In the third grade, kids called me the “Earth Trumbler.” “Trumbler” is a combination of the words “tremble” and “rumble,” and the claim was that I was so fat, the ground did both when I walked. Although several classmates used the term, the boy who coined it, David, addressed me that way more often and with relish.
That particular year, I was sick on my birthday. However, my mother had already baked cupcakes the night before, so she sent them to school anyway via my older sister.
My teacher, Sister Rosana, subsequently had my classmates write me thank you/happy birthday letters, and I received all of them that same day by the aforementioned sibling delivery system. David’s letter contained a perfunctory note and a red, hand-drawn heart next to which he had written, “Happy Birthday, Earth Trumbler.” David was smart enough to presume that Sister Rosana would preview the letters before passing any on to me, so he scratched his greeting in tiny letters with a pencil, to get them in under the radar.
I had kept all those letters – David’s included – in pristine condition for more than 40 years before I decided to start returning them to whomever I could.
I felt that as time went on, they had become more valuable as keepsakes for the original authors rather than for the recipient. And I did have the opportunity to return David’s letter to him a couple of years ago.
As a result, on my 53rd birthday last week, he posted on my Facebook wall, “Happy Birthday, Earth Trumbler!”
Nowadays, I consider the moniker a term of endearment, so I thought David’s well-wishes were hilarious. Therefore, my response to him was a word that starts with a “b” and closely resembles the word “mustard.” Obviously, I was joking.
Or maybe not so obviously. David was mortified. He apologized for bringing up painful childhood memories, and explained that as a police officer, he had developed both a tough skin (lots of racist comments thrown at cops) and a warped sense of humor. He also commented that the joke was really on him, because throughout the years, he had put on the weight and I had actually lost it.
I had to post back twice to explain to David’s satisfaction that I wasn’t miffed; the only problem was that I had developed a foul mouth since the third grade. He eventually accepted my reassurances, but I believe that he feels bad about the episode. And I regret that I made it that way for him.
So here’s what I learned: First, it never hurts to write “Just kidding” after any swear word you don’t really mean. Second, before replying, think about your audience.
Third, never underestimate the power of a distant voice; it can carry, even 45 years later.
Back and forth, we exchange who we are and where we’ve been in the smallest ways, and embedded in each moment is the chance to learn something new about one another. Even when you’re over 50, and things are beyond mattering.