My Father Was A Nobody

First, an admission: I’ve been spending hours studying videos of Donald Trump rallies and interviews, but it has little to do with politics. I’ve become obsessed with trying to figure out the man behind the mask, by watching his body language and listening to his phrasing. I’ve read anything I can get my hands on about his early family life, keeping my eye out for the clues that could lead someone to end up so totally bombastic. I may have found one.

I read recently that Donald’s father had a salient theme when it came to rearing his kids. Apparently, he pounded it into his children that the worst thing in the world that could happen to them was to end up “a nobody.”

I don’t want to be too hard on Old Fred Trump, who’s been dead for almost twenty years. After all, he wasn’t alone in forming his son. Donald had a mother and extended family and a neighborhood that all had a hand in mixing up the nurture/nature equation that begat The Donald.

But if “Don’t end up a nobody” was the single loudest refrain of Donald’s childhood, that’s a fascinating thing to teach a child. If you follow that directive, it means you have to do everything you can to stand out. To win. Never to stop swinging for the fences. Never to say “I’m sorry,” or “I made a mistake.” Never to stop selling yourself. If nothing else, it sounds exhausting.

But, of course, there is something else. Donald and I are roughly the same age, that age when simple math lets you know you have a lot more years behind you than you do ahead of you. I don’t know about him, but I find myself taking stock more often, sifting through what’s really important and what I no longer have time to worry about. And often I think about a clarifying life-moment I had in a Buffalo high school auditorium thirty years ago with my friend JoAnne.

We had tickets to a lecture by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, the famous psychiatrist who studied death and dying as her life’s work. I’m not sure why we felt compelled to hear her talk about a topic that was — back then — so removed from us. Our children were quite young; all four of our parents were vital and healthy. Death wasn’t exactly on our agenda.

Kübler-Ross was in her late fifties then and the leading expert in the field. She talked for a bit about the phenomena most common to dying people. I thought it was all interesting. Not life changing.

But then she said this: By now, I have sat and talked with tens of thousands of people who knew they were dying. Never, in those many, many conversations, have I ever heard someone say, “I wish I’d had more money. Or a bigger house. Or better jewelry.” She paused. Never once. But too many times I hear them wonder why their children don’t visit, why they have been left alone.

By Trump standards, my own father was a nobody. Beyond our family, our neighborhood, and the people he worked with at Grumman for 40 years, no one ever heard of him. He read books but never wrote one. He earned a salary that afforded us a summer vacation every year, and that was a big deal. He was a company man, a good provider, a faithful husband.

Contrary to the axiom, he did suffer fools gladly and still walked away from those conversations with a smile, never needing to prove himself or tout his accomplishments. The most critical he ever got was his absolute insistence that even an expensive toupee never tricked anyone, a comment launched as a quiet aside in the direction of a man who was sure he was deceiving the universe.

I suspect poor old Fred Trump might have been sorely disappointed in the man my father became.

My dad died at a ripe old age, peacefully, in his sleep. My memories of his wake a few days later are a jumble of greeting old friends and relatives and all of us laughing through tears at our stories about him.

One of the last moments of the evening came when I watched our Hamilton Avenue neighbors — three men who had seen my brothers and me grow up, three men who never knocked but just walked in and out of our house for decades the way characters in 1950s sitcoms reruns do. At the coffin, they put their arms around each other and looked down at my dad and said their goodbyes. One of them was retired NYPD. One was retired FDNY. My whole life, they were tough guys who everyone counted on, who never cried.

They cried that evening. A lovely, silent ovation to a man who was a nobody. An act, I’m guessing, that would have had Fred Trump scratching his head. An act, I’m thinking, that would have evoked nothing more than a disinterested glance from his sad, sad son, who could not begin to get what all the fuss was about.

Linda DeMers. From High School?

