Losing a friend you thought was already lost

Cover of "Gone with the Wind"
Cover of Gone with the Wind

I read the obituaries every morning as many people do. I have no idea why we do this. I look for reasons why people died, how old they were when they died, who survived them, etc. The other morning I saw that my childhood friend had died in February of a long term illness. There was a lovely picture of her taken when she was about 20 I would guess. I have no way of knowing as I last saw her in ninth grade at the graduation of Greenwich Country Day School. She was no longer my best friend having abandoned me for Phyllis and Priscilla and so we barely spoke on that day. I do remember feeling sad I was no longer friends with her and wondering what I had done for her to have lost interest in our friendship.

Betsey befriended me in fifth grade and whatever she told me to do I would do. I went to her house when she still had one (her father later left her mother) and spent the night many times. Her mother had a raspy voice, chain smoked L and M’s, and seemed sharp and unfriendly but stayed out of our way. She had two older sisters who were very glamorous and kind to me. I liked going to Betsey’s house as there was little supervision and we did whatever we wanted. Once in a while we would go bowling, something I never did with my own family.

Betsey told me in fifth grade I needed a bra: not because I was very developed but just because” every fifth grader needed one”. She took one from her sister’s drawer and told me to try it on which I did in the privacy of her bathroom. It was made of a harsh type of cotton and had straps with lengths sticking out which you pinned into place with small gold safety pins. When I wore the bra I felt incredibly sophisticated and old but nervous. What if someone touched my back and felt the strap and knew I was wearing a bra! What a terrifying thought!

In order to wear the bra I had to hide it in my drawer at night and then pack it in my school briefcase, carry it to school, and change into it in the girl’s room under Betsey’s supervision. The whole process seemed so time consuming but worth the excitement and the attention I seemed to get from Betsey for my obedience to her rules.

Betsey also taught me swear words which I did not know at that time. Today this seems startling but in the 60’s it was not surprising. I learned the three swear words that Betsy said were important to learn.  “Shit” “fuck” and “dick”.

I found the words very difficult to define and kept returning to Betsy’s side asking her to let me know once again what they meant. I didn’t dare say them out loud and neither did she but writing them was also out of the question. I remember running back and forth most of that school day so I could remember the words, define them, and someday use them.

Once, about five years later out of the blue, Betsy called me and asked if I wanted to sneak out of my house and meet up with her. She said there would be a boy who could drive. I was really torn by this invitation as I never did anything wrong. It simply wasn’t worth the repercussions but Betsey’s invitation seemed irresistible as the “boy” was incredibly cute. I had seen him around town, he was a bit older than we were, and was considered   really cool and very bad. Having never been in a car driven by anyone under the age of 40, I couldn’t resist.

As it turned out, my parents were out of town and our house was “loosely supervised” when this was the case. We had a nanny but she put my youngest sister to bed and then went to sleep herself by 9. At 9:10 I was downstairs trying to open the door without making a sound convinced I would be caught. I had no idea what I thought would happen but it wouldn’t be good. I finally opened the door and slipped out into the warm night air. It was very dark and I had no flashlight but I could see some outlines of the drive and the road behind it. I walked slowly past the night shrouded house of the Toby’s thinking of Button tucked safely in her bed and thinking to myself I must be really a wild child.

Waiting in the dark at the end of Meadowcroft Lane for Betsy and her crew was endless and by the time their car arrived I was a wreck. For some reason which I will never understand Betsy got out of the car and wanted me to sit next to Peter, the bad boy who was driving. In this position I felt as if I had been kidnapped by a scary witch on one side and an irresistible prince on the other. Hot and cold, yin and yang, good and bad, god knows what was happening but one side felt really good! Peter’s thigh was about as exciting to me as seeing Rhet Butler carry Vivien Leigh up the stairs in ”Gone With The Wind”. I could barely speak I found it so intoxicating. At one point the bad boy took his foot off the accelerator and moved my leg closer telling me to steer and use the gas pedal which of course I did.

Looking back on that night I see how important it was to me in my life of mostly dreams and few actual adventures. Sneaking out of my house at night, being driven by a bad boy around town, feeling the arousal a teenage boy could create, in me: it was an amazing memory for me to take out from time to time and smile over. Nothing happened. No one was hurt. No one even missed me, but it was magic.

