Monday, June 1, 2009

A Tale of Two Friends

My very best friend growing up was a beautiful, strawberry blond girl named Laura. We were serene in the knowledge that our best friendship was meant to be; our mothers were friends before us and had had the foresight to get pregnant and give birth to girls within the same year. They then followed up this master stroke by producing a ragtag bunch of boys who provided counter point to our perfect harmony.

Initially we had to be separated due to the sad fact that at the age of two we had not quite learned the art of sharing. No sooner had we grown up enough to enjoy one anothers company than my father decided that he couldn't handle the heavy snows of upstate New York winters and the depressed local economy.

We left the family dairy farm in the gently rolling valley that sheltered the pastures and oak trees of my early childhood for southern New Hampshire, near my mother's family and began to live a different sort of life.

However, every summer we returned to New York for two weeks in the family station wagon; I remember the blue vinyl seats and the windows that had to be cranked down, eating crackers and cream cheese for snacks on the way up.

Sometimes in the high ridges of the Vermont mountains my father would pull the wagon over to the side of the road and we would all tumble out, go careening down the steep banks to the creek below. Mother would call out to watch out for poison ivy and follow more slowly with the younger children, Scott or Jesse.

Timmy and I would not hesitate to jump rock to rock across the creek in our bare feet; if the current were fast enough, my father would ride down the rapids on the his belly. We chased the water bugs that skated over the amber water and pulled crayfish out of their hiding places as we had been taught to, by the curling, whipping tail in order to avoid being pinched by the tiny, though vicious little claws.

As soon as the New York State sign was sighted a great cry would rise up. From there on we were guided back home by familiar landmarks; the garish face painted on the water tower at Albany, the farm with three towering silos, their white roofs blinding in the sun.

As we turned got deeper and deeper in the farm land of upstate New York, I would be on the edge of my seat, watching each cultivated and gently curving hill pass by, each little meandering brook and ramshackle farm houses surrounded by packed dirt and car parts.

The dirt at the sides of the roads became pale pink, rose and rock red in color, the dusky rose color of the dirt roads was in perfect harmony with the lush green on each side and the canopy of green that often over hung the road. The rose dust clung to the sides of the station wagon.

"Buffalo!" famously called out my younger brother once, when confronted for the first time with hay bales lying in a field. This was never forgotten. Hay bales that had been wrapped in white sheeting became "Ghost buffalo."

At long last we would be in our own little valley of old; the family dairy farm now sold but still standing for a long time, the barn leaning farther and farther to the side. The road would dip down, pass by a trailer at the edge of a brook over hung with weeping willow trees and then up and there would be the sharp turn up into my best friend's house.

Her parents had achieved legendary status in my mind by the act of having built their own log house with their own hands. For this, they loomed in my mind along with the likes of Paul Bunyan and the parents of Laura Ingalls. Their rough hewn house, even their thick, brown patterned dishes fit in well with this image.

They had a wide front porch and a fuzzy yellow dog, the kind of good natured and eager dog whose kind eyes were obscured by fur. Laura's room was patterned red, white and blue. She had beautiful little porcelain figurines that she had received for birthdays. She had music boxes with little ballerinas on tiptoe within. She has sparkly cosmetics, long strands of beads and other necklaces, books and the sound track to "The Phantom of the Opera."

Mostly though, we had Barbies. I brought my own box of Barbies and our combined collection spread in overflowing heaps across the floor. We each chose our own most important doll, the one to represent ourselves; mine almost always had dark hair. I loved the one with the underwear printed into the plastic of the doll's body, she also had very movable limbs; I was drawn to her range of expression and natural modesty.

Then we would choose our Kens. These were always in short supply, but we made do. They also had a limited wardrobe. I tended to dress my Ken in heavy work clothes, Laura's Kens were more elegant and dashing.

Once the basics were in play, we laid out our houses using whatever came to hand. Then the saga would begin and "Days of Our Lives" had nothing on us. Our Barbies had lineages; they lived through generations. They triumphed over tragedies, they loved with passion, without restraint. They came with us on camping trips, they sometimes were taken outside to play out the drama of their lives in a leafy setting.

