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A Letter From Betsy

Posted on Friday, November 6, 2009 in Essays, prayers

This column is about a miracle. Nothing more. Nothing less.

Now, after I tell you the story, some of you may say, “Well, now when we talk about miracles, we’re talking about something much more spectacular … more dramatic.”

Ya know what guys? I think you’re completely wrong. I think real miracles are much more quiet (unless you go for that National Enquirer kinda stuff). Anyhow, what I’m about to tell you is a miracle — absolutely no two ways about it, and if you don’t agree, well, that’s your tough luck.

Here’s the story:

I’ve been looking for someone for 45 years now. To be specific, I’ve been looking for Betsy Geller. When I tell you that Betsy Geller was the first girl I ever fell head over heels in love with, I’m sure you’ll understand. However, when I tell you that I was smitten by her in the second grade, I can already hear some of you snickering.

Snicker away. I don’t care. The fact is I was in love with Betsy Geller. What’s worse: Betsy rejected me. Yep, broke my heart, right there on the playground of Moreland Elementary school in Shaker Heights, Ohio. Apparently, she’d already given her heart away to some other guy.

Had Betsy decided back then that she liked me, rather than scrunching up her beautiful little nose and turning away, who knows what shape my life might have taken? But the fact is, she didn’t. Therefore, my “looking” for her had a much different quality than had we been ” involved” in some sort of relationship (and if you don’t think elementary school relationships can be intense, you need to go back to Square 1).

When I reached the sixth grade, my family moved to a different part of Cleveland, and I changed schools. Oh sure, I could have looked Betsy up. I had, by then, begun to be referred to as “cute” by lots of girls. And the fact is, I was. Girls “liked” me.” Heck, who knows, had Betsy seen me, maybe she would’ve changed her mind. But the fact is, I never tried to find her. Uh, uh. She’d broken my heart, and … well, there was just no way.

Fast-forward 10 years (and this is perhaps the first sign of the “miracle”). I’m now living in California — some 3,000 miles away from Cleveland, Betsy, rejection — all that. One sunny afternoon, I was sitting poolside at the Beverly Hilton hotel (some friends were visiting) and I look over and boom! There she was. Betsy Geller! I was absolutely stunned, shocked, befuddled (and, I soon discovered, still very much smitten). She was even more beautiful than I remembered.

My heart immediately began making all the well-known pitter-patter sounds. To cut to the chase, friends, all afternoon I tried to muster up the courage to walk the few steps over to her and talk to her.

Sad to say, but I never made it. At the end of the day, as the sun went down, I watched her walk back into the hotel. And you know what? My heart broke all over again … just as it had back on that elementary school playground.

That was the last time I ever saw Betsy. Over the years, I have truly wondered if perhaps I invented her. As for the second encounter in Los Angeles, half the time I’ve been sure that I simply made the whole thing up.

But you know what? I didn’t. It really happened.

How do I know? She told me so. Yep, I just got off the phone with Betsy, not more than five minutes ago! Amazingly, (and remember, nearly 45 years have gone by), she still sounds the same. The minute I heard her voice — which was edged with a slight “hoarse” quality — I recalled everything about her.

I guess the “miracle” of finding Betsy these many years later won’t really make sense until I explain the impact she has had on my life. It has manifested itself in more ways that I can tell you. One of the most obvious is that my first wife looked almost exactly like Betsy — or at least, the Betsy I remember.

Following the collapse of that marriage, I was always looking for a woman “like Betsy” (or who I thought Betsy was): a beautiful, dark, perhaps slightly tomboyish, highly independent — strong woman. (Funny how you always wind up with the opposite, isn’t it?)

At some point in my life — maybe around the time I began to work as a newspaper reporter — I decided I’d try to find Betsy. Not with the intention of pursuing any sort of romance — but just to tell her how important she’d been to me. Unfortunately, Geller is a fairly common name.

I started looking in Cleveland, where I’d met her. One time when I was there, I went through every single Geller in the Cleveland phone book, calling them one by one.

