Be Careful

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Dear Wendy,
I’m writing this to you as a 52-year-old woman. I know – that’s old. You’re only 14, and being middle-aged is beyond your comprehension. But an older, hopefully wiser, self needs to talk to you.
While you read this, it’s the fall of 1981, and you just turned 14 years old. You’re rocking that big hair and those jelly shoes, girl! There have been a lot of changes, haven’t there? You’re a freshman in high school, and it’s a little scary, right? Big school, tough teachers, new friends. Lots of changes. There are so many things I could tell you. But, for now, we need to talk about this past summer. It was a busy one, wasn’t it? I remember how much you looked forward to that trip to Virginia. Having a brother who lives 12 hours away is rough. I know how much you miss him. But those trips to the mountains are the best part of summer, aren’t they?
That big Victorian house with the wraparound porch sits right at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
There’s a hammock out back with a view of the foothills. It’s the perfect spot to read all day and listen to the mountains breathe. It’s fun being an aunt already, isn’t it? Anna is like a baby doll brought to life, walking around in her little white dress and cowboy boots. The library is a couple of blocks away, and during Anna’s afternoon nap that first day, you spent a lovely hour there. You walked back to that big old house with your arms full of well-worn hardbacks whose covers reached out to you and begged you to “pick me!”
The adults laughed, thinking there was no way you could read all those. But you did. You read all about the Salem witch trials, pouring through one book after the other. You also read your very first James Michener novel – ‘Hawaii.’ And, if I’m not mistaken, there was a Harlequin romance novel thrown in there for good measure.
It wasn’t just family in the house that summer, though, was it? An 18-year-old college student named Terry was spending the summer there as well. He was studying to be a preacher, just like your brother.
He was blond-haired and blue-eyed, and you had a bit of a crush on him. I remember that very well. I don’t blame you. He was a cutie.
There was also a group of bikers who needed a place to stay for a couple of nights. Their Harleys were loud, and they wore leather that smelled funny. One had a long beard and a purple bandana knotted through his belt loop. You felt a tiny bit of fear when they sat with you at the dinner table, didn’t you?
But they were kind and polite, and all seemed well.
We need to talk about that afternoon, about half way through the summer. You’ve never talked about it much. But, now is the time. The house was empty. Everyone had somewhere to be except you. After spending half the day in that hammock re-reading “The Salem Witch Trials,” you got hungry and wandered through the back door to the kitchen. I don’t remember what you ate, but I do remember being startled when you realized there was someone else in the house.
Terry was there. You felt shy being alone with him. Shy but not uneasy. Not at first. But the way he was looking at you was different. He reached out and took your hand, and it sent a shock through you. That unexpected touch. And then you were upstairs. I don’t remember getting there, but you found yourself in Anna’s room. The room with the pink walls. For the rest of your life, you’re not going to like the color pink.
This next part is blurry, and I think that’s because our brains protect us from the things we don’t need to remember too clearly. His hands were on you in a way they never should have been. He whispered things in your ear you didn’t understand. And there was pain, quick and sharp. And when Terry stood up and left that room, he looked back at you and said, “Be careful.”
For the 30-plus days that remained of the summer, you were still there in that house in the mountains, but it felt like you were watching yourself, didn’t it? Like Terry had taken you away from yourself. And that’s exactly what he did. Every time you opened your mouth to say something to anyone about that terrible thing you’d been through, about how confused and hurt and ashamed and embarrassed you were, you could hear Terry saying “Be careful.” And you were silent.
I don’t blame you for that. It’s taken me decades to let the words cross my lips. And when I did finally say it, it was my best friend I trusted with those words. He passed no judgment on me. He only held me and said how very sorry he was that not everyone knew how to be a decent human being. And he let me cry and talk and cry some more.
You got a letter that summer from your sister, Carol. Remember it? You had written to her, and she must have sensed something was not quite right because her response contained this line: “You are stronger than you know, Wendy.” How I wish I could talk to her now.
I still have that letter. And in a few days, you will be going with your best friend and his daughter to get a tattoo. Your best friend wants a fish hook on his ankle; his daughter wants her mom’s birth date on her side in Roman numerals; and I will have that line, in my sister’s handwriting, on my right wrist. So I can see it always.
So now I am writing this to you, my 14-year-old self, because I wish that you could know you did nothing wrong. You did not cause what happened inside those pink walls at the foot of the mountains. You are no more a witch who can conjure up circumstances than those poor girls who were burned at the stake in Salem so long ago. Having a crush on someone does not make you responsible for how they behave.
You were a 13-year-old child. And you will carry that day with you forever. But.
You will grow and love and be loved, and that one afternoon will only be a tiny part of who you are. You will meet a man who will be the best friend you’ve ever had. And when he tells you to be careful, it is because he cares so much and wants only good things for you. Be patient and wait for him.
He’s worth it.
Editor’s Note: Names used in this column have been changed to protect their privacy.
Wendy Hodge is an Opelika native, an empty nester and lover of all things Opelika. She previously had a column titled A Word or Ten, which was featured in the Tennessee Star Journal and is currently awaiting release of her first novel with Harper Collins Publishing Company.

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