My evening walk takes me past Fire Station #43 on Lake Jeanette Road in Greensboro. An American flag and a black-and-red Fire Department flag fly from a pole in front of the brick building. You know what’s inside this building, of course, but maybe you’ve never noticed the small sign on the outside, the yellow, diamond-shaped emblem, mounted on the brick. The sign proclaims this spot as a Safe Place.
I know this symbol is a national designation for children in difficult situations, a shelter for youth in trouble, and yet when I see the sign, it always makes me think this: We all need our safe places.
Years ago, I went to church every Sunday with my grandmother. We snugged into the same pew every week — she on the inside and me on the aisle — and midway through the hour, just when I started to get squirmy, she reached into her purse and palmed something into my hand, a Brach’s Star Brite peppermint or a Luden’s Wild Cherry cough drop. Just like that, my shoulders dropped, and I was still.
After church, we ate lunch at the Apple House Cafeteria in the Randolph Mall in Asheboro. We pushed our plastic cafeteria trays forward on the metal rail, and those trays held the same things every time: a small bowl of carrot salad and a vegetable plate for her, baked spaghetti for me. I didn’t think so much about why we got the same thing every time, but now I know why. There was comfort in the familiar.
We snugged into our regular booth — me close to the wall and she on the aisle — and there were always streams of people who came by to say hello, to reach for my grandmother’s hand, to ask how she was doing, to promise that they were coming by soon to see her flower garden or have a slice of pound cake. We stayed in the restaurant for hours, long after we’d eaten, and now I know why. There was comfort in people.
On the days when I wasn’t with my grandmother, I read my books, and I played in the woods behind my house. Sat on high rocks, which became thrones, and scrambled over logs, which became the backs of dinosaurs. Made leaf boats and floated them downstream in the creek, and I was utterly happy, and now I know why. There was comfort in solitude, too.
And maybe I wasn’t the only creature to realize such a thing. I was in those woods the first time I saw a deer up close. It was a mighty, antlered thing, so big, and I was so small, but both of us were surprised, each of us startled to come upon the other. We froze. I stood still. The deer stood still. We were sending a mutual message: “Don’t worry, I won’t hurt you.”
Eventually the deer turned and bounded back the way he’d come, retreating deeper to his own safe place. I watched for as long as I could, until he simply blended into the forest and vanished.
I wish for places like this now — a small church, a cozy restaurant booth, the deep of the woods. When you’re young, it seems these places are easier to come by. Maybe what I’m wishing for isn’t a physical place at all, but something we all want — a living connection of compassion. A steady hand on a shoulder. A sign to let us know that everything is all right.