Blog Post #39
My husband, Brad, and I moved back home eight years ago to help care for my 93-year-old father. He lives in the house our family moved into in 1962, when I was eight. My father is the last original homeowner on the street. Even before our family moved into this house so many years ago, we visited it on a regular basis. Each weekend we’d drive out and look at the stepped lots of dirt, where little flags identified each leveled-off lot. We knew which lot was ours in that vast, arid sea of flattened earth.
I admit that I didn’t particularly enjoy those trips to the house that wasn’t there yet. It was about as exciting as asphalt – a giant wasteland. Then, on one visit, a slab of cement appeared. My siblings and I explored the foundation until that grew old—let’s see, that took about two minutes. Later, the Palos Verdes stone (complete with real, built-in fossils) that would become the fireplace appeared on the slab, then a wooden framework, walls, roof, and so on. Finally—FINALLY,—the house was finished! We sat on the floor of an empty bedroom and ate bologna sandwiches while waiting for the moving van to arrive. I remember the excitement and anticipation of being in that big, empty house! Something good was happening to our family—I could feel it in my bones.
We moved in on the tenth of November, mid-semester. It’s no surprise that our mother registered us for school right away–almost before she tucked us in that first night.
The first or second weekend, my sister Karen and I got on our bikes to explore. Our explorations took us repeatedly by the model home around the corner. Eager realtors stood by card tables laden with floor plans in the open garage of one model. We knew they had small tokens for the children of prospective buyers, so each time we “happened by” on our bikes, we picked up another novelty eraser for our swiftly growing collection.
Everything was new, then. New, meaning undeveloped. Tumbleweeds and mini-whirlwinds blew through the dusty neighborhood, while lizards scampered about the flattened dirt that was our backyard. My sister Karen and I pretended we were orphans of the Shirley Temple movies variety, lost and alone in a veritable desert. When playtime was over, we carpeting our mother’s pristine floors with dirt accumulated on our filthy little “orphan” bodies.
The neighbors were also new. We got to know all the families on our block by name. Mrs. Chung across the street had an older daughter who was an opera singer. Her vocal scales blew into our house each morning with amazing clarity —and punctuality. (They moved away not many years later.) The family next door had three children, and would have two more before moving away. The oldest was my age, a son, which automatically disqualified him as a playmate. (I don’t think he sought my particular association either.) Besides being overcome with bashfulness around most boys, I was getting older, and what I really needed, and wanted, was a girl to play with—someone my age to be my best friend.
Up the street, a family moved in shortly after we did. They had kids, too—four of them at the time, and one who would follow later. The oldest was a girl. I knew she was my age because she was in my grade at school, but not in my class. I watched her curiously as we walked to school—keeping just enough distance between us to avoid having to talk to her. I kept the same unfriendly I-wonder-if-you-have-cooties distance while playing outside. I wanted to make friends, but shyness created an insurmountable obstacle. The Great Wall of China could not have been more effective. I watched the girl ride her bike up and down our street. She made a point to ride in front of my house over and over again. Finally, one day, after a week or two of watching her with the scrutinizing eagle eye of a private detective, that toe-headed girl with the pixie cut pulled up on her bike and stopped at the curb in front of our house. Looking at me with not so veiled disapproval, she bluntly asked something like, “Well, are you ever going to talk to me?” Shy or not, I wasn’t going to miss this chance of making friends. Fortunately, Sheryl turned a blind eye to my backward nature, becoming my best friend – for life. Some fifty-odd years later, she is still my best friend. (If it had been left to me, I suppose I’d probably still be watching her from behind a bush.)
The neighborhood was full of kids back then, and we owned it. We rode bikes, but mostly we walked—everywhere. We knew every crack in the sidewalk between our houses and school. “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back. Step on a line, break your mother’s spine” we’d repeat as we carefully navigated the cracks and lines wherever we went, while simultaneously stomping on every dry leaf we encountered just to hear it crunch like a potato chip.
