Of course no one can give perfect credence to memories so tender and distant, but I recall giving my first marriage proposal the summer I was 5.
A photograph of myself that summer reveals me as rather a beauty. In the picture I sit on a swing set at a campground along the St. Lawrence River, a place sacred to my childhood. My blond hair falls over my shoulders and I laugh from a pink mouth. I had nothing to be ashamed of, as I count shame now. I doubt I knew how beautiful I was.
That week at the campground contained some trauma, I remember, for I was just learning to ride my bicycle without training wheels. It was the season in which my mother held the back of the seat and said, "Don't let go," and my hands tightened on the handlebars, and the pavement came to get me. I have always preferred training wheels to crashing, no matter the forfeited advantages of sailing a sidewalk alone.
I think I used a red crayon to write the marriage proposal out. The boy, called Jesse, camped within walking distance of our tent. I think he was several years older, but I do not remember why I liked him.
My mother, although she recalls none of this, walked with me to his campsite. I left the folded proposal wedged in the hand brake of his bicycle.
I suppose that if Jesse-if that was his name-had found me indispensable, he would have hopped onto his bicycle and chased our family car all the way back to Canisteo, N.Y. He didn't, and that is the end of the story. It resembles the myth of Phaedrus in which a cock finds a pearl on a dunghill, is not interested in it, and leaves it there.
Or maybe the ill-fated romantic missive blew from his handlebars before he could see it and just rattled around in the woods forever.
I was ashamed, later, that I had done it. It took many years for me to even admit that I had. Sometimes kindness in perspective comes only with the passing of years.
These days I look into the mirror, sometimes startled by the realization that my hair has gone from yellow to brown.
For many years I thought that literary women could not truly be beautiful because their beauty is in their words. If one ever did happen to be truly gorgeous, I thought, it would be too much for the earth to endure. The golden miracle of chosenness-for love is always partly election-should not visit word women, except in extreme cases like those of the Browning poets.
But then I recalled that somehow I had courage enough to speak when I had few words, tremulous pink lips, and nothing but a red crayon.
I often think of my childhood self, yellow-haired and artless, as a true self. Back then I had the boldness to desire love in the open, the advantage of not knowing how to posture and some mysterious resilience that made me forget nearly everything about the boy.
I might reasonably assume myself to be beautiful and brave now. It could stem as a natural consequence of a youth partly golden.