Some years ago, when I was little, I took a white sequined clutch into a stand of trees behind my house and stuffed it full of leaves. Green leaves, gathered from the poplars and gum trees and wide-armed maples. The clutch was a one-penny purse; I’d bought it with my own money at a garage sale.
Two pennies. This was what the widow gave Christ. While the Pharisees were tossing in fistfuls of money, this poverty-stricken, husbandless woman gave all that she had, and this was enough. My third grade Sunday school teacher extracted two pennies from her change purse, made a platform of her palm, and showed us. Two pennies.
“Can you imagine,” she asked us, “having only two pennies to give?”
I was, in those days, a collector. Leaves, yes. Also: bits of chalk, cigarette butts (from sidewalk gutters and my babysitter’s ashtray since neither of my parents smoked), seashells (of course), empty Tic Tac containers. I had a tiny tiny play tea set. My Sunday school gave out little Bible Books small enough for my dolls to use. When my parents were away or sufficiently occupied, I dragged a chair over so I could reach the cabinet above the refrigerator. There, a box of matchbooks printed with my father’s company’s name. There were dozens of them, maybe as many as a hundred; I don’t know. They were perfect. I touched them, lightly with my fingertips, but took good care to be gentle. I could not lift them from their places for fear of bending, however infinitesimally, the cardboard. I put my finger here, to feel the machine-pressed crease. I loved those matchbooks. They were perfect.
I was a very good little girl. Quiet. Content with my collections. I closed a smooth, white stone, perfectly round, inside my hand and shut my eyes to better feel the perfect thing’s perfect shape.
The problem with being a good little Christian girl is that you might end up being a good little Lutheran girl and, when you reach the age of twelve, your name will then be put on the acolyte schedule. We wore robes, and from the same closet where our robes were kept retrieved the long brass, two-pronged stick, equipped with a retractable candle wick and a candle snuffer. I have never learned the name for the thing: is it a wand? A scepter? A rod? A baton? We practiced the lighting and the bowing. But the sitting on the pew beside the altar for the entire service we left to chance. We were required to take sermon notes and turn those notes into reports we handed in at confirmation class on Tuesday nights. There, we read Martin Luther’s Catechism and learned it was wrong to kiss each other. (This was a co-ed class, full of girls and boys who wanted to do exactly that.) On a weekend trip to a Lutheran youth group rally in Virginia Beach, the mother of the boy I had a crush on caught us in bed, under the covers, fully clothed. We explained that we weren’t doing anything, and the truth is, we weren’t. We were just cold. Still, we were instructed to keep our fully-clothed bodies in full sight. Later, we ran down to the freezing ocean together, and he threw me in.
Once, I found a stick in the woods that was absolutely, wondrously smooth. It looked like something crafted. As if someone had sat down in the middle of the woods, produced the little stick from whatever combination of atoms and whatnot wood is made of, and left it there for me to find. As if it had never been a part of a tree but rather was always in and of itself complete. I couldn’t stand its loveliness, its smoothness, so I took it home, put it in the box a tube of toothpaste had come in—a box I’d rescued from the trashcan, a box that still had perfect cardboard edges—and wrapped it up to give my mother for her birthday.
Sexual purity was a direction, we were told, rather than a line we shouldn’t cross. And yet, we had our rules. They were handed down to us, not from the adults–least of all our parents–but from the adolescents who had gone just before us. We made our modifications, of course, as has every group of young people, before and after us. The distinctions between prude and acceptable, and between acceptable and slut were clear to all of us, and this made us feel safe. Somewhat safe, anyway. My friend Holly messed up everything when she let a boy give her a hickie. My senior year, our homecoming queen was pregnant, though not showing yet. I liked her. She was a friend of mine, though kind of a rogue one, not a member of my social group but just a person I had a class with, with whom I liked to talk. Her style was artistic-bohemian, a bit out of place at our very preppy high school, and she wasn’t popular. It was a bit of a mystery how she was elected Homecoming Queen. Her being pregnant seemed a product of her eccentricity. The rest of us knew the rules. Still, no one made her relinquish her crown or anything. Her father escorted her and she wore a vintage prom dress she’d found at Goodwill, with long white gloves. My older sister called her a slut, but for me, her brazenness sparkled. I bought one of her paintings: a flamingo standing in a pond made of variegated shades of blue.
Buttons. Though I felt vaguely embarrassed about this one. Buttons were too pedestrian, too on-the-nose. And, plus, they make the whole endeavor—finding a perfect tiny thing—too easy. All buttons, round and with even-numbered, precisely spaced, uniform-sized holes–are perfect. They are made of perfect color. They are blue or pink or green or white all the way through.
I just wanted to kiss boys. I found them everywhere. Behind the buses during school dismissal. In my friends’ basements. At parties. On front lawns. On my back deck, my front porch, near the dog’s pen. I found one in the ocean a few years after that Lutheran boy had tossed me into the waves. That was Virginia in March; this was Florida in July. This boy was beautiful, from Indiana. We kissed in the waves while his friend, on shore, stood guard and chatted with my little sister.