Sometimes, we’d take the back path through the undeveloped field behind our tract of homes to and from school. One day, along the path, we met a handsome fellow—a large *desert tortoise. Wanting to take the heavy tortoise home, we weighed our schoolbooks and the tortoise in the balance. Attesting to our strong responsible natures, and our not so strong arms, we opted to, first, run our books home, then return for the tortoise. Responsible? Yes. Practical? No. Not toward our purpose. (This was during the pre-backpack era when girls juggled loose school books in–or mostly out of–their arms.) If we had thought it through more carefully, we might have concluded that, had we left them, no one would have wanted our school books, but the tortoise was another story. At any rate, when we returned, the tortoise was gone, and we bemoaned our loss.
(*This predated the time when laws were enacted prohibiting desert tortoises as pets. As I think of it, that tortoise probably was an escaped pet, which may have been retrieved by its owner.)
There was a nice little flower shop a couple blocks from home. They had a large greeting card display in the shape of a Snoopy doghouse from the Peanuts comic strip. I was a huge Peanuts fan and wanted that doghouse in the worst way. I asked Mrs. Mayer (in those days we even knew the names of the business owners in our neighborhood) if I could have the doghouse when she was done with it. I wrote my name and phone number down on a scrap of paper, and waited for her call. When I’d almost given up hope, my mother informed me that Mrs. Mayer had indeed phoned! If I would pick it up, the doghouse was mine! I called Sheryl, and off we went—on foot, of course. (Ours was a one-car family until my later teens. My father made a long commute to L.A. each day, or I’m sure my mother would have been glad to drive me to the flower shop and help me haul that doghouse home. What mother wouldn’t be thrilled and anxious to have such a monstrosity in her house?) I developed a very valuable motto about that time: “I’ll make it in one trip.” (This motto is still in effect today. Be it a giant stack of text books (the densest, heaviest books in existence), bags of groceries, camping gear, or the kitchen sink, I can pretty much figure out how to haul everything in one trip at great inconvenience and possible harm to myself.)
The Snoopy doghouse, when assembled was a good five or six feet tall, counting the cardboard Snoopy sitting atop the roof. Made of heavy-duty corrugated cardboard, the doghouse had several levels of narrow display shelves that formed the roof on both sides. (These had once served to display Peanuts greeting cards, books, and stationery.) The base of the house was about the shape and size of a big, empty washing machine box. Had I cut the door out, I could have curled up and slept inside. (Snoopy didn’t sleep inside his house, and neither did I.)
Sheryl was such a good sport. Somehow, and with a great deal of difficulty, we carried that doghouse (which was disassembled into large awkward pieces) home. One might think cardboard would be lightweight, but it was actually pretty heavy for two young girls of about ten years of age. After struggling to get it home, we worked out the puzzle of how to put it together with the intensity of Einstein working out Relativity. It took up the former location of a large four-story homemade dollhouse–a conglomeration of boxes, carpet scraps, and homemade décor. Out with the old, and in with the new! I couldn’t have been prouder of my new acquisition. I used the narrow shelves to display framed pictures, artwork, books, greeting cards I’d received, knickknacks and other odds and ends. It was my pride and joy. (Included in the display, was a framed letter written on official Peanuts letterhead to me from Charles M. Schulz himself, creator of the Peanuts comic strip, which he sent in response to a letter I had written him.)
In those days, when the homes in the area were still fairly new, if company came to dinner, there was always the grand tour of the house that followed the meal. Not surprisingly, people did a double-take when they saw the giant doghouse in my room—a room which otherwise stockpiled a hodgepodge of hand-me-down, non-matching, outcast furniture. One guest, with stunned admiration (or was it incredulity?) remarked, “Now, this room has character!” At the time, I was certain I had been paid a great compliment, but on hindsight, I suspect that either I was “the great character,” or that it was a polite way of commenting on the odd conglomeration that was my room.
