I had a professor in college who believed in true love at first sight. Pretty crazy, I thought to myself. One day, while teaching Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” he let his class know that he himself had experienced love at first sight. Lasting love could be found in a moment’s glance, he claimed, and he verified this wild notion by telling us that is exactly the manner by which he fell for his wife of many years.
Although that’s not been my love story—probably because I’m more Jane Austen, more antagonism-meets-its-match—I have witnessed a lasting, dogged love emerge from one first look.
I had taken one of my very young, toddler triplets to try on Easter clothes at a speciality children’s clothing store. There was no need to bring out the entire mob to size everyone. Better to take the one who really wanted to go. He followed me around, let me dress him up, and I made a few choices.
In the middle of the store, there was a round, tiered table with soft bunnies, brightly colored eggs and a few tiny baby dolls wearing smocked dresses. My boy saw one of the dolls. She was wearing a spring, blue pastel outfit, an Easter Queen, bald and barefoot with gentle eyes. He stared. He picked her up and cradled her in his arms. I smiled, thinking how sweet he was, how wonderful it was to see a boy child want to hug this girl baby doll.
As I wandered the store a bit more, to make sure, I had what I wanted, since outings to the store were quite rare with four young children in the house, I noticed he was not letting go of the baby: he held her a little too tightly to his chest. He asked if she could come home with us. Charmed by his smile and clear, immediate devotion, I decided, What the heck? After a few weeks, I can hand her off to a girl child.
The baby doll went home with us, and he rarely put her down. He named her, Baby Gayle, after my sister. Just as Lamb Chop and Baby James, a boy doll, were the primary snuggles belonging to my oldest, Baby Gayle became my baby boy’s constant companion.
Once upon a time,, this boy took her to the beach and off she went. We never knew what happened to her, but he was crushed. More than that, he was worried that something terrible had happened to her. I suggested that perhaps she had decided to have an adventure, and would be back. Right or wrong, I chose to order the exact same model on Amazon, and soon she was back, a bit refreshed.
Later, he decided Baby Gayle needed friends, and, within a few years, because his momma thinks encouraging the love of girls and women is important, he received a black doll named Tutu, and later two more girls named Beck-Beck, and Elizabeth.
One year, our newly adopted Pointer ate some of Baby Gayle’s tender fingers and part of her arm. My boy mourned,. For Christmas, he asked that she be restored and given new arms. I ordered a similar doll of the same brand, excised its arms, and glued them to her cloth mid-section, out of which her arms sprouted. When he saw Baby Gayle restored, my child’s smile pleased me, but I wondered if I might, at some point need to let the trauma stand, rather than rescue and repair. But I was still protective.
This Good Friday, I trekked to another store that carries the same Baby Gayle brand. Way up high, there was one doll left on the shelf. I stood in front of it, then wandered around looking for a few items for the boys’ baskets. I came back to it again, and looked up at the doll. Around me, younger children than mine wandered and tried out various donut pillows that smelled of, no joke, donuts. The little ones picked up trucks and hugged bunnies and picked through the books that my boys are outgrowing.
I have stood in Orthodox Churches in Russia and been transformed by the beautiful icons of Mary, the mother of Jesus, holding her infant son. She is holding God in her very arms, and God is a child. When we grownups begin to think we are so smart, so mature, so worldly, we might want to look a few more minutes at that woman cradling our baby God. Cradling each other is something we all need, and need to give because we are often more stiff, more unmovable and more breakable than any doll.
I have also noticed that sometimes the baby Jesus of Orthodox iconography doesn’t always look like an infant; sometimes he’s clearly growing up, standing on Mary’s lap.
My oldest son can no longer stand on my lap. He’s nearly as tall as I am. And, my babies, my triplet boys, who were so tiny, lay more on top of me these days, splayed arms and legs protruding like a spiky ball from a sweet gum tree, everywhere and sticky. I wonder how Mary felt when Jesus began to grow out of her lap and make his way into the wide, dangerous, glorious world. She was scared, I’m guessing, and sad, like I am when I look on that top shelf of the store and see that fresh new baby doll that I could use to fix up Baby Gayle one last time. (Recently, a few nibbled toes opened a glaring, hollow spot on one foot.)
Instead, I walk out of that store. I am one sad and vulnerable mom, carrying a grownup awareness that weighs on us big people when we realize that we can’t protect our children—or anyone we love. We are not omnipresent fixer-uppers. Glue guns are great for many things, but not for life heartaches. I believe Mary became very acquainted with the reality that Jesus would climb down from her lap and chart his path of andcradling, and loving the rigid religious rule makers the wounded outsiders.
Yes, we risk getting hurt, I tell the boy, but people stuck in safe containers of their own making, hiding, cannot know love. Love is risk. My young, sentimental boy struggles with keeping Baby Gayle and doll friends, along with a few stuffed animals like Puppy and Tiger, on his bed. It's dangerous out in the open. He has come to realize that he cannot protect them from the Pointer whose nose says these items are the sweet boy’s, and they must be on his bed to share with her. So he stuffs them in the pop-up canvas bin. I know how he feels: worried. I encourage him, though, to go ahead, put them out on that wide open bed nears pillows and love them, hold them.
There are always wounds, says Jesus, but Love outlasts and overcomes the smallest and greatest wounds. So, like Jesus, keep cradling the wounded, hurting parts of others, and of you.