I don’t think I’ve ever told the story of my first kiss without saying Jill Frackenpohl’s full name. Her first name, Jill, perfectly fit her girly sweetness and innocence, ideal ingredients for the retelling of any first-kiss story. Playing off of it was her almost comically unique last name, a three-syllable collection of some of the English language’s least poetic sounds. The combination of the two felt like “Jill Frackenpohl” sprung from the brain of Neil Simon, a pretty girl who was nice to the awkward boy in one of his coming-of-age stories.
In many ways, that’s exactly what she was. I met Jill Frackenpohl in the summer of 1992 in Chapel Hill, NC. We were both attending Carolina Summer, a kind of smart-kid camp for wanna-be Tar Heels or anyone else needing an impressive additional credential for college applications. I was 17 at the time, and despite being fairly well liked and popular in school, I’d made it to the summer before my senior year of high school without getting a single kiss from a girl. Braces and a pudgy cuteness rivaling Gary Coleman in his prime kept me firmly in the “friend zone” with the ladies up until the end of my junior year. Thankfully, by the time that July in 1992 rolled around, my pubescent boyishness sloughed off.
And there was Jill.
The exterior may have improved but I was still kind of awkward. I was the nice guy with little to no game. So I know I made it unintentionally difficult for Jill. It was clear I liked her and she liked me but my lameness robbed me completely of the wherewithal to do anything about it. I ultimately did. And I got my kiss.
That touched off a very sweet summertime romance. After Carolina Summer she and her family vacationed in Duck, NC before heading home to her hometown of Denville, NJ. I headed back to South Jersey and we made all kinds of plans and promises. We wrote each other letters, sometimes as often as a couple a week. One of my favorites was from her time at the beach when she sent me seashells in a little plastic baggie she stuffed in the envelope.
Of course, the best-laid plans of mice and men…
Despite living only a couple hours from each other in Jersey, we wouldn’t see each other again until we started our freshman year at Carolina. In the first few weeks of school, she’d meet the man she would eventually marry and have four gorgeous kids with. There would be no rekindling of that saccharine-sweet summer romance of 1992.
But there would be a great friendship. Jill Frackenpohl became a tremendous friend to me. We hung out as often as we could in my two years at Carolina. When a crisis of confidence and general dissatisfaction with how I’d approached school at Carolina caused me to consider transferring, Jill told me it would be okay to leave, that I was doing the right thing. After college, as I hopped around the country seeking journalistic glory, I could count on an email message or call from Jill just to check in.
But when I learned on Saturday that Jill passed away after battling cancer, I didn’t think about my first kiss or The Great Summer Romance of ‘92 or the kind and big heart she showed me whenever she reached out to see if I was okay. I was overwhelmed with sadness, but it wasn’t a sadness borne of nostalgia.
While people flooded her Facebook page with old pictures and memories, I focused on the 38-year-old wife and mother, the big sister and daughter who loved her family more than anything in the world. I wanted to focus on my relationship with her, on what she meant to me. But that seemed so small in that moment and in the days following her death last weekend.
She was so much more than my first kiss.
That said, one day I’m not going to be so sad. And one day, Jill’s husband and children and sisters and parents and countless friends may be a little less sad than they are right now. When that day comes, it will be the nostalgia of our experiences with this wonderful woman that heartens us.