People frown at you if you wear flip-flops to a funeral. This thought came to me as my plane touched down on Long Island, and I realized I was due at one in a few hours and had forgotten to pack shoes. Luckily I was in my hometown. Giving myself the requisite half hour to get lost in traffic on roads I used to know, I finally pulled into the shoe store I’d frequented as a teenager. I started looking.

“Do you need some help?”

I turned to the clerk in back of me to say, “Yes” but stopped.

It was Bobby Werner. From high school. Class of ’68. His hair was all gelled up, committed to a bad comb-over I wish someone had talked him out of. He’d lost those full cheeks he had as a kid. But it was him.

Before I even say my next words aloud, here’s where I’ve been in my head: Bobby Werner made Honor Society our junior year, which was the province of kids whose fathers were internists, so it was doubly impressive because his father worked at Grumman, like mine. He scored touchdowns against rival football teams. He lived on Forest Avenue. His house was green.

There’s more, and I retrieve that, too. He sat in front of me in English class junior year, where he turned around to pass me the SAT practice ditto every morning. So if my math is right, Bobby Werner was forced to look in my direction 180 times, give or take. I had such a thing for Bobby Werner, and I was wondering — now that we were face to face all these years later — if the feeling had been mutual.

“Wow,” I say as if we’re old friends who just haven’t gotten around to seeing each other in several decades. “How are you, Bobby?”

I see blank. Of course, it’s probably not Bobby anymore, I’m thinking. He’s probably ratcheted it down to Bob. Hence the void, I’m sure. So I hop right back in.

“Linda DeMers. From high school?”

Not a glimmer yet. But he’s squinting a bit, so I think he’s trying.

“Massapequa?” I add, just in case he secretly went to more than one high school.

“You went to Massapequa?” he asks. I nod. He stares, and the pause sashays over, right into awkward.

“Impossible,” he says. “I know I’d remember you.”

At first I think he’s flirting with me, but maybe he sees this conversation as an attack on his powers of memory. Whichever it is, I bet he never guessed he’d end up working in a shoe store in his hometown. Or come across a woman who knows the details of his illustrious past.

There’s another pause — even longer than the first one — signaling that we’re finished dancing down memory lane. So remembering why I’m here in the first place, I break the silence.

“Do you have this shoe in black?”

When he returns from the back, he has a shoe box in his hand. He doesn’t say he recognizes me after all, now that he’s had time to think. He doesn’t say he’ll look me up in the yearbook when he gets home.

I bet Bobby Werner remembers graduation day when we smiled for the camera with our proud parents. Our class motto was “We are good! We are great! We’re the Class of ’68!” When we screamed it at pep rallies, we emphasized the middle sentence, believing we were immune to the chips and scratches that would eventually find us.

“Anything else today?” he asks.

I hand him my credit card.

The Neighborhood Bully, 50 Years Later

The first time I heard “Hey, Buzzard!” I was 12, and I knew he was talking to me. With a small crowd around him, Walter  began flapping his arms wildly in the air, and making loud “caw, caw, caw” sounds. His friends were already laughing and didn’t need an explanation, but they got one anyway: “I call her that because she’s so ugly and her nose is so big,” he told them as they moved down the street.

My nose was way ahead of the rest of my face. In fact, my whole body was just one big adolescent disappointment that summer. My hair had the consistency of steel wool and would puff out like a blow fish as soon as the humidity raised half a percent. I was taller than anyone on my block (including a few short adults). I kept forgetting about my feet. I tripped a lot.

Puberty had not come gunning for Walter the way it had for me. He was athletic and blonde, with perfect symmetry to his face. As the kingpin of our neighborhood, whatever he said garnered plenty of nods and laughs. My humiliation — always close to the surface — didn’t faze him. Just the opposite. The few times I cried only fueled him. Twice he spit at me but missed.

I found no “safe spaces” during those summers. Unless it rained, kids played outside all day, and the hand you were dealt was a three-block radius of your house, maybe a total of 50 kids.

