We weren’t allowed to swim at night, for obvious reasons. I suppose they were the very reasons why we did it.
I was staying over night at her house. She lived just across the road from one of 10,000 lakes. We had put on our pajamas. Gone through the list of “have you ever”s… been kissed by a boy…stolen penny candy from Ben Franklin…snuck into the Andria Cinema… all the usual questions that we knew all the answers to, but asked them just the same. When we heard her parents turn off The Tonight Show and slipper down the hall to bed, we changed from our pajamas into our swim suits. Neither one of us would ever claim ownership to the plan, it was just something we were doing. Night swimming.
There was always talk of it late in the school year on bus rides home. The teenagers would speak softly of the magic. The lure. Still in our preteens, time couldn’t go fast enough. We felt immortal, and ready to prove it at any given moment.
Our hearts fueled with Mountain Dew and no previous knowledge, we barefooted out the back door, through the yard. Stopping dead in our tracks like spiders on a wall as one of us clinked the chain from the swingset. No lights turned on. We proceeded. We thought of flashlights after the fact. Even our hindsight was dim. Each step became slower. Each night sound became louder. And creepier. The sounds of our breathing said we were both willing to turn back if only one of us would admit it. Neither did. It was hard to tell the difference between grass, sand and water. But for the feel, all were black. Toes were dampened first. Then ankles. Our hands reached out at the same time. Grabbing tightly, we walked to our knees, sure that our heads were already under water. We grabbed the opposite hands, forming a circle now. We stood still.
There is an unexplained magic to friendship. We are given the right gifts at the right time. “I want to go back,” we both trembled the words together at the same time. “Jinx!” We laughed. Hooked our pinkies together. “What goes up the chimney… Smoke!” With linked fingers we ran on bare tiptoes back to the house.
There are a million challenges that I have gotten beyond because of friends. Through the darkest times they have been there, clasping hands. No common blood pulsing through our pinkies, just trust, just love. They have challenged me. Lifted me. Saved me. I give thanks for them, for you, every day.
If Herberger’s was ever low on pantyhose, there was a distinct possibility that my mom just restocked her drawers.
She was always prepared. Had she been a scout, and they offered a fashion badge, her sash would have been decorated immediately. Eagle status. Not only did she have the right pair for every outfit, and any future outfit, she kept them in pristine condition. After wearing and washing, she folded them back into their original packaging and filed them neatly, easily visible by color, into her pantyhose drawer. On days when the world just didn’t make sense, I, we, could look to that drawer and find hope.
Sure, it may sound silly. And it probably was. But so what. It brought her joy. It brings me joy. Still. When I see the advertisements to “Shop Small,” this holiday season, I think of her drawer. I think of all the little things she gave to me.
I think we can all get caught up in the “it has to be bigger, grander, more expensive,” to mean something. But, I suppose, it’s always the little things. With gifts. In life. In love. It’s the small things that we will carry. That will fill us for our entire lives.
I bought a pair of green pantyhose two days ago. They match perfectly with my green dress. I wore them yesterday, with all of my mother’s pride. And I saved the packaging. My heart is filled with small mercies.
To see yourself in the Alexandria Echo Press, was proof that you existed. The paper came out the day after our weekly softball game. During a slow news week, the local photographer would come to the fields and take some random photos. It happened only a couple of times between the ages of 8 and 12, but I can still feel it. That first glance of the sports page. Scanning. Long blonde hair. Bat. It was me. In full muddy black and uncrisp white. We rarely won a game. But that was never really the point. We were together. In the sun. With our friends in an endless summer. The proof was in our hearts, and randomly validated in the press.
When I finished this painting, the first thing my friend said was, “She belongs in the MIA.” It was as if I had turned the page and saw myself for the first time. I guess that’s what friends can do for you. Your true friends validate what is in your heart. They see you. And it is beautiful.
We are going to the MIA this afternoon with this very friend. And we all will belong. Together. My heart holds the proof — and even with a dusting of snow, I know the warmth of this friendship will never end.
I suppose it all takes time. To see the ordinary. And to appreciate it. Those of you that follow me here, have come, I hope, to know my grandparents, my mother, my schoolmates, and teachers. Some might say “just plain folks.” And that’s probably true. But maybe that’s the real beauty of it all. To find the spectacular in farmers, housewives and receptionists. To see the extraordinary in the daily living.
