Monthly Archives: December 2017

My Friend, Ramona

Today I got another card from my friend Ramona.  In it there was a donation to a local non-profit I run with a friend that helps children from all backgrounds learn how to bicycle safely.  She messaged me earlier in the week to make sure we were still accepting donations, and I responded yes.  But I also got to thinking of how much her friendship has meant to my life, and what a stabilizer she’s been in the years I’ve known her, which has been all the years from 12to 48.

We rolled into Marksville, Louisiana when I was twelve, from our most recent small town of Ripley Mississippi.  I didn’t want to move to Marksville.  I didn’t want to move to Ripley.  Last October I took my daughter to Ottowa, Illinois, where I spent my formative years and I didn’t realize how I’d missed it until we rolled into town in our rental, over the Fox River Bridge, and I wept to see our little town square, and the school where I’d gone (I read all the books in their library by the time I was eight).

We moved, a lot.  From house to house from the time I was born.  Because that is what poor people do.  My dad was talented.  He could make things with his hands.  He could plan and build homes.  He could weld.  He was a certified electrician.  He went where the work was.  At the time of my life when we left all we knew in Northern Illinois, there wasn’t work there.  We moved to Mississippi, and he worked large construction on the Tom Bigby River.  And he built houses for rich people.  And he got sick.  He got so sick he started coughing blood, and we thought our lives were over.  We thought he’d die and we weren’t sure what we’d do after that, because my dad supported all of us.  He spent his life going where ever there was work that he could do.   So he got sick and went in the hospital and nobody had a job.  My Mom’s birthday came and she was taking care of my dad in the hospital and we made her a cake out of flour and eggs and lemon filling.  We had a little sugar but not enough, and no powder sugar so I used flour instead to make frosting.  We did that because it was all we had, and it was my mom’s birthday and she was tired and tending my dad and coming home to us.  So we made her a terrible cake.  Because we thought my dad might die and we didn’t know what to do.

The miracle is that my dad didn’t die.  He just had half of a lung cut out, and began to recover eventually.  In the two years I lived in Mississippi, we lived in three houses.  I went to two schools.  My math teacher mentioned to me I might have number dislexia, but by the time I left Ripley, I’d read all the books at the school library there.

And that’s how we rolled into Marksville.  I went to middle school in Marksville.  I was already awkward, shy, anxious.  I went to school there.  When it was my turn to read, I read in a funny accent, too fast, and nobody understood what I said.  Everyone made fun of me.  For the first year girls called me “cat eyes.”  Once I moved on to high school, and it was discovered I needed glasses, which my parents could barely afford, they called me “four eyes.”  I dealt with this mainly by reading all the books in the library (again…I rememeber in both middle and high school there what the libraries looked like and where the books were shelved), and by playing basketball, for reasons I still don’t quite understand.

One person was nice to me my first year living in Louisiana.  That was Ramona Bernard.  I don’t know why she was nice to me.  She was beautiful and sweet, and people sort of liked her.  Her parents had a nice house out on the Bayou.  Her family had lived there on the bayou for generations.  She’d never been uprooted or felt out of place or lost or not accepted (that I knew of).  But one day she decided to be my friend.  I don’t mean to be sentimental about it now, but I’m 48 and she is still my friend.

We experienced all the things that teen girls experience, as friends.  In the south we experienced segregation as friends.  We experienced the death of a classmate, the big questions of life, dating and finally, separation…as close friends.  Ann Of Green Gables (I’ve read the series, because I read all the books in all the libraries, in all the places I lived) would say we were “bosom friends.”

I remember the panic I felt when I moved away.  First to pursue journalism on scholarship at a local Baptist college, and then when that money ran out, to the Army.  It dawned on me that I’d lost all the friends I’d ever had because we moved so much.  I’d never learned to connect with people in the slow way, which I needed, because I was slow to learn those social lessons.  My friend Ramona just kept being my friend, no matter what we experienced in high school.  I wasn’t sure I wouldn’t loose her friendship when I moved.

She went to the Air Force.  I went to the Army.  She always wrote me letters, and I’d try to be consistent in my replies to her because I knew of all the people I ever knew (however briefly), she was the one person who put herself out there for me, even when people made fun of me.  Even when she sacrificed in popularity–which in high school, is very important.  To everyone else, I was just a stranger passing through–a transient.  But to Ramona, I was a friend.  So I did my best.  I responded because she showed me how.  She showed me how to be a friend.

I’ve considered this all my life, how just one person can change your life.  How as young as she was–we were, my friend Ramona changed my life for the better, and helped me understand that even if I was moving for the hundredth time, I didn’t have to just forget old friends.  She helped me understand what it means to be intertwined with other human beings, to be part of community, and that’s a lesson I still carry with me, even today.

Thank you dear friend.

