A sandy haired, gentle smiled boy named Danny gave me a cleat when I was in the 7th grade. I was to wear it around my neck, on a dog tag chain and it meant that Danny and I were ‘going together’. In case you are wondering, cleats are the things off the bottom of football shoes and while I haven’t kept up with athletic shoe evolution, this was a time when cleats were replacable (and givable) because you could screw them into the bottom soles. I doubt that cleat giving is a possibility now. Danny’s offer of the cleat was an arranged “going together” event as far as I could tell. The popular girls all had ones from the popular boys and being on the fringe of that group, the status or right of passage into the romantic world of teenagers dictated that Danny and I were in the same spot of junior high pecking order, hence a perfect couple. Poor Danny. Once that cleat was around my neck, the one and only day I wore it, from then on I believe I never uttered another word to him. I hope he was as shy as I was, otherwise he might not have understood my apparent lack of interest.
For the next several years, I longed to wear someone’s letter jacket. The truth of the matter, I didn’t long to wear just anyone’s jacket, there were a couple of three whose favor I dreamed of, who unfortunately but predictably were most often the choices of the majority of each and every one of my female peers. It’s a curious thing when you think about it. The letter jacket, decorated with letters and patches, the emblem of young male prowess and virility, an outward sign of his potential, chivalrously offered to keep warm the shoulders of the young girl he chooses to favor. No matter where we are in time, we are never far away from biology. In high school at least part of that yearning for the right guy to let us wear his jacket was about acceptance. Well, okay well maybe a large part of it was about acceptance. But all wrapped up in this whole idea, was the exploration of love. We were practicing what it meant to care for someone so much that we could be reminded of them, have a part of them by bearing or wearing something they owned or treasured or signified who we knew them to be. We were practicing the art and method of romantic love. I watched my three sons as they each added stars and stripes to their own letter jackets as they began their journeys into adulthood. I recognized that they faced the same doubt or wonder and hope that certain shoulders would wear their jackets. The real lesson about love that would come with time and practice, as we were chosen or not for letter sweater and jackets, as life reminded us we are brothers and sisters, as life turned us into mothers and aunts, fathers and uncles, our practices at love pointed us to one inevitable conclusion. Love, real love, the kind that captures your heart and will never let it go, is more about sacrifice than romance.
On my right hand, I wear a burnished gold, man’s ring. I wear Jake’s Aggie ring. It’s too big and it makes my old hands look older. One day it will be in his brothers’ care, in fact that is who Jake intended it for if he wasn’t the one wearing it, but for now my sons let me wear it. There is nothing like an Aggie ring to bring out discussion. I have felt a kinship with a border patrol who proudly wore his and I have recognized little, brittle smiles of disapproval for those who consider the Aggie spirit a bit more than necessary. Mostly what I remember is how much it meant to Jake. This past weekend, John, with more than a little trepidation, asked me if it could be used as a prop in the church Christmas play. You see John was to play the son, the one who stayed home, when the prodigal son left. The ring would be the gift the prodigal would receive upon his return, a symbol of the undying love and faith his family bore for him. That old Bible story that tells us of how powerful faith and love and hope are. I took that heavy old ring off my finger and handed it to John. I was a bit lost without it burdensome weight. I have worn it for two years and thought of being close once again to my son, by the mere act of carrying something with me, always close, a token of what was important to him. I understood immediately John’s request. This weekend, that ring was to be a symbol, a connection to my John, my Jake, those two Aggies of mine and a reminder and promise of many things that help you understand and accept and hope. I can’t help but imagine, in that soul inside of me, that God and Jake were smiling to see that Aggie ring, center stage, part of the telling of a story about the most enduring, perfect love there is.
Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them. “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
“When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.’ So he got up and went to his father. “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
“The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.