When I was seven years old my family moved from Virginia to West Virginia, and I hated it. We had driven away from Wise in our old station wagon, under the cover of darkness. It was raining, and I remember watching the raindrops slide down the car windows just like the tears sliding down my cheeks. I didn’t want to leave the only home I had ever known and I didn’t want to leave my best friend, Bobby Thompson, behind. But I did, and ended up at Pettus Elementary School in West Virginia where the Ferrell twins—Denny and Lenny—kept insisting that West Virginia was the best Virginia, to which I could only reply: “No, it’s not.” Our teacher, Miss Govay, made us sing this dumb song about those “West Virginia hills/how majestic and how grand/with their summits bathed in glory/like our Prince Emmanuel’s land” (yeah, right). But after that painful year was over we moved a few miles up the river to Seth, West Virginia, and on the day after Labor Day I took my seat in Mrs. Bowen’s fourth grade classroom and was just unpacking my pencil box when Bamma Donohue walked in.
When I saw her I felt something inside me I had never felt before. I couldn’t explain it, but I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. She sat one row over and two seats ahead of me, which was the perfect place for me to notice her without her noticing me. I stole glances at her straight brown hair, her slender neck, her unbelievably long eyelashes (like Bambi’s mother!). The only word I could attach to the feeling I was having was love: I was in love with this girl. I carried it around inside me quietly, stoically, never letting on and hoping she couldn’t hear my heart thumping when we ended up in the lunch line together. But on Valentine’s Day I was in the classroom early. It was only me, Mike Gordon, and some girl near the back of the class unpacking her book bag, when Bamma walked in. She had all her Valentines in tiny white envelopes, but after she had dropped them into the big box at the front of the room she walked back to where Mike Gordon was sitting and put one down on his desk—a different one, a special one. He said, “I don’t want that old thing!” And Bamma said, “Fine!” She snatched it up, clutched it to her chest, and then walked over and slapped it down on my desk.
It was a homemade valentine: red construction paper with a sticker of two birds sitting close together on a limb, musical notes floating over their heads, and these words written in Bamma’s own hand: “We could make beautiful music together.” I didn’t care that it was a second-hand valentine. I picked it up off the desk gratefully, looked up at her with my lower lip trembling, and held that valentine to my heart. I took it home that afternoon and propped it up on my dresser so that it would be the first thing I saw in the morning and the last thing I saw at night, and when my brothers and I accidentally burned the house down a couple of years later it was that valentine I ran back to my room to rescue.
But that’s another story.
Near the end of that fourth-grade year I was standing in line at the door, getting ready to go out and get on the bus for home, when I heard the girls in front of me giggling and whispering that Bamma Donohue was going to sit beside Jimmy Somerville on the bus. I must have blushed, but I didn’t say a word; I just waited to see what would happen. When I got on the bus I sat near the aisle, saving a seat, and when Bamma got on the bus she was blushing furiously and giggling almost uncontrollably. But when she got to where I was sitting she stopped and said, “Scoot over!” I did. And she sat beside me. And for the five minutes we were on the bus together she blushed and giggled and we both endured the taunts of the other children, chanting in unison something about Jimmy and Bamma sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G, which, of course, I could only imagine, but did imagine all the way to my stop.
I said goodbye and she let me slide out, and I got off the bus, walked across the bridge in a kind of a daze, and then started off on the dirt path that led across the field and up to my house. As I walked I lifted up mine eyes unto the hills and behold, they were very beautiful. I felt my soul strangely stirred, and heard the sound of music swelling around me, and I began to sing out loud a song about “those West Virginia hills/how majestic and how grand/with their summits bathed in glory/like our Prince Emmanuel’s land.”
I ended the sermon (since it was a sermon and not just a story of a schoolboy crush) by saying, “It wasn’t the last, but it was certainly one of the most memorable lessons I ever had in how love can change things, how it can transform what is bleak and miserable into something bright and beautiful, and of course that’s what we celebrate at Christmas and in nearly every Christmas carol: the way God’s love transformed the world from something cold and lonely to something lovely and altogether lovable.”
May it be true for you this season, no matter what grade you’re in.