So attached to that doghouse was I, that it followed me into matrimony, providing the duel purpose of a playhouse and a shelf for our children. Once our children were old enough to enjoy the playhouse aspect of it, I finally succumbed to cutting the door out so they could crawl inside. At last, we faced a move in which we would have to store most of our household until we could settle in our own place, which would possibly take months. My husband thought it might be time to rid ourselves of the giant doghouse, which was beginning to show some wear and tear and the effects of age. I protested at first, however after much reasoning, was convinced that the doghouse would have to go (but not with us). Nostalgically brokenhearted, I gave it to a family with young children in our neighborhood, and girl and dog (house) parted forever. It was the last formidable vestige of my childhood still holding a visible presence in our home, and I felt its absence keenly.
Speaking of Sheryl’s mother, it might be of interest to note that she was an immaculate housekeeper, and her children learned at a young age how to keep a tidy house. When I had a sleepover at Sheryl’s, I followed her around in the morning while she vacuumed, dusted, and completed various other chores before we could eat our breakfast of Wheaties. Looking back, a better friend would have offered to help with the chores, which, I’m ashamed to admit, I don’t recall doing.
One day, Sheryl was at our house, playing with me in my room. There was a large black scuffmark on the wall that only someone with Sheryl’s keen eyes for cleanliness would notice (mine were blind to dirt in those days). She suggested we clean the scuff off the wall, and, it went without saying that in doing so, we would please my mother immensely. I produced cleanser and sponges from the bathroom and we proceeded to do a number on the wall removing the scuffmark in its entirety—as well as the paint. When my mother came in and saw what we had done…well, let’s just say, she wasn’t exactly “tickled pink.” She turned more a shade of red.
Sheryl and I were inseparable during most of our growing up years. People knew our names, but often didn’t know which of us was which, even though Sheryl had straight, light blonde hair and blue eyes, and I had curly, (okay, frizzy) dark hair, and dark eyes. To the untrained eye, we attached at the hip.
Sheryl owned two beautiful, silky Japanese kimono-looking pantsuits. Our mothers had given permission for us to go, by ourselves, to the Alpha Beta shopping center (within walking distance of home) to eat an early dinner at a quaint little restaurant located there. Sheryl was going to wear her Japanese outfit. I was envious, and she knew it. I didn’t have anything that even came close to those uncommonly pretty clothes, so Sheryl, being the generous and thoughtful friend she was, offered to let me wear her other Japanese outfit. Off we went, bedecked in those delicately flowered outfits, to Little Pigs of America (I kid you not, that was the name of the restaurant). I felt positively exotic as we walked into Little Pigs to eat. In we pranced wearing our silky pajamas (in retrospect, I wonder if that’s what they really were, glorified PJs), and feeling very glamorous in an outlandish sort of way. I’m sure we turned heads, (and drew snickers) a toe-head and a dark Italian in Japanese costume. We must have been a sight!
Sheryl and I joined Brownies, advancing into Girl Scouts together, and shared all the joys (ice skating lessons, hikes, campouts, and camaraderie) and trials of scouting (selling calendars and cookies door to door. Let me add, it was a different time. No one ever set up camp in front of a grocery store in those days. Parents never took cookies to work to sell. It was door-to-door or bust). When we went to the local Girl Scout cabin “La Casita” in the foothills near home, pairs of girls were assigned (or chose) various chores that had to be done before the day’s regular activities began. I’m not sure why, but we opted (yes, we chose) to clean the outhouse! (Were we nuts? Maybe. Or maybe it was Sheryl’s propensity towards cleanliness, and the repulsive stench of the outhouse that spurred us on to such undervalued benevolence. At any rate, we took it on and magnified our job description.) We not only swept it out, we scrubbed it as best we could, and gathered pine boughs and flowers to try to sweeten the air (without succeeding). We felt we had done our duty and a good turn, however I’m not sure it was noticed, let alone appreciated, by anyone but ourselves.