At dinner, my parents might say, “So, what did you do today?” but they never wanted to hear the details. There was an unwritten manifesto of all the Massapequa parents I knew: They’d had the foresight to buy a home on bucolic Long Island, a far cry from the mean streets of Manhattan or Queens where they’d come of age. They got points for providing you with trees, good schools, and fresh air. The rest was up to you. You were supposed to have fun in the summer. It was your only job.

As a child, my mother had watched her family struggle through the Great Depression. She was replete with stories about oatmeal. When my grandmother could afford to make some extra in the big pot on top of the stove, she would have my mother take it to the family who lived above them, a trip my mother dreaded. When the woman opened the door, her face would fall and she would sigh. She took it because her kids were hungry, but she couldn’t bring herself to say “Thank you.” Oatmeal was charity and people who worked so hard didn’t take charity.

My mother fought dark feelings most of her life that all our security would be whisked away. Walter meant nothing to her when  — at any moment now — oatmeal might return as a staple.

My father spent most of his childhood in Maine. When his mother died after his third birthday, his father moved away to find work. My father was shuffled among kindly relatives who fed him as long as they could. Theirs was a small enclave of French mill workers who did not speak English. And then when my father was 11, he was sent to the Lower East Side of Manhattan to live with his father, a man he barely knew and a man who refused to speak to my father in French. New father, new city, new language all in one moment. Walter? Don’t be ridiculous.

My parents listened to me, but their usual response — changing the subject — told me that they couldn’t relate. Their message was loving and practical and always the same, but it infuriated me in its simplicity: “Sometimes life is hard. Be a good person. Figure it out.”

A few years ago I was at a funeral back in Massapequa when I saw Walter walk in. He was easy to spot in the crowded room — still handsome, his blonde hair now gray. I’d been privy to what he’d been doing all these years. He has struggled — in a bunch of arenas — maybe the reason he was such a mean kid. He is still not known for kindness in any form. (Sometimes life is hard.)

Watching him, I felt a little vindicated as if someone had been keeping score all this time, and it had just been announced in this room at the funeral home that my totals soared over Walter’s. I realized, though, that I didn’t need to be the winner. And what I was feeling at that moment was a bit of compassion I didn’t see coming. (Be a good person.)

I caught his eye and smiled. He recognized me, and we made small talk about the old neighborhood. If I thought for a moment he remembered his treatment of me when we were kids, I might have brought it up, just to see what his memories were. But it was clear he just wanted to tell me about his business, his kids who play lacrosse, his new car, and his new wife. And maybe it was during that conversation — as my mind wandered — that I finally completed my parents’ advice from so long ago (Figure it out.) Because I remembered that at 12 I didn’t want to treat people the way Walter did. I didn’t want to end up like him.

And I didn’t.

Good Intentions and Horrible Blunders on a Country Road

It’s hard to tell this story because it sort of breaks my heart. It was 1933, and my mother was five. She and her parents were driving along a country road at the eastern tip of Long Island, long before it was called The Hamptons. Suddenly traffic stopped, and cars began to line up and inch toward what they figured must have been an accident. They crawled along for a few miles, my grandfather running out of patience.

When they got to a fork in the road, they realized that a car had run out of gas just where the two lanes separated, and right there was a black man holding a gas can, his thumb in the air, hoping for a ride. My mother stood up in the back seat and watched car after car in front of them slowly go around the man.

“Stop and pick him up,” my grandmother told my grandfather, exasperated by the behavior of the drivers in front of them. I like this part of the story, of course — my grandmother so ahead of her time. But there’s another part.

As they got close to where the man stood, my grandmother glanced at the back seat next to where my mother was sitting. She took a newspaper from the floor by her feet and handed it to her small daughter.

“Spread this out on the seat next to you,” she told her.

“Why?” my mother wanted to know.

“Diseases.”