No soap.

Of course, I had no idea whether or not she was a “Geller” anymore. I consider myself fairly good at locating people. In fact, as far as “locates” go, I usually “get my man” (or woman) about 75 percent of the time. But I wasn’t so lucky in locating Betsy. I simply couldn’t find her (perhaps in some odd way, I didn’t want to).

Fast forward.

About a week ago — upon the advice of a friend, I signed onto — an internet site that puts you together with old high school friends. Just for the hell of it, in addition to the high school from where I graduated in California, I also signed onto the board of Shaker Heights High in Cleveland. I posted a message saying that though I didn’t go to Shaker High, that I was looking for someone in the Cleveland area who I’d attended elementary school with.

Two days later, an e-mail showed up from a woman who claimed to know Betsy. However, I sensed immediately that something was odd about this person. No matter how many times I asked her some small detail about Betsy — what did she turn out like? — the woman would never respond. She seemed intent solely on talking about herself. Finally, it became clear that my so-called savior was an imposter — probably just some lonely old sod who wanted company.

I was angry. Just when I thought I’d turned up a viable lead, and it turns out to be from a con artist. …

I’d just about given up, when another e-mail arrived. This one, however, included a page straight out of the Shaker High Alumni association book. And like magic — there it was! Betsy Geller’s address and home phone number! Without thinking, I began dialing.

Disaster. The number had been disconnected.

But by now, I was on a roll. Nothing was going to stop me when I’d come this close! A bit more research tuned up the fact that Betsy was currently working for a company in the Cleveland area. That number was (of course) listed.

My heart going a mile a minute, I phoned. A secretary answered the line.

“Can I speak to Betsy?” I queried.

The woman asked me what I wanted. I wasn’t prepared to come up with any sort of cover story, so I began babbling about Moreland school, third grade, recess … I mean, I must’ve sounded like an idiot. …

There was a pregnant pause.

“Betsy is busy right now,” the voice said coolly. “Do you have a number you’d like to leave with us?”

I left my number, figuring, of course, that I’d never hear from her. No doubt when the secretary gave her the message, she’d decided that I was some kid of wacko. I mean, hell, who tries to call someone they knew in the third grade?

As a last ditch-effort, I sent an e-mail to Betsy c/o her company. By that evening I’d gotten no response.

I figured the deal was done. Oh sure, I could have kept on trying, but, heck — if Betsy didn’t want to respond to someone she probably didn’t even remember, that was certainly her right. I didn’t want her to think I was some kind of crazy internet stalker. So I decided to let it go.

But I must tell you folks, in all honesty, my heart began to hurt all over again, just like it had back on that elementary school playground.

Around 7:00 p.m. I went off to engage in my evening ritual — coffee at Starbuck’s followed by two hours of writing at one of the upstairs tables at the local Barnes and Noble (I write better stuff away from my home/office).

When I got home, I clicked on my computer and clicked the “Get Message” icon.

When the mails were done downloading, I stared at the screen in disbelief. I blinked, once, twice, thrice.

I was literally in shock. But there was no doubt about it. There it was! A message from Betsy!

I looked skyward, and said a silent thank you.

Betsy’s e-mail was short, but sweet. Even though she didn’t remember me, she said twice how “flattered” she was. Amazingly, she’d never left the Cleveland area. She’d married another “Shakerite,” had a family, and gone through several careers, having wound up as the VP of a highly successful company in the Cleveland area.

It seemed so odd. All those years of searching for Betsy (no, it wasn’t a non-stop search, but somehow she was always a presence in my mind). And all the while she’d been not more than 10 minutes from the site of the old school (now a library) where I’d first seen her.

This morning, Betsy and I had a wonderful conversation on the phone. Oddly, the moment I heard her speak, I remembered her again. Her voice had a slightly hoarse edge to it. Just hearing it, I remembered once again — in vivid detail — the beautiful, doe-eyed, dark-skinned girl who had stolen my heart.

