all of the selves we Have ever been
Soon after the start of high school,
I met my best friend, MB. I am not sure how it happened that we became best friends. In that orderly, alphabetical world of an all-girls Catholic high school, I was a “B” and she was a “P.” That could be the distance of several rows.
The differences in our make-ups were about as far apart as B and P are in the alphabet, but we were both smart gals in the changing and radical 1970s. We both had working moms which was unique for the times, and our mothers themselves were unique among the other mothers. MB’s mom, Jane, was a former MARINE which was entirely unheard of at the time. My mother received a Master’s Degree from Smith where she studied microbiology. A LADY SCIENTIST. MB and I had dads who were former military, men who grew up in the Great Depression and lived through World War II and Korea. They carried a certain temperament common to men of that era. MB and I came to high school without benefit of grade school friends in tow. Somehow, we found each other.
Our friendship was sealed with the delivery of some free baseball tickets. I could not remember how we got started in baseball, but my friend assures me that there was a McDonalds promotion offering free baseball tickets to students with straight As. We got the tickets one semester, and so it began.
Every chance we had, MB and I were in the stands at a Pittsburgh Pirates baseball game. Those were the years when the Pirates were red hot and included the legendary Roberto Clemente in the line-up. MB’s guy was outfielder Willie Stargell, home run KING. My guy was first baseman, Bob Robertson. He was no wimp at the bat, but he was also no Willie Stargell. I have no idea why I chose Bob Robertson. Maybe because Willie was already taken or because Bob was at first base and I could actually seem him from the cheap seats. But we each had our t-shirts, hers with Willie on the front, mine with Bob.
One year we decided to go bold and skip school for the Pirates’ home-opener. On the day of the opener, the worst happened. The game was postponed due to snow! Even with the flames of hell licking at the heels of our saddle shoes, we had no choice…we had to skip school the next day to attend the game.
All of this brings me to how I met another of my other-mothers, MB’s mom, Jane. While I would eventually attend Pittsburgh Pirates baseball games with MB and her parents, I first met Jane at an amusement park. Jane was our ride home that day. MB and another friend were detained by long lines, and so I ran ahead to meet MB’s mom and let her know the situation. Though I had never before met Jane, I knew her instantly. Whenever Jane left her home, she was attired according to the rules of propriety and fashion popular in the 1950s, a style that included salon-styled bouffant hair and white gloves. Not hard to spot in a 1970s amusement park.
In the years that followed, I spent a lot of time in MB’s home and in the company of her family. Even after MB left Pennsylvania for North Carolina to attend college, I still came by to hang out with MB’s folks. Her dad, Odell, was usually in the living room watching a game of whatever major sport was in season. With elbow resting on the chair, he would raise one long forearm and extend his hand. “Hey, Buffin!” Odell would ask how I was, and then Jane and I would retire to the kitchen table.
In her home, Jane was more casual about her dress, often shorts paired with a sleeveless white blouse and always bare feet. I never ceased to marvel at her petite frame. Without shoes and the bouffant hair, she probably came up to my shoulder, but she was a powerhouse, like the key microchip that runs the energy plant.
Jane would light a cigarette, and we would get to talking. Jane had wildly expressive eyes and was prone to sudden bursts of laughter that heralded the delivery of a great punch line. She had a mischievous expression when telling stories that kept me on the edge of my chair. I would be breathless and would not have been surprised if she had confessed to being part of a jewelry heist at Tiffany’s. She never seemed old to me. We were both giggling school girls when together at her kitchen table. I adored her.
We always had a lot to talk about. I had been around long enough to meet many members of Jane’s family. The ones I hadn’t met, I knew from the family lore. We caught up on births, deaths, marriages, divorces, financial troubles, graduations, and moves. During her working years, I was kept apprised of Jane’s duties at a local branch of an international firm. One story from Jane’s working years became a classic. Ever competent and prepared, Jane decided to teach herself Italian. She wanted to prepare for the arrival of the company’s native Italian big-wigs. These men came to the Pennsylvania office and participated in a meeting with Jane’s boss. At the end of the day, they asked for their coats. In her best Italian, Jane explained that their fur coats were in the toilet which, as you might imagine, stunned the visitors and Jane’s boss. There was a small translation problem in the use of the word “closet.” We have howled about this for years. Jane was good at taking a ribbing, and I became a party to a family joke.
Later, I became the center of one of those long-running anecdotes. MB and her folks lived just off a weathered highway that was somewhere between the country and the suburbs. There were a few houses scattered on the hillside with a forking dirt road that made a path to each house. One evening while I was visiting, Jane said it was time to take the trash to the Y. I was puzzled and said so, “Why do you take your trash to the YMCA?” They howled with laughter again. They were talking about the fork in the road not the YMCA! I learned a lot about laughter and taking yourself lightly from my adopted family.
Outside of a Keds’ manufacturing plant, Jane owned the world’s largest collection of those white canvas shoes. She was the first woman I knew who loved shoes of every style. Jane also had a most unique clothing inventory system. She recorded every outfit on a white, lined, 3 x 5 index card. Then she proceeded to wear the outfits in the order in which the cards were filed. I had never seen such a system. In my entire life, I’ve never met another woman who actually wore everything she owned and wore it in a precise order.
Life moved on and Jane retired to Florida. I moved to Ohio. At first, we kept in good contact. She wrote me a beautiful note when I became engaged to be married. She attended my wedding in Ohio, and then, I visited her on my Florida honeymoon. Five years later, it was in Jane’s Florida home that my infant son rolled over for the first time on the bed in Jane’s spare room.
And then everything turned upside down. The demands of life took hold on both ends. It was harder to visit and to stay in touch. Jane departed for the great shoe store in the sky. I still think of her nearly every day. I have her precious daughter as my friend and “sister of the heart” as she calls me now.
I have learned that it is easier to be your real self away from your own family drama and in the company of other-mothers. But now that I am a mother of grown-up children, I realize that it was probably easier for my other-mothers to be more themselves with me. They could just enjoy my company. They did not have to worry about shaping my character or paying for college. They did not have to live with regret about life decisions that impacted my future or cross words that they could not take back. Our special “other” relationships were fresh air for each of us.
We never know who will grace our homes and our hearts. Life is a meandering path. If my father had not moved us to Pennsylvania…if my mother had not enrolled me in a Catholic girls’ high school…if we hadn’t won those baseball tickets… I don’t know who my other-mother might have been. I am grateful for all of it and for the Ys in the road that led me to Jane.
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