this morning, here in her home, reminded of this story as she watered her African Violets before she departed, and, well, Mrs, Lyles, I don’t know if you are still alive – I hate to even think about that – but I tried, really I did, to open and trust and blossom – and you know what? You were wrong. I should have stayed closed. I should not have allowed myself to be fed and watered in the way I was, because I cannot tell you how many of those people I tried to trust who – in the end – meant to drown or prune or starve or neglect me away unto death. Except, of course, here I am in the home of someone I have come to love and trust and believe in – so . . . oh dear.
Mrs. Lyles, I loved you very much – but I am also very much afraid I should not have listened to that lesson.