The most amazing thing about the conversation was that, as we spoke, the 45 years that had passed — as well as the 3,000 miles between us — vanished.

It was a truly magical, miraculous moment. Even now, as I write this, I feel as if I’ve discovered the secret of “shrinking time.” It’s hard to explain. And I doubt if I could bottle it. But I’ve done it.

The more and more I ponder the significance of this “reconnection,” I am convinced it is nothing less than a miracle. I mean, Internet or no Internet, what are the chances of finding someone 45 years hence … someone you have no idea where they are, or whether they’re even alive. Not very good odds, I’d say. Not unless someone — or some other force — decides that there’s a reason to allow the reconnection.

Don’t ask me the reason, please. I’ve got no bloody ideas whatsoever (moreover, I don’t care!).

But I mean to use the word miracle very intentionally.

Having just lost my mother (who was born in Cleveland), I have had (and still do) a massive hole in my heart. Connecting with Betsy Geller again after 45 years has somehow filled up (some of) that hole. It is as if I am connecting again with my past — with those sweet, innocent magical times. Oh, you can say, you’re just engaging in fantasy. I’m sorry, but I disagree.

I think that — to some degree — we are all trying to get back to our past. We may not know it, but we are. It is trying to reconnect with the innocence, the magic.

After the world descends upon us, begins to hack away at us — disappointments, crumbled relationships, illness, death — the days of innocence recede more and more into the background. For some, they are lost forever. I notice in elderly people, this search for the past, for a simpler time, is much more prevalent than for people in their 20s or even 30s.

But there’s more. You see, in a sense — we are all — each and every one of us — related. We all shared “the innocent times.” And during those (timeless) times, the long magical days, we were all truly members of a larger family, a family that was in fact, related by something more powerful than blood.

A simple example: Go and put on a record — any record from whatever “your era” was. For me it might be “Don’t Be Cruel” or “Hound Dog.” Or maybe “Short Fat Fanny,” “Great Balls Of Fire.” Or even, the theme song from “Peter and the Wolf,” or perhaps “The King And I.” Play that music and you are instantaneously transported back. You can see the sights. You can remember the smells.

You’re there. You’re back. We all want to get there. I’ve noticed that dying people (both my mother and my father) traveled back in time as they got closer and closer to the end. As fallible humans, we need to complete the circle. What happens after … on the other side, I have not the slightest idea about. I would love to think I’ll see all my loved ones in heaven, but the truth is — I really don’t know if that’s true. And I refuse to buy into the propaganda.

So the deal is — I want to connect now — while I’m breathing.

This life is, after all, not about “the daily stuff.” The going to work, paying bills, joining causes, buying houses, raising kids — all those things that take up our time. Not for me anyhow. It is, rather, about the unnamed things — the things we dream about in the darkness, the things that tug at our hearts.

For me one of those things was a wonderful girl in the second grade who stole my heart and still (sorry, Betsy, but it’s true) has a piece of it to this very day. What I wanted to say to Betsy on the phone (but was embarrassed to) was, “I really thank God you’re still alive.”

So I’ll say it now.

An addendum: I’m also happy, Betsy, that I didn’t invent you. After all, writers are people who deal in fantasy. Though it’s true I primarily write non-fiction, I love to invent characters. Thus, there have been many times over the years when I wondered if I really hadn’t invented you.

Thank God, the answer is no. Right this moment, Betsy Geller lives and breathes. And because she does, the magical years of my life also continue to live and breathe.

For that I can’t thank Betsy. After all, she’s on the same treadmill as each of us are. So I need to thank the only one responsible for this miracle.

Thank you, God. Thank you for keeping Betsy around for all these years, and thank you for finding her for me.

And now if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna go crank up my jukebox (I’ve got an original 1950s box). Hmmm. Le’me see. Should I start with “All Shook Up”? “Love Letters in the Sand”? “Come go with Me”? “Mr. Sandman”? “Little Darlin'”? “

Ah, what the hell. I’ll just play em all …

(c)Stuart Goldman

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