After the campfire at night, Sheryl and I spread out our sleeping gear next to each other on the wooden cabin floor. My family never went camping. I didn’t have a clue what an air mattress was. Many of the other girls not only knew, but were privileged to have one. I looked at their soft, billowing sleeping arrangements with a sigh. Surrounded by luxury, I knew I’d be roughing it. I had received a Girl Scout sleeping bag for Christmas. It was like sleeping on a chilled paper towel, having no padding or insulation to speak of, yet having considerable bulk when trying to roll it up tightly again. (After rolling my bag, it always looked as if I had, first, wadded it up, then tried desperately to tie up an explosion that had occurred somewhere in its depths.) I looked on enviously as other girls nonchalantly stuffed their bags into nice little tote sacks. I lied awake in a state of misery most of the night. I was freezing, sore, and needed to use the bathroom in the worst way, but couldn’t bear the idea of traipsing down the hill to the outhouse by myself in the dark (even with the anticipation of the fresh scent of pine needles to greet me). I held it in ‘till morning, then, shivering, made a mad dash for the latrine when the first scouts began to stir at daylight.
Breakfast was its own trial since I was a picky eater. My mother never made oatmeal. I’m not sure why, but, when growing up, we never had hot cereal or casseroles (both typical Girl Scout fare). I was crestfallen when I heard breakfast was oatmeal, not pancakes. I sat there staring at the lumpy white goop while hungry scouts all around me gobbled theirs up. The rule was you had to eat two big Girl Scout bites before you could leave the table. After tasting just a tiny bit of the bland and sticky stuff, I was pretty sure a 21st Century Girl Scout would find me dead on the bench decades later. Sheryl encouraged me along, as did the other girls around me, urging me to put sugar and milk on it—promising it would help. I loaded the sugar on and choked down my two big Girl Scout nibbles, then got out of there as fast as possible.
When we were about twelve, the big day arrived when our mothers consented to let us ride the bus alone to an outdoor mall about five miles away. We put on our best dresses and boarded the bus. (In those days, going to the mall was an event worthy of dressing up. I think it’s rather a shame that practice of dressing up for special outings has been mostly lost.) We were sure we had reached a certain level of maturity when Sheryl’s mother decided to send money to treat us to lunch in a department store restaurant. Before lunch, we shopped, or more appropriately, window-shopped, as we had very little of our own money to spend. We looked at items on the main floor of the department store, checking price tags with cloaked dismay. We made our way to a less expensive part of the store, perhaps located in the basement, thinking we might find something in our price range while still giving the appearance of being two very independent, and if not well-to-do, at least refined young ladies. While I looked with interest at one clothing rack, knowing full well I couldn’t even afford to buy one of the wire hangers the clothing hung on, Sheryl was making her way around another circular clothing rack across the room. Suddenly, she looked up and called out to me in a rather loud voice, “This isn’t the budget department!” I’m not sure if I disappeared into the clothes on the rack in front of me, or if I just pretended I didn’t hear her. At any rate, the ruse was up! We were what we were, and there was no hiding the fact.
Honestly, this is one of the many things I have always loved about Sheryl—she is as genuine as they come. No pretense. Honest as the day is long, she calls it as she sees it, so you always know exactly where you stand. A true treasure.
We were a twosome. If Sheryl had a dentist appointment, we walked downtown to the dentist office together, then to the library, and to the bakery for a cookie afterward. We created clubs, played the piano, and vied to see who could take the most notes during class. We walked to and from school together, made identical Halloween costumes, and roasted hot dogs in the fireplace when she spent the night. When I wanted to join drill team in high school, Sheryl was right there trying out with me. We shared all the monumental events girls go through. Our families shared holidays and outings. Our mothers were best friends. Our brothers were best friends. And my sister Karen was welcomed into the circle of our friendship, as well. We laughed and cried together. And we even had our spats, but they never lasted long.
Then the dreadful day came when Sheryl’s parents announced they were moving—and not just across town, but all the way to Ohio! I was devastated. We did our share of bawling, and making promises to be true to the end. Before Sheryl’s departure after our sophomore year of high school, my sister and I hosted a going away party for her. It was a bittersweet event. We pledged to write letters (the old-fashioned kind), and we kept our pledge faithfully for a long, long time.
We didn’t have cell phones, and with expensive long distance rates, calling was not an option except on rare occasions, such as a birthday, and soon fell out of practice. When high school graduation time rolled around, Sheryl flew out to celebrate with me. That was our last hurrah together.
We didn’t see each other in person again for close to thirty years, and that was only for an hour at the airport when I was passing through.
