Love in the afternoon preschool

I had just dropped off my daughter at preschool when one of the other mothers approached me. "I have to tell you something," she said. "I think my Jared has a crush on your daughter."

"Really?" I said, surprised.

"When he talks about school, it's 'Claire' this and 'Claire' that," she said. "And when he says his prayers at night, he always asks God to make Claire like him."

Now, Claire and Jared are all of three years old, and at this point, Claire had been attending preschool for just a month. She seemed to like school, but she didn't talk much about it. She'd certainly never mentioned a boy named Jared.

But when I picked her up at school later that day, Jared - a slender, blond boy in a snappy denim jacket - ran over to Claire and offered her a hug. With her usual reserve, Claire hesitated for just a moment, then stepped gingerly into his arms. They looked eerily mature, like impossibly miniature adults. The sweetness of it made my chest ache.

All that week, the goodbye hugs continued. By the middle of the next week, there were hello hugs as well. It was clear that Jared was the pursuer; Claire, the pursued. Gradually, her reserve slipped away as she warmed to him. She now stepped into his hugs willingly, even eagerly.

It startled me to think that Claire was old enough to have a life that was somehow separate from mine. I still thought of her as my baby - an extension of me. But here she was, independently engaged in her own private adventure.

One day, while we were riding in the car, Claire said suddenly, "Mommy?" Pause. Then: "I love Jared."

As the school year progressed, there were plenty of opportunities to watch Claire and Jared in action. First, just before Halloween, there was the early-morning hay ride at a local farm. Jared's mom and I flanked Jared and Claire, who sat holding hands contentedly, oblivious to the cold. Once I heard them chattering about firetrucks, then about spaghetti.

Halfway through the ride, I put my arm around Claire and hugged her to my side. She stiffened, pulled away, and said, "Leave me alone, Mommy. I'm talking to Jared."

They held hands, too, as they marched together - one a witch, the other a pirate - in the Halloween parade. And a few weeks later, during "circle time" at the class Thanksgiving party, Jared's mom and I watched as Jared hugged Claire, kissed her tenderly on the cheek, and told her he loved her. "I love you, too, Jared," said Claire.

The other kids were whining, writhing, twirling, and twitching - in short, behaving like three-year-olds. But Claire and Jared just sat there, utterly at peace. The other moms shook their heads, smiling. "I've never seen anything like it," said the teacher.

At that moment, I felt enormously pleased that of all the cute little girls in the class, this sweet little boy had chosen my Claire to love.

"I want you to know that we approve wholeheartedly of Jared," I said to Jared's mom. "Why don't we just betroth them now and be done with it?"

We laughed, but I was only half-kidding. I pictured Claire and Jared growing up to fall properly in love, get married, and live blissfully ever after. They'd be interviewed in People magazine, write a book, inspire an Oscar-winning movie. As far as love was concerned, they'd never know a moment's doubt or pain.

Never mind that the path to my own happy marriage had been long, circuitous, and sometimes tortuous - in fact, like most peoples'. Never mind that the mistakes I'd made - in love and in life - had taught me to recognize and embrace happiness when it came, and to hold on tight to the good and true.

How tempting it is to want an easy, pain-free life for our children! When I look at Jared and Claire, I forget that struggle is rewarding and makes us strong. Claire's heart will no doubt break and mend, break and mend, just as mine had. And she'll live through it, just as I had. But right now, I'd like to bottle their sweetness and make them drink a little each year, so that it never goes away.

Meanwhile, their love endures. Jared's picture sits on top of Claire's bureau, and most evenings, just before we turn out the light, she waves to him, blows him a kiss, and bids him goodnight.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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