And in seeing them, it helps me see myself. Helps me find the gratitude of the day given. Of the toast for breakfast. The smell of coffee. The hand that reaches out for mine.
I am reading the book, “Love, Kurt (The Vonnegut Love Letters). I have this book, only because I have a special friend. Last year, together with our husbands, we went to Stillwater, MN. My friend and I stood in the bookstore as if before the Christmas morning tree. So many gifts in front of us, we had a hard time deciding. We each settled on our present. I loved her choice as much as mine. This year, she gave her book to me. Those simple words don’t seem to give it enough meaning, but I will tell you that it fills my heart. It brings me back to a laughter filled day on brisk streets and slow choices. It, for me too, is a love letter.
In the book, Kurt Vonnegut writes with his young pen, to his young wife, “Angel, will you stick by me if it goes backwards and downwards? Holy smokes, Angel: what if I turn out to be just plain folks?” Tears fill my eyes. I imagine we’ve all had the worries. Will I be special enough to be loved?
It’s these memories, of course, that give me that comfort. That give me the yes. My heart is packed full of the love from these glorious and plain folks. And I have loved them. Love them still. And I am one. Proud to be living with these extraordinary people. It is plain to see, they, we, are more than enough to be loved.
She hadn’t told me anything deep, dark, or hidden. It wasn’t a designated secure place. Neither church, nor Switzerland. But for some reason, on the return bus trip from an out of town volleyball game, I felt safe. In this back seat, looking straight ahead. Knees pushed against the seat in front of us, I told my friend, as I had told no other contemporary, my secret.
This friend listened. Without judgement or questions. Braced, as if I were passing her the ball. I could feel the words spank off from my overworked forearms. She took the ball. What a relief to pass it on.
We had Judy Blumed our way through Junior High, but when I asked, on this yellow-orange school bus, “Are you there, it’s me…” she listened. No solutions offered. Just release.
I don’t know who we played that day after school. I don’t know if we won or lost. But never had I felt more a part of something. I had a real teammate. We didn’t speak of it again. We didn’t need to.
It’s not necessary to me that she remembers. I won’t forget. I had such a friend.
I recently bought a new ring. It was still in the heat of summer, so my fingers carried a bit of extra fluid. I carefully measured my summer finger to get the right size, but by the time the ring arrived, the cooler air had slimmed my fingers down significantly. It spins round and round. I suppose with everything, it’s hard to get the perfect fit for all occasions.
I have been blessed though. This I know for sure. I have a few friends that I know will always be there, through any situation. It’s easy to find your summer friends — when everyone is running with the bounce of bare legs, lit perfectly under a bright yellow sun. The heart swells with youth. And all acquaintances gather. But the ones that remain in the fallings of autumn, in the bareness of winter, these are your true friends. Those who will spin round and round with you, in your smallest of times.
I look at the new green stone. From the front of my hand. From the back. It reminds me of how lucky I am. To have such friends. And I don’t wish anything away. Every season brings growth. Reveals the truth of friendship. True love will always gather in.
It’s ironic, I suppose, that we only played freeze-tag during our Minnesota summers. Lit only by the tenacity of the hanging summer sun, and the surrounding porch lights, we gathered in the vacant lot next to Dynda’s. It was usually Lynn or Shari Norton, being the oldest, who decided what game to play. I loved kickball. And softball. Even kick the can — though I’m not sure I ever understood the rules. The only game I didn’t love was freeze tag. If the person who was “it” touched you, you had to stop. Immobilized. Standing still. Alone. While others tripped in giggles and weeds, you had to just stand there. Excluded from the fun. Hoping that someone would come and touch you to free you.
It was just a game. I knew, standing there, I still had cool sheets to rest in. A kiss good-night waiting from my mother. But still. It became pretty clear to me, even then, that we need each other.
There are so many distractions in this world. It’s easy to lose sight of the lost. Those frozen in time and space. When maybe just a simple tag, a touch, a smile, could set them free. I’m as guilty as the next person. But I want to get better. And let’s be honest. It really doesn’t take all that much. A returned email. A letter. A phone call. A knock on the door beneath the porch light that waits. Maybe one day, we can all be tripping in the giggles and weeds.
