I grew up in a very poor time, in a very financially strapped neighborhood, in a very large military family. I never knew that my family was poor because I kept company with kids who were of the same socio-economic class. None of us wanted for anything, but if we did, we weren’t likely to get it any way, and we were ok with those facts. We were all the children of enlisted Army soldiers. We all had mothers hailed from foreign lands, across several seas, speaking with thick accents that we all could understand. We were the last of the children who played on our own schedule and didn’t require “play dates.” I would wake on a sunny, humid summer morning and chase the sound of the cicadas down the street on my pink bike with the pink daisy banana seat and sissy bar, straws whizzzzzzzing on the spokes, wind in my hair, metallic streamers whipping my arms…I would ride 2 miles to spend the day with my friends.
We spent countless days in the hot Georgia summers, sneaking up on back porches to take soda bottles for their deposits, spending the money on a pack of Marlboro reds that we smoked while playing on the Chattahoochee River, sliding down the sand dunes, riding into the Calhouns, or skitching the sewer pipe over Bull Creek to shoplift lip gloss from Gaylords! We had dirty bare feet, tangled long hair, and laughter that came quicker than Christmas! The three of us, for what seemed like an eternity, had a bond that was never going to be broken, a sisterhood of necessity and we would always find one another. Always.
I came from a Catholic home with 6 kids, the oldest of us had already moved across country and was married with children by the time I was 4 years old. Those of us remaining ranged in age from 10 to 19, and I was the baby. I tagged along to many things during my childhood that I probably shouldn’t have been exposed to at that age, but it was the 1970s, the end of an era, and I was riding that wave despite the age factor. I experienced a love of music, real music like Pink Floyd and Fleetwood Mac, I was becoming independent and moving toward taking my first steps as a teenager. It was a wonderful time for growth and adventure. I was tall enough for the rides at the fair and young enough to still take advantage of the children’s price!
It was a much simpler time but, as most preteens will do, I was trying to complicate it with hormones and friends who were faster than me in so many ways. My two best friends were from homes much different than mine. My mother was from Austria. She was working full time at keeping a tidy home, raising children, growing a vegetable garden, cooking, and being the best at those trades. No one ever came to my house to play because my mother’s rule was that our bedrooms were for us to sleep or to contemplate our actions. If we wanted to play, we could do that outside – her home was called “the museum” for very good reason. Nothing was ever out of place and certainly nothing was ever dirty, not even messy. Not even the children who lived in the museum!
One of my friends had a mother who worked nights in a bar. We had to be very quiet when we went to her house to pick her up. Her mother was a very large breasted German woman, whose smoky voice was loud and boisterous, she had no “inside voice” just one volume – SCREAMING! Maybe it was because the bar she worked in was loud, but whatever the reason, she would emerge from her slumber, blonde hair askew, tits falling out of a cheap Woolworth’s peignoir screaming for us to be quiet and get out because “Uncle Jim” was sleeping as we ran from the house, giggling, jumping onto our bikes and riding off toward a day of adventure. Her house was messy, doors wide open, things everywhere, beds unmade, dishes in the sink, and a twisted spliff hidden under a nautilus shell from Panama City, likely placed there by said “Uncle Jim.” This house was the complete opposite of the picture perfect, antiseptic house that I had come from just an hour before.
My other friend’s mother was Korean. She owned a titty bar up by the high school. I was never certain if she worked there or just owned it. Her dad was a guard out at the prison, he also worked nights, so he slept all day. He invented the television remote control. He had a broom stick that he notched on the end, and about 4 feet from his bed was the old school television set with its dial waiting to find the notch at the end of the stick. He might whistle occasionally, just to get the volume turned up or down, or for someone to come and move the foil on the rabbit ears until the reception was better. Their house smelled of kimchee and was lived in. We rarely saw her mother, but when we did it was usually in her kitchen cooking up some Korean food that smelled vaguely of dirty socks to my young nostrils.
Then came one of the biggest defining moments of my life…
The Korean girl had ignited a fire in her bedroom with a cigarette. She proceeded to blame the German girl and me for the fire. She could have really hurt herself or killed someone, remember this was the mid-70’s no one had smoke detectors back then. The only real tragedy that occurred that day was her lying and blaming the two of us. I was at home, under parental supervision when the fire happened. My other friend was at home, but it was early evening, her mom had already left for the bar. I remember that my father called a “meeting” of parents and children, at my house, after church on Sunday.