We didn't limit ourselves to Barbies during our summer week. Laura had fabulous dress up dresses, include one frothy yellow gown that billowed out in a perfect circle when we pirouetted. We lived out many, many lives wearing those dresses. Our most gripping drama was that our men were away at war and we had to make it through the dark times of occupation and danger without them, with our babies clutched close to hand.

These games could last for the entire day and were played mostly outside. Laura's log house was build at the top of a steep ridge. There was a narrow trail that zigzagged down the embankment; all the children knew this trail by heart and could fly down it at incredible speed, our arms outspread for balance, almost without looking where we were putting our feet.

At the bottom of the ridge was a clear, swift creek that ran over a shifting layer of smooth river stones. It never got much deeper than one's knees and was bordered by thick, high green rushes to one side. We would make our home in the rushes, packing them down on the inside and making trails throughout it. There was also a tree house build off the ridge and we made our home there as well.

Our adventures were many and varied. She stayed with me at my grandparent's house one week. My father's parents still lived in upstate New York and my brothers and I would spend a week with them after our week with Laura's family.

On this visit we were sleeping in the room and in the very bed where my great grandfather had lived, and we presumed, had died. In order to further disturb ourselves, we were telling ghost stories in the dark when we heard a faint, but distinctive thump.

We assured ourselves it was nothing, but a few minutes later another thump was heard. Though we were in the habit of letting our imaginations run riot, we still knew the difference between our own worlds and reality. And the thump was most certainly real.

Goosebumps ran up my spine, we looked at each other in the double bed, eyes wide in the dark. The thought was the same; that the dead great grandfather was making his slow but deliberate way down the hall to claim his room and his bed.

I don't know how long we tortured ourselves in this way, but eventually we realized that we ourselves were the cause of the thumps; it was the bed hitting the wall behind us as we shifted position.

We had a very clear plan about what would happen when we grew up. She would marry a tall, blond beach boy, from California, preferably. I would marry a tall, dark and handsome man, from Scotland, preferably. We would live next door to each other and our children would run in and out of each other's houses as they grew up.

We took for granted that our lives would continue to be as closely intertwined as our braided hair, the day our parents met half way at the deer park to exchange us back. The red gold and red black strands was to each the perfect foil for the other and we walked hobbled, arm around each other's waists, our heads bent in to accommodate the braid.

The fact that our lives led us far away from each other, I have realized lately, is one of my greatest regrets. I wish that life were simpler; that one stayed put in one place and that friendships could grow and deepen in the common soil of a shared space.

I am pissed at life that I hardly know her children except in pictures, that she cannot walk over on a morning to drink a cup of coffee on the deck while the children play in the back yard, or call to compare what to make for dinner when we've run out of ideas or to gossip about our husbands; hers the tall dark and handsome one, mine the blue eyed farm boy with copper colored hair.

I see pictures of her and I cannot begin to describe the emotions it evokes; the sight of her face is so familiar it is almost as though I am looking at a mirror, she holds pieces of myself that I could never find anywhere else. I find her as beautiful now as I did as a child and even in pictures of her I can see her sunny spirit shine through so clearly, her gift for enjoying life, her daring me to sneak out into the dark, to fly down the slip and slide, to wear the crazy hats and to laugh.

When Keith and I move, we will be within eight hours of where she lives and you bet I'm going to be making that trek just as often as I possibly can. Maybe my children will get to know that route just as well as I got to know the winding highways that took us through the Green Mountains of Vermont and down into the fertile valleys of New York state.

Maybe we'll meet halfway for a weekend sometime, leaving the kids with our men and staying up late in the hotel room with a bottle of wine and hours of talk and then go garage sale-ing the next day. Maybe I'll have pictures of her in our new house, helping to paint the kitchen, both of us jazzed up on coffee and pastries from the store on the corner.

God, I hope so. Life is just to short and friendships that began with an inarticulate fight over a Kewpie doll are impossible to replace and despite life's twists and turns, just as impossible to lose.

1 comment:

T said...

What a beautiful story of friendship!!!

I also didn't let it pass that you dressed up your Ken all rugged and then you both pretended your men were at war.

I hope you're able to connect with her at that level again. Thank you for sharing this.