My mother did as she was told, and they stopped. The man, jubilant that this would end his humiliation, went to get in. My mother watched him closely. He saw the newspaper. His smile faded. He got in anyway. My mother remembered the sound his body made as he sat down on the paper designed to keep his “diseases” off their car seat. He took off his hat. He thanked them.

My mother told me that story when I was a young teenager, deep into my “Peter Paul and Mary Know the Answers to Everything” years. My reaction was harsh. How could my grandmother — my smart, kind grandmother — ever do such a thing? And why was my mother telling me this story with nothing more than a little frustration, saying, “Well, they did what they could do.” All I could see was that they were just another smack in the face to the black man who’d stood in the hot sun waiting for someone — anyone — to drive him to a gas station.

My mother told the story because all those years later, she still remembered the hurt look on the man’s face, and it haunted her. She told it because she also understood her parents’ actions in a way I refused to. Because the world evolves in fits and starts, brave take-offs and hard landings, good intentions and horrible blunders. She told me the story slowly and quietly because I thought I knew everything about the universe and how it worked. And she knew that wasn’t true.

And now I know it, too.

 

Can We All Just Take a Breath?

As scandals during my childhood in Massapequa went, this one had legs. I didn’t understand it completely, but I could tell by my parents’ tone it was bigger than the brouhaha about the Townsends refusing to pick up their dog poop, which had rocked Hamilton Avenue the summer before.

This one started the day my mother drove me to our family dentist — a man I’d known all my life — for my 6-month appointment. While we sat in his waiting room, I silently recited my usual prayer to the molar gods about no cavities. My mother immediately noticed that Dr. McGarrity had placed a copy of Barry Goldwater’s book, The Conscience of a Conservative, on each end table. And as if that weren’t enough, instead of the usual pamphlets about brushing your teeth after every meal, there were now red, white, and blue brochures explaining why people should vote for the senator from Arizona.

“And not just one table,” my mother told my father that evening, “but all five!”

“Did you say anything to him?” my father wanted to know.

“Of course not!”

We talked politics often in my house — the keyword being “in.” I knew that Goldwater was diametrically opposed to everything my parents held dear because they were liberals of the highest degree. If any of our neighbors actually believed in Goldwater (and undoubtedly there were a few on Hamilton Avenue), they kept their leanings to themselves. As did we.

And this — to put it simply — was the way the world worked before Facebook. It was a place where your dentist throwing his conservative beliefs out there on a table could horrify people who were just there to get their teeth cleaned. Long before Twitter came along and we realized how cleverly we could condense our opinions into 140 characters, my parents were aghast that Dr. McGarrity would want the world to know how he planned to vote.

Anyone reading my blog for the last year knows I’m not above hauling out parts of my youth and giving them nostalgic air time. And anyone who is lucky enough to make it past forty begins to see how “simple” life was then. Some of us pine for the past  — loudly and often — especially this year, when the world seems to be upside down.

I’m not one of those people.

Every time someone talks about the Fifties and how perfect they were, I shift to other thoughts: Separate water fountains. Polio. Gay men cheerfully described in their obituaries as “lifelong bachelors” by family members who didn’t know the truth. Or the unrealized dreams some women mourned when they signed up to become housewives and spent every day of the rest of their lives slowly disappearing.

This election cycle looks like it will get crazier before it gets better, and as much as social media is something I can’t live without, these days I feel like I’m drowning in it, especially when my fellow Baby Boomers are at the keyboard. In one corner, we miss the civility and quiet of the Fifties. In another, we’re generating memes and comments — about our candidate, our issue — at an astonishing rate. We need to feel right. About everything.

Maybe it’s time to take a breath. Which is what I’ll do. As soon as I update my Instagram account.

 

 

 

For Ron Kovic, on Memorial Day

“I don’t like this,” my mother said as she set the dinner table. “It’s getting to be a bad habit.”

The rest of my family out-voted her. So my brother placed the portable black and white TV on a snack table in the corner of the kitchen.