In they walked, heads held low. The Korean girl outed us all for smoking. As punishment, the German’s mom made her smoke an entire pack of cigarettes and a cigar and grounded her for a week. The Korean’s mom grounded her for two weeks. I received the ultimate penalty. Life. I was sentenced to never, ever, as long as I lived, to ever be allowed to hang out with either of them again. My mother was incensed that children were left unsupervised at night. She was judging the other two mothers very harshly and quite hypocritically. I was told that smoking is not allowed any more than a friendship with either of those two girls.
Years later, 41 years later, to be precise, Facebook defines a small world. The silhouette of a head indicates a friend request. Then another. We three little girls from the wrong side of the tracks reconnected via cyberspace. We play catch up, we reminisce, we laugh about the fire, the consequences, and the way life has led us all down different paths. I cyber-stalk their lives by clicking on various and sundry friends of my friends. I begin to make a stark realization. I had not received a life sentence. I had received MY life.
Children were born way too soon to these, my childhood friends…they both became sexually active at very young ages, believing that the consequences of teen sex would never lead them to teen motherhood. They were lost children. I was saddened by my findings and yet I couldn’t look away. The grief so thick you could cut it with a knife, post and after post of heart breaking loss; the loss of a child to a drug overdose, the loss of a child to prison, the loss of life to career criminal behavior, more drugs, more children having children, lack of stability, lack of economic growth, lack after loss and the cycle repeated with each turn of the wheel like Lance Armstrong at the Tour de France!
One married, divorced twice, became a motel housekeeper, living in one room in the motel, taking care of her aging mother, now in her 80s, unable to rely on titty bar tips, no retirement, living from hand to mouth on social security. Now she is no longer working and trying to recover from the loss of her own child, trying to care for her elderly mother, and relying solely on a man who will never ask her to marry him, who is verbally abusive, and she says it’s completely ok, because she loves him. She asks about my mother, reminds me of a lost memory that my mother often picked her up on Sunday mornings and tried to get her to come to church with us, and says she always loved my mom and was upset that we were kept apart. Then she says my mother did the right thing by keeping me away, encouraging me to be all that I could be. Life.
The other married, divorced three times, became a bar owner, lost the bar in one of the divorces, had children in and out of wedlock, works in a beach bar, trying to make ends meet. Speaks frequently to her mother, a widow who married an officer, and is suffering from early signs of dementia. Her life is good. She asks about my mother, reminds me that my mom always lived in a museum, says she never understood why our mothers weren’t friends but gives my mother credit for keeping me away from her. Life.
I sit here, after a 35+ year career in the same field, a successful marriage, no children, loads of international and domestic travel, a lifetime of memories and I am thankful to my mother for making a decision in that life altering moment. The one where I was on the precipice of making a bad mistake…stepping off of the cliff and into teen motherhood, drugs, and continuing to buy my real estate on the wrong side of the tracks. Life.
I think back on those days when we were stealing coke bottles and trading them for the ten cent deposit…when I chased the sound of cicadas down my road, hair whipping behind me as my bike raced to the bottom of the hill, when I played under the yellow cast of the street lamp until it was time to come in for the night. I think of the differences in how we were raised by foreign women from countries far, far away. I think of how my mother exiled me and kept me from being their friend any more. How her long arm extended not only to Saturdays and summer days, but to school days when she wasn’t even around, I could still hear her words…”Tell me who your friends are and I will tell you who you are.” I used to believe those were really nasty words and that I missed my friends, I missed the sand dunes, I missed the lazy days down by the river and the creek. My mother had other intentions. My mother could see the future and she wanted mine to be brighter, better, and more than hers had been. So she sequestered me, kept me close, allowed me to find other people to hang out with and eventually, I’m not sure how or for how long, but eventually, I didn’t miss them so much anymore. I filled my summers with the pool, with my brothers, with the girls down the street. My bike got rusty, the seat ripped, and I cut my hair. Life.
These last few months of reminiscing have left me thankful for the days when the humid southern summers were long and thankful more for the mother whose love was even longer. My friends have never lost touch with one another, their lives have always been intertwined. I feel like the stranger I became. An interloper. And I realize how, more than ever, that we were a season in the sun…and I had lived through it.