First love is not generational. It doesn’t happen only to teens giddily dreaming of romance or young adults seeking a coveted, grown-up commitment. It happens to everyone from elementary school children with no concept of “forever” to assisted living residents with dementia. It happened to me at the age of 10.
Napa Street School in 1964 Northridge, California, was about as innocent and carefree a place as one could hope for given the assassination of President John F. Kennedy the year before and the periodic air raid drills linked to the Cold War. Students walked without fear between home and campus, practiced dances for May Day performances, and played kickball or on monkey bars during recess. I wore dresses and saddle shoes, and stole my first kiss from a boy in the second grade.
In fourth grade, I met Thomas. He had a healthy crop of black hair, thick eyelashes, and a smile that made me look away and blush. I never thought about asking him whether he “liked me, liked me,” but one spring day during class the girl who sat next to me passed a note from Thomas with that very question. What a surprise that was. It was magical. I turned and sneaked a smile in his direction. My little heart would never be the same. (These hilarious first kiss stories will make you glad you’re no longer a teenager.)
Notes were the essence of our young flirtation until our teacher, Mr. Mace, intercepted one. Silhouetted against the Southern California sunlight, he stood next to his desk by the windows and asked if we wanted it to be read aloud. Of course, we didn’t and Mr. Mace’s strategy worked. The notes stopped. Instead, on the playground one day, Thomas unexpectedly walked up to me, put a ring in my hand, and walked away. The little bauble was from a bubblegum machine or a Cracker Jack box, but it may as well have been the Hope Diamond. I squealed and showed it to my girlfriends. Minutes later, Thomas came back and took the ring. He twisted the cheap metal into something unrecognizable and put it back in my hand.
That day after school I tucked the misshapen treasure into my jewelry box and cried. My father, who was home recovering from a broken leg, hobbled into my room and asked what was wrong.
“Thomas gave me a ring and then he broke it,” I sobbed.
I don’t recall what my father said, but I remember him sitting on the bed next to me with his arm around my shoulder. At the age of 10, your father’s comfort is all you really need. I didn’t dwell on the incident or try to analyze what happened the way someone older might. I didn’t even try to win Thomas back. There were Scout badges to earn, spelling tests to ace, Barbie dolls to dress, and slumber parties to spawn girlish mischief.
Anyway, eventually, I understood.
About 18 months after the ring incident, in December of 1965, I heard that Thomas was moving away. I was too mature now for clandestine notes passed beneath desks. I looked up his address in the telephone book and sent him a real letter in an envelope with a stamp. I told him that he was “nice” and that I was sorry he was moving.
As it turned out, the rumour I heard was false. Thomas wasn’t moving, but the letter sparked a correspondence that led to a happy revelation. In one of his replies, also a real letter that I have on my desk today, Thomas apologized for his actions in the fourth grade and explained that he just didn’t like everyone knowing about his romances. He said he still loved me and hoped I loved him, too.
Nothing really came of the letters, and I don’t remember interacting much with Thomas the rest of the school year. However, after our sixth-grade class advanced and everyone was spending the summer preparing for the exciting transition to junior high, Thomas once again made overtures. The last time I heard from him was by telephone.
“Would it be OK if I rode my bike over to your house tomorrow and visited for a while?” he asked.
“Yes. That would be fun,” I said, being careful not to sound quite as thrilled as I felt.
Thomas didn’t come the next day. He didn’t call again. He didn’t write. Today I would have telephoned to find out what changed his mind, but in those days girls generally didn’t call boys. I remember being a little afraid of what he might say and hoping he would call again someday but, just like the ring incident, I didn’t dwell on it. The summer was in full swing, the pool in our backyard beckoned daily, and my family was preparing for a vacation to Oregon that would end with the impulsive purchase of a house near Mt. Hood and a permanent move north.
More than half a century later, I’m happily married with children and grandchildren and am retired from a long career in public service. I grow roses in the desert, write enchanting stories that have been percolating in my head for years, and when I need a break I watch home renovation shows on a state-of-the-art, big-screen TV in the comfortable great room of a pretty nice four-bedroom home.
But even with all the blessings that surround me, I still think about Thomas. Once I even used a variation of his last name for a character in a book. And I still wonder about that summer day so long ago. Why didn’t he show up? Why didn’t he call or write? Any attempts to find him and ask those long overdue questions have fallen flat despite the advent of the Internet, social media, and genealogy tools that can be used for more than family research. I may never know the answers, but until my last breath, I’m sure I’ll wish I knew what became of my first love, Thomas, who once gave me a ring on the playground at Napa Street School.
Reader’s Digest editors asked the Reader’s Digest contributor network to tell us their stories of first-time love. The following piece was written in response to that prompt.
Originally published as I Met My First Love at 10 Years Old—and I Still Think About Him More Than 50 Years Later on ReadersDigest.com.