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.