It was fall, 1967, and I was a senior in high school. Between bites of dinner and sips of milk, my family watched the news unfolding from Vietnam. As a student who thought history was her best subject, I was interested in the logistics of it all, the politics. My ability to watch young men being ripped apart on a 16-inch screen and then say things like, “Please pass the potatoes,” evidently didn’t bother me.

Then Ron Kovic got shot.

Ron Kovic grew up one block over and two blocks up from our house. He and his friends were a staple of my childhood. For one summer I worshiped his broad-shouldered body as he played ball every day in the neighborhood. He was — as were many others — the older boy who never looked my way. For three hot and humid months that year, I made up a reason to walk past his house ten times a day. I hoped for a “hello.” I never got a nod.

I’d lost track of him when he graduated from Massapequa High School in 1964. I had no idea he’d become a Marine. His little sister was at our bus stop on Broadway, but by the rules that governed bus stop protocol, I couldn’t talk to her because she was younger.

And then one afternoon in January, 1968, I saw his sister sobbing on the bus ride home from school, hunched over in her seat. Her friends crowded around her, and I heard one of them say, “Her brother got shot in Vietnam.”

Starting that day, I had two images of Ron Kovic that I couldn’t reconcile. In the first, he wore his letter sweater with the blue and gold M. He had a crew cut and was tan and smiling. In the second — only a few years beyond that — he lay in St. Albans Naval Hospital, paralyzed from the chest down.

 

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In 1976, when Ron wrote about his life in Born on the Fourth of July, he graced the front page of The New York Times Book Review. He was renewed, strong in his anti-war convictions, still handsome. My brother bought a copy of the book for me and walked around the corner to the Kovic’s house and asked him to sign it.

“He was very pleasant,” my brother told me. “We talked for a long time. I asked him, but he said he doesn’t remember you.”

 

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When you’re the cool kid on the block, you don’t recall the skinny 13-year-old in the shadows, even if she is adoring your every move. And that wasn’t the big role Ron Kovic was going to play in my life anyway.

January, 1968, my family stopped watching the Vietnam War unfold on the TV screen at dinner. I no longer needed Walter Cronkite to shepherd me through the Tet Offensive or the DMZ. Ron Kovic — that beautiful boy from Toronto Avenue who did perfect handstands — took over the job.

If I questioned what war was, or what it did, my answer was close by now. Two blocks away. At the bus stop. Every morning when I looked into his sister’s eyes.

 

The Girl Formerly Known as “Brillo Head”

To understand how surprised I was on my first day of college,

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you needed to know me at 13.

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A lot went on in those five years between 8th grade and my first day as a college freshman. Maybe ours was the last generation to have suffered through so much awkwardness in one lifetime. These days, girls at 13 are adorable. Maybe it’s hormones in the meat or global warming. Whatever it is, I’m happy for them.

All I know is that it took me a long time to climb out of a space where neighborhood boys no longer saw me coming and began collaborating on what name they would shout out. By my 16th birthday, my public humiliation phase seemed to be waning.  I felt I had a future as someone’s girlfriend, but most of that was wishful thinking.

In summer 1967, my mother and I were doing college tours. We were on a country road in upstate New York. We had left one state school (Oneonta) and were on our way to the next (Cortland). The radio reception was pitiful, but I kept trying, my hand on the dial. All of a sudden, there was Jim Morrison singing, “You know that it would be untrue . . . you know that I would be a liar.”

This was a little racy for my mother, and I knew it. I thought of changing the station. But I figured her mind would be elsewhere and she’d be tuned out long before Jim wanted me to light his fire.

No such luck. She was listening, and the lyrics jolted her.

She attempted an impromptu talk, the kind where I tried to get the car seat to absorb my body and pretend this wasn’t happening. What she came up with surprised me though. It was much different than her lecture after the “Your Changing Body” movie in 6th grade. That talk had zeroed in on what was about to happen to parts of my body I hadn’t yet located.

