A small town. Early evening. My cousin and I are taking a walk through an older neighborhood. It’s sunset, children are outside for the final hours of dusk.
It’s funny. It only seems like yesterday that my cousin and I would attend summer Vacation Bible School as children. We’d play games. Smashing balloons, balancing eggs on spoons, running three-legged races.
When we got older, we volunteered as VBS leaders, too. It was a lot of hard work, I remember that much.
But I also remember when six-year-old Mattie Nielsen hugged me so hard she almost choked me.
Little Mattie said, “I LOVE YOU MISTER SEAN!”
I was too stunned to even answer her. I asked why Mattie loved me.
“BECAUSE,” Mattie shouted. “THEY HIRED YOU TO TEACH VBS!”
That poor, misinformed child. Nobody “hires” you to teach VBS. You sort of get “sentenced” into it.
On our walk, we pass neighbors. A man is washing a small, pink bicycle with a hose.
The man tells us that his daughter rode her bike through the mud. “She just learned to ride last week,” the man adds. “She’s growing so fast.”
We keep strolling.
We pass an old man on a porch. He’s smoking a pipe. I can smell it. You don’t see tobacco pipes much anymore. His grandson is with him.
“Ready for football season?” my cousin shouts to them.
“War Eagle!” man and grandson holler.
“War Eagle!” my cousin answers, elbowing me.
I am silent. I was born during the third quarter of Bear Bryant’s farewell Liberty Bowl. I don’t War Eagle.
We walk past kids and adults who are in their yard, playing—tossing Frisbees toward metal baskets.
“What game is that?” my cousin asks them.
“Frisbee golf,” says a man. “It’s kids versus adults, the kids are beating us silly.”
Soon we are long past the residential area, on a dirt road. We pass barns and fields. A stray dog follows us for a few minutes. The old boy has white on his snout.
And the sun sets.
My cousin and I watch brilliant colors over a field. Beneath a live oak are several parked cars. My cousin tells me that teenagers park in this field sometimes, for fun.
Their vehicle doors are open, they’re listening to loud music. Youth is a powerful drug.
On the way back, we pass a married couple, pushing a stroller. My cousin and I recognize the young mother—wouldn’t you know it?—from Vacation Bible School.
Long ago, we taught her P.E. class. She was a bubbly girl with so much energy she shouted her sentences.
She’s a grown woman now. Two daughters. One husband. She hugs me and calls me, “Mister Sean.”
And I feel like Granddaddy Zebulon Walton.
We wander back toward the neighborhood. We pass the same family playing Frisbee. They’re tuckered out.
“Who won?” we ask.
“Don’t ask,” says one man, cracking open a Miller Lite.
We pass houses with porch lights on. We hear crickets. Children are going to bed.
We pass the man who was washing the bike. He is doing something else now. He’s swinging a girl in circles, making airplane noises. She’s flying through the dark, laughing.
“She’s almost too big for that,” my cousin hollers.
The man sets the girl down. He’s out of breath, he clutches his lower back. “I know,” he says. “It seems like just yesterday she was in diapers.”
Life moves fast. Too fast.
So fast, in fact, that I was going to try and come up with a clever closing line, but I didn’t have enough time. So this will have to do:
Sometimes it seems like the world is in a hurry. Children get taller. Girls become women. Puppies grow into their paws. And boys like me—no matter how thick headed and slow they are—survive their own childhoods.
And one day, they discover that childhood didn’t last nearly long enough. And neither did the other seasons of life. And that only makes it more beautiful, somehow.
I’m not even sure what I just wrote makes any sense. But I guess it really doesn’t matter.
What matters is this:
Wherever you are, Mattie Nielsen, you probably don’t even remember me.
But I love you, too.