July 22, 2010

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After 60 years, thoughts of Lynne still bring tears

When I was in the fifth grade, I sat next to Lynne Erney, but after the second week, her desk was empty. She had rheumatic fever, we were told, and would be home in bed for a long time. For a while, her desk was a reminder of our absent classmate, but then it became just an empty desk to most of the class.

For my part, I lived near Lynne Erney, who wasn’t contagious, and so I was designated to take her books and lessons to her so that she could keep up with the class. She had a brother in the third grade, but our teacher decided I would be better able to explain the lessons. I also became the de facto reporter of the progress of her recovery.

Each Monday morning, Miss Cavalier would ask me to tell the class how Lynne Erney was, and I would say she looked all right to me and seemed to be coming along. I had no real idea of how she was. I also said from time to time that she sent her best wishes to the class, which was not true, but which I thought was a nice touch and would make my report a little longer.

Lynne Erney was extremely bright and so schoolwork became a small part of my increasingly longer visits. Left to her own devices, she was going far beyond the normal fifth grade fare. She was a pale, delicate girl with wide, brown eyes that seemed to get bigger each week she spent at home.

Her eyes would widen even more and snap as she told me of the things she was finding out from the large pile of books that were stacked beside her bed like the towers of her own private, magic world. She had been granted a special dispensation from the public library to take out an unlimited number of books, which one of her parents would ferry back and forth on a weekly basis.

One book would lead her to another, her own personal trail of knowledge and learning and discovery, and each day, after a brief recap of school stuff, she would tell me of the wondrous things she was uncovering and I would sit and listen, enrapt. Her voice was usually soft and almost faint, but as she recounted her book adventures, it took on life and timbre.

Sometimes she would read to me from a new discovery, and if it was fiction, she would do each voice, making it alive and real for me, her spellbound audience of one. She was a wonderful actress, and I sensed it was because of the many hours she spent alone, reading and rehearsing, in those long, quiet days before television.

She had the mind of a story-teller and the hand of an artist, too, and produced her own illustrated chapbooks full of princesses and knights, fashion models and movie actors, athletes and cheerleaders, drawn in that Katy Keene style in which all the girls were cute and pert and all the guys handsome and cleft-chinned, even the villains.

These stories, too, she would read and perform for me and in my child’s heart I felt the first stirrings of love for this wondrous and generous girl who shared her inner life with me as no one ever had. Sometimes she would stop what she was doing and we would hold hands and look at each other and smile slightly, listening to the faint world outside and watching the dust motes dance slowly down the slats of light from the Venetian blinds.

Before I left each afternoon, we would kiss lightly, naturally. It was as if I had two lives then: one normal and mundane, the other private and treasured, centered about that still and hushed sickroom and its beauteous and radiant prisoner.

And so the year went on and still Lynne Erney remained bedridden. I only saw her a few times over the Christmas holidays, despite our closeness, so caught up was I in my own boyish pursuits and pals, and she said nothing of my rudeness, understanding it. In mid-January, she had a relapse, they said, and her lessons and my visits were discontinued for several weeks.

When I next saw her, she was wan and languid, her eyes hollow and ringed. I heard the first faint uneasy whisperings then of mortal fear, but didn’t understand them, had no experience of them in my child’s world. Our visits went on, quieter now, and shorter.

A week before Valentine’s Day, I was myself confined with the chronic tonsillitis I suffered as a child, and didn’t return to school until a week after the saint’s day had passed. On Valentine’s Day, the classmate who was bringing my schoolwork also brought the valentines from our class’ exchange, and I thought of Lynne Erney as I went through them.

That night, my mother came to my room and told me as gently as she could that Lynne Erney had died that day. When the numbness I felt passed, my childhood had passed with it; I had the knowledge now that love and life are fragile and passing and are all the more precious for it. My mother held me as I wept and dried my tears until I slept.

When I returned to school, as I was putting my books in my desk, I saw the envelope there. When I opened it, there was a drawing of Lynne Erney, radiant in white, angelic, her eyes wide and brown and clear. Underneath it was written in her girlish, slanted script, “Dear Bob: Happy Valentine’s Day. Remember our love. Lynne.”

And now, after 60 years, I remember, and I weep again.

Bob Ingram, who lived in this area for 20 years but now lives at the Jersey shore, is the author of “Sun Songs: Wildwood Stories,” and he was part of the Chestnut Hill Book Festival early this month. Ingram, a writer/journalist/editor for 45 years, has written for virtually every major newspaper and magazine in Philadelphia and South Jersey. “Sun Songs” can be purchased through, list price $10.95



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