The other day I took a shortcut down a back road, the likes of which I had not seen since I was a child in petticoats and Mary Janes and rode the big, yellow schoolbus.
The road was dirt and gravel back then, twisting sharply from corner to corner as it wound itself around mostly pastures and creeks. There were, perhaps, three houses on the road, one of which was a white clapboard farm house with a front porch, steep steps and a postage stamp-sized front yard.
Three children waited most days, school books in hand, for Mr. Allison to slow the bus down, the air brakes to release, the red stop sign to spring out and the folding doors to open.
Unenthused, they crossed in front of the bus then sauntered up the steps. The oldest, a girl, always brought up the rear as if she were rounding up her little flock. She was slender, with straight, glossy black hair that hung past her shoulders, a cow lick at her forehead that forced her hair over to the left side and pale icy blue eyes.
I recall that her name was Judy and that I never once saw her smile. She was, we all agreed, hateful. Not just merely disagreeable or occasionally in a bad mood but, always without fail, downright hateful.
Not mean, in that she picked on other children or said unkind things but when spoken to, if anyone was brave enough to venture a word to her, she snapped with such a sharpness that the offender, wounded, pulled away.
It was my misfortune one day that she chose to sit by me. In the courtesy of those days, we often asked before sharing a seat or smiled and said “hello” as we sat down. She did neither. She glared, pursed her mouth into a tighter wad and plopped down beside me.
I had seen the hasty retreat of others when they spoke to her but, for some reason, being in a good mood and, even in those early days of my life believing that more flies could be caught with honey than vinegar, I chose the unpardonable sin. I spoke to her.
“That’s a pretty sweater,” I said nicely, punctuating the compliment with a smile. In truth, the sweater was nothing special, just an ordinary cardigan that was red with matching buttons.
She cut her eyes over at me. “Leave me alone!” she snapped with such a sharpness that I felt the knife slice through my heart. From that moment on, I never spoke to her again and sometimes I even returned her menacing glare with an equally menacing glare of my own, matching the daggers in her eyes, one for one.
It’d been 30 years, I suppose, since she last crossed my mind, until the other day when that shortcut took me by the little humble farmhouse. I thought of those three children, of unsmiling, snappish Judy and I remembered that they had lived with their grandparents.
Suddenly, the clouds lifted and I saw Judy in an all different light. My heart saddened for her. In those days, at least in our part of the country, children did not live with their grandparents. They lived with their parents and romped and played happily in the great outdoors.
I suppose I thought it odd that these children made their home with their grandparents but it never occurred to me that those they had a tumultuous or sad life. I didn’t know then what I know now: That the faces of youngsters are the reflection of love or lack of it.
Judy wasn’t a hateful girl. She was a sad girl. And sadly, we kids did not recognize her pain.
[Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of “What Southern Women Know About Flirting” and “The Town That Came A-Courtin’.” Her newest book is “What Southern Women Know about Faith.” She lives near Gainesville, Ga. Sign up for her weekly newsletter at www.rondarich.com.]