This one was oddly vague.

Boys could certainly be a problem, she told me, but she didn’t think they would be a problem for me. My mother hadn’t yet noticed that I was no longer standing in the shadows at dances. She was still bracing for some mean boys to call me names connected to smelly zoo animals. Or — their perennial favorite — “Brillo Head.”

And even though my hair was now blonde and shiny, and no one had called me ugly for a long time, I wondered if she was right.

Freshman move-in day at Cortland State –September, 1968 — was sunny and warm, with no inkling that in six weeks it would be snowing. Football and soccer players were given the day off from practice to help freshman girls move in. They were a swarm of handsome, affable types, dressed in jackets and ties.

“Please, let me take that box for you!” His name was Jack. He was talking to my mother.

“Oh, that’s so sweet!” She giggled. Really. My mother giggled. We were getting on the elevator in Alger Hall when he told us he played soccer. By the time we got up to my floor, she was saying, “Oh, you’re a goalie!” There were several trips up and down, during which Jack never let my mother carry anything heavier than a bottle of shampoo.

When we were finished, my father pulled a dollar from his wallet. “Oh, no sir. Thanks, but not necessary!”

Then he turned his attention to me. “You should come to our first game on Saturday. It’s at two. I’ll look for you.”

My parents — off to the side and listening intently — beamed.

Jack shook my father’s hand. My parents looked over at me, as if to say, Well, isn’t he a fine young man. He would never do any of the things we didn’t think it necessary to tell you about because, well, we weren’t prepared for this particular moment.

Their little Brillo Head had finally made it. They weren’t worried. Not one bit.

6 Things I Learned from a 1950s Baby Book

Years ago my mother was visiting from Long Island. With fanfare she rarely called into action, she said, “I brought something for you.” She pulled my baby book — old and worn — out of a Walbaum’s supermarket bag. I could tell she had planned a little ceremony surrounding the hand-off. I tried not to show it, but I was not pleased.

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She was being practical. My mother was always practical. She said something about not wanting it to get lost, and then her voice trailed off a little. She was talking about a time when she and my father would no longer pull up in front of my house and stay the weekend. She was preparing for a future when we wouldn’t be able to gossip at my kitchen table over a glass of wine, or catch up on what my kids were up to.

I didn’t like it one bit. I wanted the book to stay on the shelf at her house, where it had always been. I didn’t want to be the grown-up in the family yet. That was her job.

But I took it from her that day. And now the baby book lives on my shelf, with the other three baby books I wrote in (the third one sparingly, my third-born would tell you, rolling her eyes). I don’t know when their books get shuffled off to their homes. Not yet.

I haven’t opened mine in a long time, but I did today. We had a new baby born into the family last week, and every time that happens, it seems like a good time to revisit it. And every time I do, I learn a few things I’d overlooked before.

 

1. My mother was a stickler for details. But on her first try, she got not only the day of my birth wrong, but the month, too. And her corrections are in a different color ink. Translation: I’ve never been this tired in my entire life. There must be a medical term for this level of exhaustion.

 

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2. In 1950, people were far less worried about babies swallowing beads. And the identification bracelet was tied to my wrist with a piece of twine. I can see this was not a foolproof system, but feel pretty confident I landed at the right house anyway.

 

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3. My parents thought I was the most beautiful baby ever born despite concrete evidence to the contrary.

 

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4. I came from an extended family of comedians. My Godmother wrote: “When Ed called this A.M. I was only half awake and forgot to ask who Little Linda looks like — Mama, Papa, or the Bendix fixer? . . . I hope she has Mama & Papa’s disposition — but please, God, let Linda look like the Bendix fixer!”

 

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5. I got off to an impressive athletic start, which was brief. I peaked at ten months.

 

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6. I learned early to write for all the right reasons.

