During a break halfway through rehearsal I sat on the sod the men had laid just a day or two before. The Mississippi River sweated its moisture into the July air, and I felt droplets trickle down my neck, face, and lower back. I had picked a bad day to wear a black t-shirt. Actually, come to think of it, any summer day in Nauvoo is probably a bad day to wear black. Or to spend hours dancing around on an outdoor stage. Or to have dark, thick curly hair that appears to be allergic to humidity.
I watched other cast members milling around the wooden platform in front of my spot on the lawn. We had all traveled to Nauvoo to play pioneers for two weeks, singing and acting and dancing out the story of the Mormons who had made a swamp a city. Most of the cast had come with their families, and most of the families were strangers, so during breaks the moms and dads chatted to make new acquaintances while their toddlers played and their teens flirted. My parents were meeting new people. My siblings were talking or running around. And I was sitting on the grass, watching, thinking, being alone.
Add to my natural shyness a rough previous school year, and you might understand why I kept to myself. Months of stress and dramatic emotional ups and downs had taken a pretty hefty toll on me, and I’d learned to clam up, keep my feelings private, and stay out of everyone’s way. That was comfortable to me. Lonely, to be sure, but comfortable.
And besides, I like watching people, and that’s easier to do in silence, alone.
So aside from the heat and the sticky air, I told myself that I was more or less content at that moment, silencing the piece of my heart that called out for companionship. Everyone else is already talking, I rationalized, and it would be rude to just invite myself into their conversations. Better stay here.
I stayed there.
Soon I noticed a little girl walking toward me. Her hair was trying to escape from the scrunchie her mom must’ve wrestled it into that morning, and the light brown wisps framed her face. I estimated her age at around two or three—thirteen-ish years my junior—and I tried to recall to which family she might belong. As I was making my calculations, she just kept approaching, keeping her eyes fixed on me and my spot on the grass.
When she reached me I smiled and prepared to say “hi,” only to see her thrust a small fist toward me with something wadded up inside. I raised my hand to receive the objects. She had given me her white, lace-trimmed socks, damp with sweat.
Before I could know what to do with the gift, the girl clambered onto my crossed legs and snuggled herself against my body as she reached out and took back her socks. Next she began to stuff her tiny bare feet into the socks, snagging her toes in the lace from time to time until, frustrated with the greatness of the task, she tilted her head toward my face and asked me to help.
I hadn’t even had time to react to her decision to climb onto my lap. Hadn’t she ever had the street smart talk with her parents—the one about not talking to or accepting rides from or giving your socks to people you don’t know? I glanced around, trying to see whether concerned adults would come running to rescue their daughter from her perch on the lap of a total stranger. But I couldn’t see any angry moms or worried dads, so I just grasped the white cloth and began to help the girl slip her feet into the holes and fold down the lace so it sat nicely around her ankles. Then the toddler handed me a small pair of shoes and folded her hands as I worked her feet into those too.
“What’s your name?” I finally asked, expecting the girl to get up and run back to her family now that she’d gotten her feet shod again.
“Emma,” she replied. She kept sitting on me.
“Oh that’s a nice name.” I looked around one more time, but I couldn’t see anyone coming for her. “I’m Greer.”
Emma held up a couple of fingers. “I’m two.”
“Wow, you’re so big! Guess how old I am,” but Emma didn’t quite seem to care, as she ignored my question and proceeded to tell me about her pink shoes and how pink was her favorite color and she’d gotten those shoes just before coming here with her parents and brothers and sisters.
Emma kept chattering, still nestled up against me, running non-sequitur thoughts into one long string of words, waving her hands in tiny gesticulations. And I listened. I laughed. I bounced her up and down on my knees as she giggled and told me about her family and friends.
I’m not sure how long we sat there before it was time to resume the rehearsal. Emma’s dad—who had apparently been watching from behind—approached and thanked me for helping his child get her shoes on. “Looks like you made a new friend, Emma. What do you say?”
Emma stood up, held her dad’s outstretched hand, thanked me and smiled. I got up from the grass and joined my family on our spot on stage to run through a scene.
I have no idea why Emma decided to ask me to help with her socks and shoes. Had she been older I might have assumed she’d noticed me sitting alone, taken pity, and decided to befriend the sweaty, lonely girl who looked like she probably needed a friend. But I don’t think two-year-olds are capable of that train of thought—especially not Emma, whose mind seemed to jump from one point to another in her innocent excitement to say anything that came to her thoughts. I doubt her parents sent her. And it doesn’t seem likely that she mistook me for her mom or for one of her older sisters.
Maybe she just picked me because I was there.
Or maybe she picked me because children don’t fret about friendship the way I seem to. Emma certainly wasn’t anxious about interrupting, or about admitting that she needed help, or about what others might think of her mussed-up hair or damp socks or bare feet.
She was just honest, open. She wanted a friend and she found one to suit her, unaware that she’d helped me more than I had helped her.
Throughout the two-week production Emma and I kept up our friendship, playing behind stage during performances, or chatting throughout meals in the dining hall. She hugged me as we said goodbye on our last night in Nauvoo, almost nine years ago.
I still remember her socks.