Kirkersville, Ohio – the place where I grew up – is a teeny tiny village about 25 miles east of Columbus. The population of this village nestled along the South Fork of the Licking River is approximately 500. I didn’t even know I grew up along the South Fork of the Licking River, (which I found in a Google search,) it was just “the creek” to me. All I knew was that we had one stop light, two bars, three churches, one bank that kept getting robbed, a carry-out where I purchased my hordes of Swedish fish, the Kirk Kone (my first place of employment) and National Trails Raceway in the next town over. I think the raceway was the biggest reason anyone ever came to our neck of the woods, and I learned at a very young age how to deflect the flirtation of unsavory race fans. Not all race fans are unsavory, mind you, but the ones who flirted with me were. Here’s a sample of what that might have looked like:
Scene: Small Town, USA, hot summer day. Kids riding on bicycles to the corner to get ice cream only to find the miniature parking lot overrun with motorcycles – a pit-stop on the way to the local race track. Several large men clad head-to-toe in leather (except their arms, which were bare – perhaps in an attempt to even out their farmer’s tan?) waiting in line at the window to get ice cream from a small, red-headed, flat-chested, girl.
Unsavory Race Fan (URF): “Hey cutie. What time do you get off work?”
Underage Sarah (Me): “Um, I’m only 13.”
URF (with furrowed brow and slightly blank stare) “Didn’t ask how old you was, I asked what time you get off work.”
Me: “Never. Here’s your cone,” which I purposefully made to resemble the leaning tower of Pisa.
Even at 13 I was a cynical little shit.
Kirkersville also had one funeral home, one of the scariest nursing homes I’ve ever encountered (I have a slight case of gerontophobia,) and an elementary school. I lived right next door to the school. Sneaking over the fence on school days instead of walking all the way over to the gate was my preferred method of getting to and from school, but I usually got caught in the act. Probably why I’m not a big trouble maker to this very day. Well, except for rearranging other people’s lawn ornaments. I love doing that. I was particularly fond of making it look like they were all looking in a window of whatever homeowner I was harassing at the time. Sneak in, rearrange, and sneak out. I was a pro.
But I digress (again.) The whole reason I bring up my beloved Kirkersville is because I got a phone call from the former Principal of Kirkersville’s elementary school , Mr. Tom Lilly, two days ago. Apparently, I never returned that book I borrowed from the library: “The Night Dad Went to Jail.” It has come in handy over the years, but I didn’t immediately confess to still having it.
Just kidding. He called to tell me this:
“I’m proud of you.”
A man who knew me over 40 years ago as a wee lass took a moment out of his day to call me. How he remembers me is beyond my thought process. I was quiet. I mean, wallflower quiet. The only time I stopped by the office was to see the nurse (I was also a hypochondriac) or to get pencils from the vending machine. It was one of my favorite pastimes because all the pencils in the machine had quotes from the Revolutionary War. I tried to collect them all but kept getting Patrick Henry’s famous quote: “Give me Liberty, or give me Death.” Regardless, Mr. Lilly was always there, always smiling, always kind. I’m proud to say that I never received a reprimand directly from him. This was back in the day when corporal punishment was still allowed. I can understand remembering the “troublemakers,” but not a kid like me. It just tells me that he was a very kind man heavily invested in every single one of his pupils.
I adored him.
During those elementary years, I didn’t have much contact with my biological father. He left when I was four. I went to his house on some weekends, but he wasn’t really around when I visited. Honestly, he has never been my “dad,” except for the procreating part. The whole “father” concept was foreign to me. I know divorce is not out of the ordinary today, but 40 years ago, not many families were like mine. I was certainly one of a very small club. But Mr. Lilly was my school dad, and that’s about as close to anything I had for a while. And he always smiled. The kind of smile that warms the eyes and says “I’m here.” Genuine. That’s the word I’m searching for. Mr. Lilly was genuine. And still is.
So, for him to call to tell me that he’s praying for us, thinking of us, and so very proud of us, well, it made me cry. Not like the getting paddled kind of cry, but tears of heartfelt happiness. Hearing that from Mr. Lilly was a great source of strength. I felt fortified. Ready to fight some more. Confident that I’m making good choices when it comes to my children.
Sometimes we all need a little encouragement. I don’t care who you are. It feels good to hear that someone thinks you’re doing a good job. And for this man who patted my head as a lonely, quiet schoolgirl to extend the same hand to pat the same head all these years later, well, that’s pretty special.
Thank you, Mr. Lilly, for continuing to be here for me all these years later. I just can’t tell you what it means to me. Much love to you. <3
And I hope I never rearranged your lawn ornaments.