dispatch from the past

A first love reappears

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Sunday, January 17, 2010

Sometimes people disappear from your life and you never know what happened to them.

All these years I thought he was dead and he wasn't, and because of that, a piece of me is restored to life as well. It was the 1960s, and I met him at an amusement park in Chicago. He was forbidden fruit. I was Jewish and he was Catholic, and to even be his friend would incur the wrath of my family, particularly my father, who was very old school. I didn't care.

He held my hand and told me I was beautiful. I dreamed of a future life that included a devoted husband, children and work that I loved.

We snuck around, meeting each other for almost two years, and then, almost as quickly as it started, it was over. My father found out about us and punished me severely. My boyfriend met another girl and broke up with me. I heard he was sent to Vietnam and later was told that he had been killed there. I met another boy, and by my senior year of high school, I was pregnant with my first child. He also wasn't Jewish, and this time my parents disowned me. I was 17. My daughter and I lived in a small apartment on Chicago's South Side. I trudged to classes and to work. We took buses to and from the day-care center. I was eligible for food stamps. We made do as best we could. I missed my parents. I missed my sister. I missed my youth.

I wrote a letter to an advice columnist at the Chicago American newspaper, asking for help and telling her my story. She said she wanted to meet in person, and it didn't occur to me that this was not the usual way letters were answered. She brought my parents to our little apartment to meet their granddaughter. We reconciled.

I met a man and married him, ignoring the warning signs that he was sending. The next 10 years I was abused and told over and over again by him that I was too ugly to be alive. I finally found the courage to leave.

I met the love of my life in 1987. I told him the truth about my history -- that I was a teenage mother, an abused wife, had been disowned, and my child and I traumatized beyond measure. I left out the part about my first boyfriend. I didn't want my future husband to know that until I met him, that first boy was the only person who had ever said I was beautiful.

Our lives went forward. We stayed in love. We adopted a baby and bought a house, my ex-husband died, I spoke out against domestic violence, and we both had work that was important. We celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary. Once in awhile, I would read something about Vietnam and remember. I never said a word.

And then just a few weeks ago, I received an e-mail from a social-networking site. My first boyfriend had sent me a message. I burst out crying and told my husband the story.

I joined the site. His note said, "Are you the same Cheryl I knew when I did not appreciate what a very special person you really were?"

It was him. He had been in Vietnam for three years. He had been terribly injured, but he was alive. I wrote back and told him about my life today. He answered with stories of his own. I posted a picture. He did not. At the end of his last message, he wrote: "Cheryl, you are still as beautiful as the first time I saw you."

Our messages ended after two. I don't want to know what he looks like now or, really, have the need to learn anything else. I just want to remember we both were once young and innocent, that he thought I was beautiful and that my life now is exactly as wonderful as the one I dreamed about a very long time ago.

-- Cheryl Kravitz, Silver Spring

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