…And we all know what that means, despite countless
kisses before then from mothers, relatives, friends,
despite the fact that your grandmother may have
kissed your four-month-old belly until tears of delighted laughter welled from your eyes, despite the fact that
in all likelihood your first kisses were from your mother,
and could well have been as fervent and loving as any
you’ll ever receive, still there is something else meant
when we say “first kiss”. I had one of those, too.
It was at church camp. I wasn’t a Methodist, but went to a youth retreat with friends one July. (At the same spot, in my thirties, I would meet the country dykes at a WomanSource Fall Gathering, but that is another story, still decades away.) I was sixteen. He was a minister.
It had been a confusing summer. For one thing,
Deborah Kerr, after many years of “happy marriage”
and two daughters, was involved with another man.
Her husband had taken legal steps to keep her from
her daughters (as if she were some sort of moral monster), and had charged the other man with “alienating” his wife’s “affections” (as if Deborah had no will of her own).
In 1957, adultery and divorce were still pretty shocking: hardly unknown among movie stars, to be sure,
but Deborah had been the exception.
Yet her roles had left one prepared to understand
why a woman would do such a thing.
…Sexual passion must be something very powerful.
I could imagine it, loved seeing it evoked in books
and movies; but, and this was the other trying thing
that summer, I had no experience in real life.
I’d got braces on my teeth the year before,
felt condemned to be the unattractive, un-kissed smart girl, at least until my teeth were smooth and white again.
There were the feelings, the curiosity, and, with them,
the sense instilled in all of us that it’s naughty or
nasty to feel this way.
“If sex is so wrong, what makes it ok just because you’re married?” I said to Ellen Frost, as we lazily plyed the high swings in the middle of camp one afternoon.
I wanted to do the right thing, feel the right way, but I
could sense a lurking reductio ad absurdum here.
“Well,” Ellen said, “why don’t we ask a minister?”
We picked one we liked, a man in his thirties with
close-cropped grey hair, requested a private talk,
walked off with him into the forest. All I remember of our conversation was his agreeing that sex was not bad,
and his theory that men who grew beards or mustaches needed reassurance they were masculine.
I told him my Dad had had a beard when he and Mom were first married, but not later. “Your mother must have put his doubts to rest,” he smiled.
We three met once more to talk. And on the last
night of camp, with some other kids and another minister,
we trekked up a trail behind the camp to a waterfall and pool. We kids had only been there in the heat of the day.
Though it’d seemed a romantic spot, it was chiefly
used for sliding over the falls, splashing into the pool.
Now we sat on the rocks and sang songs, watched
stars in the sky and reflecting water.
The three of us hatched a plan to walk back together;
we all had been stirred by the intimacy of our talks.
But somehow Ellen ran on ahead, and he and I
ended walking back alone. He put his arm around me
and I did the same.
Somewhere along the path, he stopped us,
turned us face-to-face, kissed me.
I kissed him back. I remember his probing tongue,
his urgent pressing me to him.
I put my head to his chest and heard
the pounding of his heart.
It was too surprising to seem real.
My eyes had been closed, but now I looked up,
took in the black silhouette of his form,
and pine trees dark against the night sky,
tokens of that moment to hold to.
We shared a few passionate kisses; then
we walked slowly down to the cabins. The next morning
in the closing circle it seemed he and I shared a happy
secret; though Ellen, when I told her about it, had blazed
“He took advantage of you!”
In a talk with my mother a few weeks after camp,
I hinted at something new in my life.
“I bet I can guess,” Mom offered. “I’d say you’re not
‘Sweet sixteen and ….’ anymore.”
“How did you know?” I gasped.
“Oh,” she said, “you’d talk about all the great stuff that
happened at camp, and then you’d look kinda puzzled,
So I read to her from my journal, about seeing
his dark form against the pines and all,
and she said it was vivid writing.
The next month a movie magazine ran the first photo of Deborah Kerr’s lover:
Peter Viertel looked
uncannily like my
Which made me ponder
And now, almost fifty years on?
Well, of course a married minister/
should not have been kissing
a sixteen-year-old girl on the trail.
But, truly, no harm was done.
From then on I knew it was possible,
that I could, I had,
summoned passion in a man.
I did not use that knowledge again soon, or often.
But, looking back, more than anything else,
I would call it a gift, his kisses,
and the pounding of his heart.