 

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When I open the baby book, I study her quirky handwriting. I picture the exhausted young mother at 22, thinking she’d better write down what happened that day. Maybe even back then she was thinking that someday — far in the future — I could read it and know the little bits of my history that only she knew.

I wonder if she realized I’d hear her voice again, too. I’ll bet she did.

 

And After I Was “That” Kind of Girl

Brenda wasn’t big on why her 7-month marriage ended while That Guy (or Poor Guy, as we started calling him) was trudging through the Mekong Delta. She announced it in a matter-of-fact letter that focused more on the logistics of shipping her clothes back to Massapequa and whether she was going to take a bus or a train home.

My vicarious thrill was over.

Once she got settled into college, she made Dean’s List right away. It was a sign that she would whiz past Jill and me in this forum, too,  even though we had a head start. College meant the three of us found new friends, something we swore we’d never need.

Brenda and I lost touch for a while after graduation. Then, in our early 30s, there were phone calls once in a while. She had finished graduate school on the West Coast and had PhD after her name. I had Mrs. in front of mine. I was the mother of three, and had recently been named “Worst Housekeeper in Buffalo, New York” for the second straight year.

They were chatty, catching-up calls. She talked about academic journals. I had a few things to tell her about toilet training. Brenda said things like, “Ugh. . .  I don’t know how you do it.”

I don’t think she meant that my life had turned into a minor Greek tragedy or anything, but even if she did, I could hardly blame her. When you have three kids under age 5 and you live in a place where it snows in April, you’re doughy, dry-skinned, and weepy for a while. You don’t want to be. It just happens.

Sometimes I felt she was calling from Pluto. I knew nothing about the majesty of the Palouse or the energy burst Downward Facing Dog gave you. Until she mentioned them, I’d never heard of The Green Party, a bodega, or going vegan. What I did know — the best way to get a kid to eat carrots — I learned to keep to myself.

In her mid-30s — wanting to be one step ahead of her ovaries going south on her — Brenda intentionally got pregnant. She was parenting her daughter alone. She traveled — to Africa and the Far East — where she took teaching jobs. There were still men.

Communication dribbled down to Christmas cards, filled with recaps of our busy year.  Then maybe just a picture of our kids and an upbeat one-line greeting.

And then the cards stopped altogether.

Our mothers still lived in Massapequa, and they still ran into each other. I didn’t put up a fight when they conspired a little reunion in 1993 when Brenda and I would both be in town.

When the day of our reunion at my parents’ house arrived, I worked my mascara wand extra hard and fiddled with my hair. I practiced a few anecdotes I planned to dance out as if they’d just come to me. I could hear my family downstairs, even my brother who remembered Brenda and was curious to see how she’d turned out. I heard car doors closing outside.

“Here they come,” my brother called up the stairs.

“How does she look?”

“Ummm … well, you probably have time to do a few more sit ups.” I sucked it in as I came down the stairs. But I stopped when I relaxed in her hug.

We sat on the back deck and ate lunch.  She had stories that made us laugh and made my father lean forward so he wouldn’t miss a word. He asked her about what she ate in Algeria. She talked about trying to fit into Japanese culture. My favorite story was a homogenized version of her latest romance, with a real cowboy in Wyoming.

At the end of the afternoon, Brenda and I wandered slowly to the base of my parents’ driveway, just the two of us. Right here, we had parked our bikes as kids. Right here, as teenagers, we picked out our children’s names and planned to live in houses next door to each other. And though we hugged, we were speaking different dialects now. And we knew it.

 

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We said our goodbyes with promises to meet again. We never did.

Last year I was poking around online, and I found a book of poetry Brenda wrote. The cover is a black and white photograph of a naked woman’s back. She’s holding up her long hair and turning her face just slightly toward the camera. It’s her. It must have been taken when we were young and our backs were strong and powerful.

I stayed on the page a long time, just looking at her crazy brave profile and its sweet shadow.