I saw her everyday at the playground. The other kids always left her alone in the playground. The other kids would buzz around with balls, jump ropes, or gather in small groups to play and talk. Not her. She would keep her head down, walk to the very far corner of the playground by the corner where the fences met. There was usually mud there because of the way the playground drained. Not thick mud, or slimy mud, just the right kind of mud to make things. Mud huts, mud people, mud suppers, even mud plates and cups.
Sometimes she would take off her shoes and socks to wiggle her toes in the mud, make a perfect mold of her foot, or just walks through the mud enjoying the squishing sucking sounds as her foot broke free from the clinging mud bank.
Some of the meaner kids even nicknamed her the “Mud Girl”. They didn’t treat her like mud, but like dirt. She ignored them all, at least it seemed that way to me. I was in Fourth Grade too. So I saw her wander over to her corner almost every day at school. She never made eye contact with anyone. She would just walk to the corner with the mud when recess or lunch started, when the bell rang to come back in, she would even out the mud with either her hands or her feet. Then she would wipe herself clean on the grass nearby, put her head down, and walk back to class.
A quiet, shy, timid, mud girl. A girl who was almost invisible to most folks. Just a weird little girl that never responded to the jeers, taunts, and teasing of the bullies of both sexes- after a while, even the bullies let her fade from their sights.
She rarely spoke in class. She turned in all her work, finished all her assignments, but without any gusto, fervor, or delight…just another cog in the machine. She was the Mud Girl, most of us didn’t even know her name. I am sad to say that I was one of the ones who didn’t even know her name.
“Mom, can you like someone you never met?”
My Mother slid the cookies into the oven, hit the timer, took off her oven mitt, turned and leaned back against the counter to look at me. I knew that pose, it was the way she stood when you had her full attention. I knew right then I could tell her everything. So, I did.
“Do you have someone in mind, or are you asking me in general?”
She smiled that smile she used when you had her full attention. I loved that smile because it was so encouraging- like it kept saying to you without words: “ Do go on…I want to hear this.”
I kinda swished my chocolate milk around my cup before I answered. I knew she would refill it when the cookies were done.
“Well, there is this girl at school."(I watched my Mom’s smile crawl up into her eyes and make them twinkle).
“What’s her name?”
“I…I…I don’t know. I mean I know her, but I don’t know her name. Everyone calls her the “Mud Girl, but she never talks to anyone, so I don’t know her name. She isn’t in any of my classes. I only see her at recess and lunch. “
My Mother’s smile grew curious, the twinkle in her eye turned to a glitter of curiosity.
“Mud girl? Why would they call her that? No girl would like that nickname, I can assure you.”
My Mom never did like bullies, or bad nicknames, and I know she was really listening to me now, because she pulled out a chair and sat across from me. My Mom never sat down except to drink her morning coffee, or to listen. All the rest of the time she was busy doing things. As she told me often enough: “I like being busy. As long as it is worth doing.” You know, the silly things Adults say so they can teach you something.
“Tell me more about this “Mud Girl”.
So, I did.
I told her everything. How she always heads to the corner where the fences meet. How she makes things out of mud, or slips off her shoes to jump around in the mud. How she washes her hands and feet with clean grass. How she always walked with her head down, never making eye contact on the way to the corner, or on her way back into class. I told her how I watch her play, and kinda make sure nobody comes over to bother her. (I am tall like my Mom- and in Fourth Grade that comes in handy)
My Mom reached over and covered my free hand with hers. (the other was holding my glass of chocolate milk) She patted my hand in that gentle motion that Mom’s seem to know how to do, that lets you know they are taking you seriously, and they care. I call them hand hugs, and my Mom was good at them.
“When did you first notice this little girl?”
I must have turned beet red. Because I saw my Mom’s smile creep from concerned to knowing in a gentle flicker of emotion up to her eyes.
“The first day of school. I was playing catch with Robbie, and Will back in the far side of the playground- when I saw her walk towards the corner. I missed Robbie’s throw - and he asked me what I was looking at. I pointed with my glove at the girl walking to the corner where the mud was. Robbie and Will both looked where I was pointing. They laughed. “You are looking at her? The Mud Girl? She’s weird. I got mad. I told Robbie and Will never to call her that again. “
“Hey! Don’t get mad at me and Will. We don’t know her name. Everyone’s call her the Mud Girl. We weren’t being mean.”
“I guess they were right. I mean I don’t know her name either, so I call her the Mud Girl too. But…but…I…I…I like her. Is that possible?”
I was afraid what my Mom might say. I mean you can’t like someone you don’t even know- can you? I never met her, I don’t know her name, and yet…I like her. A lot. So I waited for my Mom to tell me I was nuts. She did not.