The thing about being a good Christian girl is that it is damn confusing. We are told it is all about belief. Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and ye shall be saved. That we are all sinners, and all sin is equal in the sight of God. Because: all have fallen short of the glory of God. Christ will make us new again, no matter just how bad you are.
I believed in the restorative power of my faith. Surely, if my virginity were so so crazy important, and if Christ loved me, if He really saw me, saw how very sorry I was, saw how dearly I longed to be precious again, clean and sex-free, somehow it could happen. I could be a virgin again. Not literally a virgin, maybe—I had fallen; this was my fault—but virgin-enough. I would be okay.
It was in this spirit, in this hope, that, after two disastrous long-term romantic relationships, one with a potter and one with a photography/secondary English Education student, I announced to my close-knit group of friends one noontime at our college’s cafeteria: I am saving myself.
I meant I was ready to shore up what little purity I had left, ready to not have sex again until I was married. That I would save what I could. My two pennies. What little I could yet claim as my own. I was happy, beginning again. I felt self-possessed and determined and maybe maybe maybe okay. Possibly good enough.
A boy I had once been interested in but was now a friend was there. This was a boy whom I had never even kissed but had done such silly, friend-ish (?) things as lick a page of Publishers’ Clearinghouse stamps and stick them all over each other’s arms, legs, neck. Now, he shook his black hair out of his eyes. Could he ask me something? Before I could answer yes—which is exactly what I would have said, yes, yes? A question about my reborn virginity? Yes, I would field such questions, yes, yes, I was ready to proclaim my life new again, let me tell you all about it—He said, What exactly are you saving?
My big-time college boyfriend, the potter, had lost the white-gold signet ring I had given him at a beach in Florida where he’d been vacationing with his Scottish grandparents. Of course the ring was gone. The beach, the waves, the endless sandbox, countless people traipsing through. He called to tell me how depressed he was. How he could barely even speak to me, he felt so bad. Later, after we broke up, he would drive past my new boyfriend’s apartment building (the photographer) and find my car there, in the lot, early in the morning. This, finding my car there, would embolden him, make him very very certain he never wanted to see me again, as he told me at a post-breakup meeting at the park. A meeting wherein I cried and cried into my new knitted gloves. But now, months before we would break up, on the beach, the signet ring came back to him. He told me the story again and again. He looked down, into the sand, and there it was. Two days after he’d first lost it. Not half-buried or anything. Not even a bit sudsy or sandy. Completely unbothered. Just lying there, on the hard-packed sand a few feet from the water, waiting for him.
The college I attended was in the mountains, half-an-hour from the nearest Walmart, and about an hour from what most people would call regular civilization. Twice, I went caving with a university outdoors group. I found a rock on our second expedition, and then carried it around with me for the longest time. I keep a NYC subway card in my purse from the last time I was there, nearly a year ago. There are cherry stems from Manhattans I’ve enjoyed also inside my purse, on the bottom, floating about with bits of spare change and the unknown, gritty matter that always settles to the bottom. On my desk, there is a swaying hula girl figurine, a gift from my grandfather who died seven months before I was born.
I have two children. One holds onto money and little else. She is saving for her future and doesn’t care too much about playbills or the programs to weddings she’s attended, even though attending such events as weddings and plays are among her very favorite diversions. My son, on the other hand, never met a rubber band he wasn’t compelled to name. To keep forever. He never wants anything in his life to change. He wore those blue Legos Crocks for over a year, and why should he give them up just because he’s outgrown them? How do I, his mother, the person who forces him to occasionally clean his room, know for certain he’ll never need or want them again?
I have let go of almost everything. I don’t miss my virginity or my Tic Tac boxes or my friend who, during that long-ago lunch in the seemingly far, far away cafeteria, questioned me, hurt me, judged me. I don’t miss my gray and slimy mound of self-loathing and guilt, though I admit there are other sentimental guilts I have picked up along the way. I don’t miss my buttons or the two pennies I plunked down in the collection plate the day I learned of the generous widow. I still have the caving rock and the hula girl.
I do miss, however, that white sequined garage sale clutch. My penny clutch. The time before everything changed, before I learned even of the widow and her two pennies. I wish I still had it, that I might yet steal off to the woods behind the apartment building where I live now and stuff the thing with all the green I can find. (Which, admittedly, isn’t much; it’s January.) I wish that was the thing that I had saved, and that I had saved it for myself. Just for me.
Susan Woodring is the author of the novel, Goliath (St. Martin’s Press, 2012) and a short story collection, Springtime on Mars (Press 53, 2008). Her short fiction has appeared in The Cupboard, Passages North, turnrow, Literary Mama and Surreal South, among other anthologies and literary magazines. Her short fiction was shortlisted for Best American Non-Required Reading 2008 and Best American Short Stories 2010. Susan currently lives in the foothills of North Carolina where she writes and homeschools her two children.
Read All Columns by Susan Woodring
- Let Me Take This Opportunity to Say
- First Love
- I’m Sorry, But I’m Not Sorry
- Stargazing and Other Miracles
- How to Dance Like a Writer
- Sympathy for Lead, Or: Oh, How I Hate the Alchemists