Letters became sporadic throughout those years. Life was busy with work, family, moves, and other normal occurrences that drive people apart, but we never gave up on our friendship. As we approached our fiftieth birthdays, we determined it had just been too long, so Sheryl flew back to Southern California from her home in Texas, and I returned from Colorado at the same time. We both stayed with my father at my childhood home (the same home I live in at this time), tracing our steps from the past. We walked three houses up the street to Sheryl’s house and knocked on the door. The current owners were gracious, inviting us inside, and giving us a tour of the house as it then stood. They even magically pulled from a brown paper bag the original kitchen cabinet and drawer hardware that looked like bunches of grapes, sending the bag of metal treasures from the past home with Sheryl.
As is the case with faithful souls, we picked up exactly where we left off years earlier, laughing and having a great time. Time sped by and we soon regretted how little time we had allowed for this visit together. (Sheryl confessed she didn’t know how it would be, and didn’t want to be [stuck] with me for more than a weekend if “things” didn’t go well. She didn’t use the word “stuck,” but she would have been had she stayed longer and things hadn’t gone well. Fortunately, we parted wishing for more time, instead of holding to the sentiment my mother-in-law used to profess: “Company is like fish; after three days it stinketh.” It was time to bid each other farewell again and just as when we were children, it was hard to do.
This farewell was so like our sixth grade graduation from elementary school. On the last day of school each spring, the 6th graders filed through the younger grades, all of whom were lined up by the bike racks, singing “Aloha Oe” ( in English, “Farewell to Thee”). We knew that when our time came, we’d face this emotional event. Even when singing among the younger grades each year, we felt the weight of this melancholy, and life-changing rite of passage. Usually, we walked to school, but on our last day of sixth grade, we rode our bikes. We walked numbly and with a lump in our throats through the singing students, boarded our bikes, and bawled all the way home. We knew an important era of our lives had come to a close.
“Farewell to thee,
Farewell to thee,
Thou charming one who dwellst among the bow’rs.
One fond embrace,
Before I now depart,
Until we meet again.”
(“Aloha Oe,” as we sang it to the 6th graders)
At fifty, we bade each other farewell again. Time and circumstance have kept us apart to this day, but fortunately, although we couldn’t foresee it then, we lived to the ripe old age of cell phones and Skype (which we’ve yet to use). We communicate more frequently now, calling at least on birthdays, but at other times, too, and we write emails as well as the old-fashioned, hand-written, snail mail letters.
Now, in my sixties and back at home, I walk on almost a daily basis the same places Sheryl and I walked as children, but most of the time, I walk for my health and diversion instead of to get where I need to go. The neighborhood has aged, but many things remain the same. Instead of tender young shoots, the trees are giants, providing shade and beauty. The homes still stand, some having undergone face-lifts, others falling into various stages of age or transformation. Yards no longer sport dichondra, and even grass is becoming scarce, as a long-term drought takes its toll and people move toward drought-resistant landscaping. The sidewalks are uneven and weathered. The cracks are still there, and greet me like old, worn-out and worn-in friends. Those cracks in the sidewalk prompted this post. I walk past Sheryl’s house every time I’m out, and remember…remember….
I believe memory is a gift from God. All time is present before God. We can experience a little of that miracle through memory. The past is present before my face; time is naught, and I can relive so many of those special moments so dear to my heart as often as I like, and “be with” friends gone from my sight, living far away, whom I treasure–like Sheryl.
“It is one of the blessings of old friends
that you can afford to be stupid with them.”
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
From quiet homes and first beginning
Out to the undiscovered ends,
There’s nothing worth the wear of winning
But laughter and the love of friends.
~ Hilairee Belloc
“No distance of place, or lapse of time can lessen the friendship
of those who are thoroughly persuaded of each other’s worth.”
~ Robert Southey
“But if the while I think of thee, dear friend,
all losses are restored and sorrows end.”
“Let the soul be assured that somewhere in the universe it should rejoin its friend, and it would be content and cheerful alone for a thousand years.”
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
From the bottom of my heart, I thank you, dear Friends, for reading.