The Gift of Small Things…

Every year this happens.  Me feeling like a Grinch and wondering how I’ll ever manage to get through Christmas, and then somehow, transformation.  I’m not sure quite when that happened this year, but I remember feeling it on Tuesday, with Heather, as we sliced through the cold morning air of uptown Charlotte with three youth and a third adult.  There was something celebratory in our pedaling, particularly coming upon an old, exquisitely decorated green truck in 4th Ward.  I stopped to take a picture.   Also last night on the way back from a bike class I came upon a fully decked out car, sitting in a parking lot that I typically use as a “cut through” on my bicycle.  It was lit up like a Christmas tree, just parked, and took me by surprise.  It could have been the reflective lake at Freedom Park this very morning or riding on Jameston on my normal route and seeing the lady and her daughter walking.  The lady walks her daughter to the bus stop every day with her bike in tow, and then she rides to work through the park.  I introduced myself a long time ago, but quickly forgot her name, as I do with so many adults.  This morning, the woman again shouted, “Hi Bethanie,” and I shouted, “Good Morning!” as I always do when I pass them.  I made it to the corner and heard the daughter yell, “Her name is Lisa!!”  I got such a kick out of that this morning, not knowing if I should feel ashamed or happy to finally have my mystery solved.  And also hoping I heard correctly so that if I shout, “Good Morning Lisa!” tomorrow, she won’t look at me like I’m crazy.

I got to school and noticed the box of decorations that I brought down but have neglected all week.  Truth be told I’m a slow person.  I don’t like rushing into things, and I don’t like change.  I like to give holidays a little time to settle before moving on to what’s next.  I’ve always been this way, feeling about transitions as though I’m cozy under a nice blanket of sameness, and someone rips it off suddenly, even though it’s forty degrees.  Ann reminded me about the box again this morning, so I avoided it some more, but our children were suddenly so caught up in work and projects, I went and opened it.

I’ve been getting out these same ornaments and decorations for the past 7 years.  One nutcracker,  one brass sphere ornament, on felt heart ornament, one cross stitched ornament that proclaims peace.  a small, sad fake tree (think Charlie Brown), small globe ornaments for that.  One silver Menorah with blue and white checkered cloth to go underneath.  One wooden Kwanzaa Kenara (candle holder) we received when I first came to the class from a family who celebrates.  Various dishes, candles and lights.  A snowman door hanger, the ugliest holiday candleholder I’ve ever seen, and a recent purchase which is a pretty wooden snowman box decoration.  Oh, and last year’s Gilt, from our annual Hanukkah celebration that at least one child tries to eat every year–though it doesn’t age well.  I sorted them out today, lifting each small thing out of the box one at a time, the magic dust of memory sprinkling out onto everything.

At the beginning of each Holiday Season, I remember the most humble of times with the most fondness.  When I was raising Madison on a shoestring and a prayer.  The holidays, if you have a child and not much else, can be so stressful.  You tend to have just the regular amount of money, and you have to do all the regular things, and then as any parent wants to do, you want to create a sense of magic, anticipation and joy about what’s coming.  In our smallest apartment on 8th street,  we somehow had a few of our most magical Christmases.  We found magic not in things we bought, but in what we could find, like the giant evergreen on 8th and Louise, which we’d walk down to view many nights, or the free viewings of the Christmas Bears we went to see at least once a season in Founder’s Hall (my brother’s family introduced us to that treat).  Madison loved the shopping trip she took with a friend to buy me a present every Christmas.  One year it was a toaster (which she told me about beforehand–she got too excited to keep secrets), and we made bagels Christmas morning.  At night I always read aloud and we enjoyed stories together.  On weekends we watched Christmas movies (we know all the songs to White Christmas).  We had a tiny tree, and one of my favorite memories of it was the year I told Madison I was walking down to the dollar store for batteries (for our chiming Christmas clock) and she could come or stay in the house.  When I left I had just pulled the boxes out of the closet.  When I returned she’d put up all the decorations.  I was only gone ten minutes.

We started many Christmas seasons by driving back from Madison’s paternal grandmother’s Thanksgiving celebration in Knoxville.  We’d take the Chimney Rock route and we’d hike along the river there, even when we didn’t have any money to spend.  At most we’d buy a new ornament for the tree from a shop along the river.  It was our quiet way of putting Thanksgiving back in the closet before digging out Christmas.

It wasn’t perfect.  Holiday seasons never were for us.  They were occasionally fraught with meltdowns or fights, or not quite enough money–sometimes both.  But they never lacked warmth or love.  They never lacked the small gift of a neighbor’s beautiful lights or splurging on ice skating uptown in the green.  We never lacked friends to make sure we were okay, and we never lacked in family (though we’re from an odd bunch of folks).

Today as I removed each piece from the Christmas box and found a place to put it, or got a child to help with decorating, I remembered all the very small things.  Each year we made our own Christmas ornament.  I’ll never forget the year of the toaster excitement.  How much fun we had toasting and eating bagels Christmas morning.  The midnight service at church where the lights go down and all you can see are the lit candles and the lights of the big tree.  Stringing popcorn and cranberries once we realized that was something that people did.  The Muppet Christmas Carol (we knew the words).  Cold walks in the neighborhoods with your new set of gloves and your hat (last week I pulled one of Madison’s old gloves from a basket–she loved stripes).

I don’t remember most of the gifts I wrapped up, I just remember the times we spent, the places we visited and the small gifts we found along the way.