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First Lesson In Love

By Michael J. Cunningham

What does a fifth grade boy know about love? The nuns at Saint Martin’s Academy tried to teach us. They said God loved us and that we had to love God. But we were looking at the clock and waiting to play kickball at recess. Besides, I was confused about loving someone I’d never seen, whom I wouldn’t see until I died. I didn’t get it. I loved my dog, Buster. He loved me too. I knew Buster loved me because he licked my face.

In an effort to civilize us, Sister Alphonsus arranged a field trip to the San Diego Symphony. She forced us onto the school’s yellow bus and carted us off to the Ford Bowl in Balboa Park. This was so long ago, I don’t remember the month or the day, but I remember that it wasn’t a warm evening. I remember that because my mother forced me to wear a long-sleeved, plaid flannel shirt under the white, short-sleeved shirt of my school uniform, and carry a green, button-up sweater. I know now that I looked like a dork, but it didn’t make any difference back then; all the fifth-grade boys had mothers. And, we didn’t care what the girls thought. They were invisible.

For a week or two before the field trip, our fifth grade teacher, Sister Mary Alice, played us classical music. Sister Mary Alice was a skinny nun, and of great interest to us fifth grade boys because, once in a while, you could see a wispy lock of her hair fall below the white, starched border of her black veil. For a boy, back then, this was akin to seeing her topless.

I did not do well with the fifth grade music appreciation thing. Four times Sister Mary Alice wrapped my knuckles with a wooden ruler because I wasn’t able to tell the difference between the sound of an oboe and the sound of a slide trombone. After torturing me, she always said the same thing: “Jack Riley, that will teach you to pay attention.” My mother told me that Sister loved me and that’s why she smacked my knuckles. In 1954, justice in the Catholic schools was simple, swift, and direct, and the parents approved. Too often, if I got smacked at school, I got smacked again at home, because I got smacked at school. To this day, when I listen to classical music, I rub my knuckles.

Anyhow, the moon was full and high in the sky when we arrived at the Ford Bowl. The ushers greeted us with somber expressions and directed us to the outer reaches of the bowl—to the very top rows. There were thirty or forty empty rows in front of us, but the ushers sternly told us that if we tried to move closer we would never again be able to attend the symphony. I remember thinking that I should try to move down so I would never again be able to attend the symphony.

I don’t remember the music on the program, but I do remember the old, wrinkled couple in front of us. They served as a terrific diversion for me. They came in late, after the music began. The ushers greeted them and offered them seats close to the orchestra, but the man refused and pointed to the area in front of us.

The man held the woman’s hand as he led her down the aisle. He placed a blanket on the cement seat three rows in front of me and just to my right. Holding her arm, he guided her into a sitting position. And, when he sat down, he sat as close to her as he could get, then moved a little to his right to get even closer.

I watched them. As the music played, the old guy put his arm around the woman’s back. A few minutes later, the woman put her arm around his back. The only time they took their arms from around each other was at the end of each piece of music. Then they applauded the orchestra and nodded and put their arms around each other again. It went like that the whole night. I didn’t get it.

When we left the symphony, the old couple somehow ended up walking next to our principal and right in front of me. I was leading our line, following Sister Alphonsus toward our bus.

“Your children are beautiful,” the woman said to Sister Alphonsus.

I wanted her to keep speaking. He voice was as sweet and mellow as any of the music I heard that night.

Our principal thanked her. “They have been well behaved tonight, so far.”

The old man’s voice was deep and rough, like a smoker’s. “We went to Catholic school when we were kids.”

“You must have known each other a long time,” Sister Alphonsus said.

“Married fifty-six years,” said the woman. She smiled up at the man and squeezed his arm.

The next day in school, Sister Mary Alice played some of the music we were supposed to have listened to the night before. I got my knuckles hit again for not knowing the difference between a violin and a cello. After that, we were forced to write a paper: “What I learned at the symphony.”

As usual, all the girls raised their hands when it was time to read out their work. They’d all written what they always wrote, what they knew Sister Mary Alice wanted to hear.

“The symphony has changed my complete life. God must really love the musicians because He gave them so much talent. After going to the symphony, I now want to devote my complete life to music.”

I didn’t write about all that. I wrote about the old couple who sat in front of me. I wrote about how nice they were to each other. I knew I would get my knuckles hit again, but that was okay.

I remember wanting to write more than I did, but not knowing the right words, and I didn’t know what the boy-girl thing was all about. I remember thinking that if what I saw between the two of them was love, it made me feel a lot better than the love the nuns said God had for me. And, it was a whole lot better than Sister Mary Alice’s knuckle-rapping variety.

I thought that maybe the love that old couple shared—if that’s what it was—was something like what Buster and I had. Maybe when grown-ups loved each other, they tried to make each other feel the way I did when Buster licked my face.

 

Michael J. Cunningham is a retired teacher and football coach and a lifelong writer. His story Junkyard Dog is in in the current issue of Summerset Review, and another is a finalist in the San Diego Book Awards Best Short Story of the Year competition. He lives in San Diego, California, with his wife, Linda.

Photo courtesy of Daniel Mohorovic.

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