Childhood is a vulnerable time for many children and abuse comes in many forms. I was a victim of what I call "benign neglect. I lived alone with a mother who was distant and sometimes cruel. I know today that she suffered from depression but as a child all I knew was pain. Food, shelter, and clothing were abundant for me but nothing else. Affection was non-existent. Aspirations and artistic talents were severely ridiculed.
"You might think you're something special, but you're not. You're just like everybody else in the world. Stop dreaming about being anything because it will never happen," was a familiar childhood refrain.
I learned to keep my dreams to myself.
My one consolation to the pain of my surroundings was my passion for reading. It was this love, and a letter from an author, that brought a mentor into my life. I found someone who actually listened to me and encouraged my childhood dreams.
My mentor was the author, Faith Baldwin. In her later years, she wrote a column for Woman's Day Magazine called "The Open Door." Fittingly, the picture at the top of her column showed a garden next to a house that had an inviting open gate. It seemed to my child's mind that once you entered through that gate there awaited a place of warmth, love and security.
Mentor is a Greek word meaning "a wise and trusted teacher or guide" and that was what Faith Baldwin was to me. I was nine years old when my mentor came into my life.
Lonely and a voracious reader with a good vocabulary, I read whenever I could to escape the misery of my surroundings. My hideaway was the local library and it was there that I found old copies of her monthly columns. I loved the words she used in her writing; it seemed at times as if she were writing just for me. Finding her P.O. box address in the magazine, I decided to write her a letter. I didn't dare tell my mother what I wanted to do.
I wasn't surprised when Ms. Baldwin answered my letter within a week of my having sent it. I was a child and I didn't realize how very busy the life of a writer could be. Her writing was gentle and graceful and I just assumed that answering letters was something that gentle, graceful people did. I wrote back.
Every day I rushed home from school to get the mail before my mother came home. I didn't want her to make fun of my secret friendship or worse, throw away the letters I received.
Faith Baldwin answered every letter I wrote to her. Most times it was one or two pages, sometimes just a few lines, but, without fail, she answered my letters. I poured out the lonely heart of a frightened child and she wrote back with the kindness of a caring adult. exchanged pictures and I thought she was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. Her smile was soft and kind.
Once I mentioned that my birthday was coming and in the next mail, there was a slim package for me. Inside were sachets of lilac and jasmine. I cherished them.
I don't know if I consciously knew the word mentor back then, I just knew that I felt better when her letters arrived. I didn't feel so alone after I read them. Her kind words, her compassion and concern meant the world to me. She was the first adult who encouraged my secret writing ambitions, secret because I couldn't bear to have my dream mocked. She didn't scoff at my desire to write, she told me to never stop trying. Though I didn't tell her that I was lonely and hurting, I believe she knew. There was one letter in particular where she wrote about the difficulties of childhood.
She told me that even though adults say that the years of childhood are the best part of life, she disagreed. Children go through pain that some uncaring adults can never understand, she wrote. Being a child can mean being on a lonely road. She ended her letter by saying,
You must never give up your dreams, never. Hold them close to your heart. Keep them secret from anyone who doesn't understand.
My starving heart devoured her letters the way an abandoned animal devours food.
My life changed because of my mentor. I saw the world in a way I never had before. There was beauty in life, somewhere. If it wasn't where I lived as a child, then I would find it as an adult. Life held promise for me.
Shyly I sent Miss Baldwin a childish poem I had written. She wrote back that it was beautiful and encouraged me to continue with writing, making a few gentle suggestions about how I could make it better.
I kept Faith Baldwin's letters in a wooden box hidden in a closet. My mother had sudden rages that caused her to do some very cruel things for no apparent reason. One day, while I was at school, she found my precious letters and my picture of Faith Baldwin and ripped them to shreds. She also ended the correspondence between my beloved mentor and me, calling it my "ridiculous daydreams."
All I had left were memories of Faith Baldwin's words and I clung to them. Instead of saying prayers at night, I silently repeated key words she had written in her letters before I fell asleep. I never forgot her and, when life became too painful for me, she was a reminder that there were good and kind people in the world. Because of her, I held onto my dreams.
We had corresponded for over three years and during that time she gave me strength and hope that life could be as beautiful and elegant as her words. She let me know that there was so much more that life could offer me and that I could become anything I aspired to be.
I have never forgotten her kindness and her mentoring. Her encouragement is the reason I kept writing. I thought of her the first time an editor sent me an acceptance letter and put my article in his magazine. It is because of her that I never fail to answer letters from my readers. It is my way of thanking my wonderful mentor.
A mentor came into my life in the person of a famous author, a woman who never knew how much her letters meant and how her kindness helped influence a life. She gave me a lasting gift.
The simple act of just listening to a child can make a world of difference in how they see life. Mentoring can change a life. I know. My mentor changed mine.
From the bottom of my heart I say, "Thank you, Faith Baldwin."
© 2011 Kristen Houghton
To read more from Kristen Houghton, peruse her articles at KristenHoughton.com and visit her Keys to Happiness blog. You may email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the book critics call "sane and savvy advice for all a must-read", ranked in the top-selling 100 books of 2011 by Tower.com "And Then I'll Be Happy! Stop Sabotaging Your Happiness and Put Your Own Life First."