So there was an obituary for me to read about my friend who created the memory but was lost to me for the rest of her life. As it turned out, she lived for many years less than five blocks from where I lived with my young family yet I never knew it. She worked cleaning houses for years and had her own small company. She never married or had children and died with her sister and a friend. by her side. I felt sad reading Betsy’s obituary as her life didn’t seem as large as her spirit and I was sorry. I will always be grateful to her for my night of magic.

Beginning in June

Summer School
Image via Wikipedia

Beginning in June

Beginning in June I would count the days until we had to go back to school. Even before the dull heat of a Connecticut summer had really hit our shores, I was thinking about math class. I was remembering with great clarity the stiff formality of Mr. Palmer with his heavy black glasses, pot belly, pants that were too short and too tight, and his darting eyes that seemed to reach into the conscience of every eighth grader at the Greenwich Country Day School. I hated math and always had since seventh grade and the advent of algebra. It seemed completely illogical to me we had to master equations which used letters instead of numbers. I could have cared less if A +B =C squared or not. I could do arithmetic in the blink of an eye as I had my trusty cash register bank to compare notes with. Mr. Palmer taught me how to really feel ashamed and it was my own entire fault.

That last week of school we had a pop quiz in class. Frankly it didn’t matter to me if the quiz was “pop” or not as I was bound to fail it. As soon as Mr. Palmer went up to the board and picked up a piece of chalk, a dull roar began in my mind and any chance of paying attention went out the window. Those early moments of explanation of a new concept were the most crucial as we all know and if you weren’t there with the teacher you never learned the problem. Consequently, I never learned the problems.

Mr. Palmer loved pop quizzes and had them all the time. This one had 8 problems and I knew the answer to four of them leaving me with a 50% score. I needed to find at least one more correct answer. I scratched and scratched at my sheet of paper, writing down possible ways to find an answer to no avail. Without consciously thinking about it I glanced over at Keith Funston’s paper and saw in his very clear and precise letters the answers to all the problems. Not being a greedy girl, I copied only one on to my sheet at the bottom of my chicken scratches.

Why did I do this, you might wonder? Summer was coming, I was failing math, if I failed math I would have to go to summer school and be even more miserable than I already was. I was desperate enough to try anything, even cheating.

The following day, back in math class, Mr. Palmer wished us all a happy summer and let us out early. After announcing this wonderful thing, he asked that “Cindy Watson” come up to his desk. I watched as my fellow students left the room staring at me surreptitiously under their eyelids and slowly walked up to Mr. Palmer’s desk. He looked up at me and said,” There is one answer on your test that is correct but your work does not show how you got there. Could you show me how you did it?”

I looked down at my Bass Weejuns and began to cry. “No, “I said, “I really can’t. I copied Keith’s paper because I was so afraid of failing again.”

To Mr. Palmer’s credit, he didn’t yell, threaten or frighten me in any way. In his soft yet stern voice he told me I would have to go to summer school for two weeks in order to pass the course and move on to 9th grade. All I could think of was who he was going to tell about my sin. Would there be a call to my parents? A scarlet “C” to be worn all the rest of the day? A visit to Mr. Webster’s office, the evil headmaster? I felt as if I was on my way to the Penitentiary never to see the light of day again.

Mr. Palmer asked me if I would ever do this again. I looked him right in the eye and told him no. I think he believed me because there was no call to anyone, not even my parents. I kept waiting for the call and am still waiting. I still feel the fear and shame of having to admit I had copied the answer. I know a lot of kids do this and don’t get off so easily but at the time I was terrified.

Summer came and went. Summer school passed with apparent ease. My mother and father continued to be lost in their separate world of fifties parenting which meant no parenting. My sister Olive and I played our usual summer game of “see who has left for the summer so we can swim in their pool”. Our town emptied of its inhabitants slowly as the round old station wagons headed north in a caravan of wasps looking forward to a new hive for a few months. Children sat in sticky seats in back and tormented their siblings and played games like “count the purple cars” or six cars from now will have your future husband in it.”

I watched the face of my father as he came home from work each day waiting for my punishment. Summer grew deeper and hotter and our mother took us to the beach almost daily always “forgetting” lunch so we could eat greasy burgers at the concession stand and blow the papers off our straws into each other’s faces.

Mr. Palmer never told anyone and this is my way of saying “thanks”. Maybe he knew I would torment myself enough without adding to the burden. Eventually I passed ninth grade, went away to school and graduate school and never copied another answer again.