The first set of paper dolls I received was for my 7th birthday from Wendy Schoeneck. My mother had always taught me to smile when receiving a gift. I didn’t know why she had made such a point of it. I suppose up until then, I had always been thrilled with my presents. Wendy was smiling so intently, watching me tear the wrapping paper. So pleased with what was about to be revealed. I scraped the yellowed Scotch tape from the last reluctant piece, only to reveal, to my horror, Buffy and Jody paper dolls. Not only had they spelled my name wrong, but Jody was the boy. I glanced up at my mother. I knew she knew. I guess her constant reminders paid off, because I forced a smile in Wendy’s direction. She couldn’t seem to tell that it was more pain than gratitude.
We played music. Pinned the tail on the donkey. Dropped the clothespins in the bottle. Passed around the presents. Laughed and held sweaty hands in circles. All had been forgotten and forgiven.
One of my presents was a Winnie the Pooh giant story book. We all started to sing the Pooh song, when one of the girls noticed that Winne the Pooh could quickly and easily be translated to Wendy the Pooh. Others joined in. Some giggled. But not Wendy. I knew she felt bad. I opened the box of paper dolls and my mom got out the scissors. We cut out the clothes and quickly forgot about both Poohs. It was a good gift after all. Wendy was smiling. My mom was smiling. And so was I, for real this time.
Sometimes it’s hard to see life’s gifts. They often come ill-wrapped at unwelcomed times. But even the hardest day is kind enough to pass. Find the good. It’s out there.
I don’t know who it belonged to. It certainly wasn’t my grandma — even though we found it, my cousins and I, in her upstairs closet. Digging beneath the sombrero, the military uniform and the extra bedding, we jumped back, toppling over each other on the hardwood floor. Was it alive? It had eyes! Fur! What was it??? With a pool cue from the corner of the closet, we moved it into view. A dead fox. Long straight, headed and tailed. Did it crawl in from the field for a siesta (under the sombrero on this Minnesota farm)? And then died? We kicked it down the stairs beside my grandma standing in front of the kitchen sink. (She was always in front of the sink, yet the dishes were never done — but that’s another story.)
“It’s just a stole,” she said, “a fox stole.” Not understanding the word, we assumed the dead fox was now some sort of robber. “No, to wear around your neck,” she said. The explanations kept getting worse. It was unimaginable. We threw it at each other. Maybe she said who it belonged to, but I don’t think so. We soon grew tired of it. We would have left it on the kitchen floor, but she told us to put it back, never asking why she wanted to keep it. We loved her. So we did.
The only accessory we knew Grandma Elsie to wear was an apron. And that was enough for us. She donned what some called sensible shoes and house dresses, which made it easy, I suppose, for us to forget that she was not just a grandma, but a woman of this world.
Pardon the reference, but it’s hard to see “everything, everywhere, all at once.” We get bits of people, glimpses really. We grab onto the parts that serve us best, and a lot remains, well, in the closet. This is not to say we need to know everything about everyone. But I think it’s good to realize that we don’t know everything. People have riches and reasons that we will never realize. And instead of being afraid of that, we should respect it, celebrate it even.
I don’t know if my grandma was ever in Mexico. But in my head she was. Possibly even wearing a fox stole. Or maybe it was just Great Aunt Ellen’s. Maybe she bought it at Tvrdik’s garage sale, just up the road. It doesn’t really matter. What I love is that there was a world to discover in her home. A home where we were allowed to run free. To become exactly who we wanted to be. This beautiful farmhouse, with security and surprise, that grew so much, grew so many.
I suppose it’s impossible to find out right away. We make our friends, from the start, in the most joyous of times. We gravitate to the laughter on summer vacation beaches. Buoyed by the play. And between the giggles and the hands held in the sand that we skip upon, we shout to all the blue above, “This is my friend!!!!” And we can’t, for one second, imagine that the moment is not eternal. Until it isn’t.
Perhaps it is here where real friends are made. When the skies darken and the path can no longer be skipped, but only trudged. When the only sound that can break the noise of wind and wave is the close whisper of “I’m still here…and it’s still beautiful.” Maybe the skies can’t hear it then, and maybe they don’t need to, but my heart shouts with eternal joy, “This is my friend!”