Instead she told me how my Dad and her met. I had heard the story a million times. My older sisters never got tired of hearing it. They thought it was “Romantic”, but girls like sappy stories like that. When she told me the story of how they met this time, it was different, I was listening with my heart and not just my ears. Mom was in eighth grade at the time. A tall boy (and he had to be tall, because my Mom was already almost six feet tall in eighth grade) came over to her desk before school started. She looked up to see this very tall, very thin, quiet boy looking down at her. He held out his hand, in it was a neatly folded piece of notebook paper. Her name was written in bold block letters on the front: Karen.
She looked up as she took the folded note to open it up. HIs eyes were focused on her with an intensity that she said; “Made her feel all squiggly inside.” He smiled a soft smile at her look, motioning her to open the note and read it. She put her head down and did just that. What was written inside made her heart leap with joy, and she broke out laughing at the same time. When the tall thin boy turned an embarrassing shade of red at her laughter and turned to walk away- she reached out and pulled him back by his hand. She shook her head in a “wait, it isn’t what you think” manner.
She said he looked both puzzled and hopeful.
Even now, in the kitchen sitting across from me, I could see how she was back in eight grade reading that note for the first time. It made me smile. My Mom looked like a little girl for a moment. For some reason, I thought of the Mud Girl, and how I wanted to give her a memory that would make her face grow young and pleased when she told it. Just like Mom’s face was doing.
Everyone in my family, my sisters, my Uncles and Aunts, both my Nannies, and Grandfathers - know what the note said. The could repeat it by heart, like my Mom was doing now:
“The note said: “I think you are the most beautiful girl I have ever seen. I think you are smart, kind, and sweet. I love you. Please check a box. “
Under that one short paragraph were two boxes. And a question. The question was: “ Do you think you could marry me?” The boxes said: Yes. No.
My Mom checked: YES.
We both sat in the kitchen, my Mom’s hands still patting mine, it took a few minutes for both of us to come back to the kitchen, only because the timer went off. Mom got up, came back to NOW, and put the cookies on a rack to cool. She poured a glass of chocolate milk, filled my glass back up, sat back down and we kept talking. When the conversation was over, I had made up my mind. I went to my room, got a notebook out and started writing.
It took her a few minutes to notice me standing over her. I am thin, but tall, so I cast a long shadow- and that gave me away. She looked up at me. Up close, she was even prettier than I thought. I liked her from a distance, but this close to her…I loved her. I was clutching the note I wrote in my pocket to make sure it didn’t fall out, all my nerve was anchored to it too. She had a bunch of mud rolled in a ball between the palms of her hands - she patted it into a shape as she continued looking up at me. I heard her voice for the first time.
“Do you want a cupcake?”
“Well scrunch down here by me. We will make six, I think that should be enough.”
I scrunched down by her side, the note forgotten (but only for a while) as she handed me a ball of mud to make my first cupcake. We made six of them. She laughed when I put Dandelions on top of my three cupcakes, I told her they were yellow frosting, my favorite. She put little peanut size mud balls on top of her cupcakes. I asked what they were: “Chocolate Chips, silly boy. My favorite. “ And I laughed too. The bell went off way to soon. She took me by the hand to the clean grass, and showed me how to use it to wipe all the mud off of my hands. Then, just like a good mother, or a real girlfriend, she checked my hands to see if they would pass her inspection - they met her standards with a cluck of satisfaction.
I didn’t let go of her hand. She didn’t let go of mine. We had five minutes to get to class. I reached in my pocket and pulled out the note. She took it without a word. I didn’t know her name, so I addressed it : “To my darling Muddy.” I saw a tear form in her eye, she looked up at me before she opened the note. Her voice was filled with a trembling joy, combined with awe and gratitude.
“Your Darling Muddy. I like that. A lot.”
She squeezed my hand. I squeezed hers back. Then, just like my Dad did all those years ago- I nudged her to read the note.
She did. She started to cry, and ran back to the mud. I just stood there. I knew how my Dad must have felt. I screwed up. I needn’t have worried. She had run back to the mud, to get some on her finger. She raced back to me, held the note out so I could see the two boxes- one that said “YES” , one that said: “NO.”
With deliberate care she placed a big muddy check mark in the box that said: “YES”.
We sat in the sandbox. Muddy, me, our twin girls, and our two boys. Meagan asked if we could make cupcakes.
Muddy (my wife, and their Mother) said:
“Sure, your father loves them. Go get some dandelions for his yellow frosting.”
I gave my darling Muddy a quick knowing look, and a peck on the cheek.
I started rolling peanut size mud balls - her favorite chocolate chips.