I slide the last pin in place, just at the bottom of the glossy braid. This one reminds me of a seashell, woven wide and spiraling low, bright at the top where the sun has turned her hair a tawny gold, like wheat. She smiles and the light moves right into her face.
“Thanks, Mom Jones,” she says, though I should be thanking her for letting me love her. If you need help with the Jones, well, try here.
She pushes back from the table and gathers her things—the pens and the journal where she writes her thanksgiving like a collection of multi-colored jewels, the terra cotta bowl that held her yogurt. The spoon clatters, sliding in the dish, as she moves toward the sink. She’s almost ready for school.
On the way out the door, she has one more thing to do: she dresses in love. It’s as much a ritual for her as completing her lists of reminders, as much as double-checking to make sure she’s taken her pills. There are things he’s given her over time: a jersey and a hat representing his favorite team, a pullover, a bracelet, and now–for her birthday–a necklace. The silver gleams over her collarbone, marking her with a cross. There’s a heart woven through the beams like a garland, the smaller symbol wrapped around the larger one. This gift is my favorite because it sits right there over her full heart, reminding them both of the basis for love. Carefully she slides the jersey, then the jacket, over her head, pulling the necklace up through the collars of both. “I don’t want to mess up my hair,” she says, almost to herself, and then she lifts that hat and puts it right over the braid. Whatever we are, it’d better be covered over with love.
Sometimes Kevin feels like he needs to tell her it would be okay if she didn’t want to dress in all of her love-ly things. He’s the guy, see; he knows. “Listen, it’s okay if you want to just wear those when it’s cooler outside,” he says. “He’ll not think anything of it, really.”
“Mmm, hmm,” she says, tapping her bracelets with her fingers, probably to count them and be sure they’re all in place. She will not change her mind. Watching her reminds me of my own high school mornings, the way I slid on my boyfriend’s letterman jacket–too broad shouldered for me–and his class ring, thumbing the edges of the string I’d woven around the band so that it would fit. They were talismans of chosen-ness, things that identified me as his. I had a button his mom bought me, a handmade thing from the Booster Club with his football number on it, and I had a necklace he’d given me, too. He took the thing right off his own neck one day and clasped it lightly around mine. So every single day, I had adorned myself with symbols.
But she is not like me.
I wasn’t sure then that I was beautiful; I needed talismans that would shout. In fact, I once loved a boy just because he said those words like he meant them. You.are.beautiful. But ask her, and she’ll tell you she is. She’ll declare it proudly, raising her voice as she agrees with the truth. She doesn’t need reminders that she’s worth it.
Her symbols are for her, not for you, not for me, not even really for him.
Love is her birthright, her inheritance, her wealth. It’s who she is, not just something she wants. If there’s anything she counts intentionally every day–journals and journals full, it’s the clear signs that she is loved, and among them now, this necklace. I watch her finger it just a moment, sliding her thumb over that cross with its glinting heart.
I twist the wedding band around on my finger. I still wear love, only now the reminders seal me with something eternal–this band I never take off, the rough cross I pen-sketch on my wrist. Now I know that real love lasts, that real love gives and grows and stays. But I remember the day I gave that class ring back, how absurdly I imagined that boy unraveling the string in long lengths and tossing it away.
My Riley collects love carefully. I watched her do it on her birthday. In fact, she made sure I listened to every single message she received, placing her hand on my shoulder if I seemed distracted, repeating the name, the blessing. She unwrapped love that day like the gift it is, laughing with wild delight, touching the edges delicately.
I turn now to put the breakfast eggs back in the refrigerator, running my fingers along the bumps in the carton, and I see her birthday list still magnet-tacked to the refrigerator. Simple things: a coloring book, colored pens, mints. I can tell you now these things aren’t really her treasures.
“I’m so glad my birthday is on Wednesday,” she’d said that morning.
“Why?” I’d asked, dipping my nose beneath curls of coffee steam.
“Because I get to see my friends at school today and my friends at church tonight,” she’d said, grinning. And I smiled too because these are the real gifts: friends, love. And she’s so sure of this she dares to be generous with both.
Riley tucks the cap down just a bit more over her eyes, walking toward the door. Whatever it is she’ll see, it’ll be shaded by the knowledge that she’s loved. Just there, with her cheek pressed on mine in the doorway, I feel a thread of Word wrapping over the solid beams of me: over all these virtues, put on love (Colossians 3:14). That’s right, you watch and listen close:
Wear your love right on top of everything else you are; wear it like the best thing you have.
And just like that, she’s out the door for school.