BFFF: Our Origin Story

Donna_and_Amy_bridge   Donna_and_Amy_bridgeThis weekend, my best friend, Donna, and I are celebrating the golden anniversary of our friendship—BFFF: Best Friends For Fifty. In comic book terminology, an “origin story” is an account or back-story revealing how characters gained their superpowers. This is ours.     

Fifty years ago this September, on the morning of my second day of second grade, I waited for the bus at the end of Marshall Street. My older sister, Leslie, the only one of my siblings still at home, had already left the house to walk to the high school, or catch a ride with her best friend Mary Lee’s older brother, Johnny, whom my mother trusted because he lived across the street and was our paperboy.

As on the previous morning, my mother had packed a peanut butter sandwich, an apple, and two cookies in my red plaid metal lunchbox, and taped two nickels—one for snack milk, one for lunch milk—inside the lid. She sat at the wooden table beside the kitchen window with me, sipping black coffee while I ate my Cheerios and milk and drank a tiny glass of orange juice. Then she drove me the tenth of a mile to the bus stop on the corner, because it was on her way to work.

The day before, on the first day of school, she had parked the car and waited with me beside the mailboxes that belonged to the two almost-identical ranch houses across the street until the bus came. But now, on my second day, I was an old hand at the bus routine, and she stopped the car to let me out, bestowed a quick kiss on my cheek, and was gone.

I was the first to arrive at the bus stop, ahead of the four Milewski siblings, who lived across the street from us, in a house almost hidden behind overgrown spruce trees. The Milewskis, two boys and two girls, had been the only other kids at the bus stop yesterday, and my mother had made sure we all introduced ourselves, but they hadn’t spoken to me again, and none of them had turned out to be in my grade.

This morning, though, a moment after my mother’s station wagon disappeared around the corner onto Ford Street, the front door of one of the houses across the street opened, and a woman in a flowered house dress stepped out, followed by a freckled girl with short dark hair, her bangs cut in a straight line across her forehead like my own.

I watched as they walked together down the path to the driveway, then down the driveway to the street, and across to the bus stop. The woman, who was much younger than my own mother, and tiny, walked right up to me, propelling the little girl toward me with a hand between her shoulder blades.

“This is Donna,” she said. “What’s your name?”

I told her, keeping my eyes downcast and pretending a sudden interest in the toes of my saddle shoes.

“What grade are you in? Who’s your teacher? Mrs. Mendelsohn! You’re in Donna’s class! You two must have met yesterday.”

Without raising my head, I studied Donna from beneath my lashes, and saw that she was doing the same to me. Had she been in my class yesterday? I couldn’t remember, nor could I recall her mother in the throng of parents who walked their kids to the door of the classroom on the first day of school. There were nearly thirty kids in my new class, and so far all I knew was that there were three boys named Michael.

“I need to ask you a favor,” Donna’s mother was saying to me. “Are you used to taking the bus?”

I thought about the question. The year before, I had gone to a different elementary school, Point Beach, because it was just down the hill from the house where my mother took care of a little boy while his parents worked. I walked to school then, with my friend Susan. But now my mother had a new job, as the librarian at another of Milford’s seventeen elementary schools, so I was attending West Main Street School, where Leslie had gone to school through the eighth grade. It was across the busy Boston Post Road, and too far for second-graders to walk in any case, so now I was a bus kid.

Yesterday had been my first time on the bus, but I had taken it twice—to school in the morning and home again in the afternoon, where Leslie was waiting to meet me. And when my mother got home from work, she had told me I was “an old hand” at the bus routine now, and would not need her to wait with me the next morning.

So I nodded.

“Good,” said Donna’s mother. “This is Donna’s very first time on a bus. Will you take care of her, and make sure she gets to school safely, and home again this afternoon?”

“Okay,” I said, relieved, because this was an easy job.

I took my duties seriously, leading the way up the bus steps as soon as the rowdy Milewski siblings had boarded. I steered my new charge to the seat directly behind the driver, Irene, where I had sat alone yesterday.

“This is Donna,” I told Irene importantly. “It’s her first time on the bus.”

“Yeah?” said Irene. She cracked her gum and said nothing more.

Donna and I rode the bus together, sharing a seat, for the rest of elementary school. That first day, I took care of her, as her mother had asked. After that, we looked out for each other—on the bus, at school, and everywhere else we went. We guarded each other from mean boys, mean girls, mean bus drivers, and mean teachers. We passed notes in class, spent hours on the phone, and wrote letters every day during the summers, when she was in Milford and I was in Maine.

We were Brownies and Girl Scouts together.

We grew up and went to high school and got our driver’s licenses together.Donna_and_Amy_Milford_1977

We’ve shared dozens of birthdays, hundreds of sleepovers, and thousands of tears.

When my first husband left for good, I called her before his car was out of the driveway.

When her brother had a terrible accident, I knew before I picked up the phone that she was calling with bad news.

Her mother calls me her second daughter. Donna had a place in my mother’s obituary, listed as her “third daughter.”

Over the years we have helped each other navigate relationship drama, workplace aggravation, and health crises—and now, menopause, arthritis, and absentmindedness.

After fifty years, we’re still taking care of each other.

Donna_and_Amy_Fenway

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I’m a little afraid of barber shops

Steve and Peggy weddingAfter seeing this photo from my brother’s wedding (49 years ago today!) in which I was a flower girl, I realized that I was probably one of very few bridal attendants—ever—whose hair for the big day was styled by Frank the Barber, and that reminded me of a post that originally appeared on my old blog (http://harrietthespysblog.blogspot.com/) in March of 2009. Here’s an edited version:

For years now, when I go to get my hair cut, I’ve been saying things like, “Go ahead and cut it short,” and “Don’t worry, you can’t cut it too short for me!” I’ve had lots of haircuts where the hairdresser thought she was done, only to have me ask her to take a little more off.

It wasn’t always this way.

As a kid, I had a lengthy series of severely traumatizing haircuts from a large, well-muscled Italian man with a flat-top—Frank the Barber—in downtown Milford, Connecticut. At first, I was too young to realize that most little girls didn’t get their hair cut at barbershops, where they had to wait their turn sandwiched rather snugly between Pasquale from the pizza place, still in his sauce-covered apron, and a prematurely balding young salesman with a comb-over.

Even after I figured it out, when my mother told me that Frank’s haircuts were much cheaper than those from the salons where my friends went, I didn’t complain too much about it, although it was embarrassing to realize I was having my hair cut at the same place as some of the boys in my class.

Finally, though, after a particularly bad outcome—Frank, struggling to even up my bangs, took a little off one side, then a little off the other, then a little more in the middle, and ended up cutting them so short that Kevin Roman, the meanest boy in the third-grade church choir (I’ve changed his name, just in case he’s no longer mean, and regrets his past), said, “You look just like a baby!” when he saw me—I put my foot down.

After Kevin Roman told me I looked like a baby, I refused to go back to Frank’s Barbershop anymore, and my mother started taking me to the place where she got her hair done, “Mr. Sam, Coiffures” on the Boston Post Road. Her own hairdresser was not Mr. Sam, but the chatty, somewhat abrasive Vi, who had ongoing problems with her teenage children and her love life, but whom my mother liked because she could trust her not to tease her hair too much after she took out the rollers.

I got my hair cut by whoever happened to be available at the salon, occasionally even Mr. Sam himself. The haircuts I got at Mr. Sam, Coiffures were not much different from Frank’s, except that they probably cost three times as much, but at least I didn’t have to worry about running into any boys I knew there. (For all I knew, maybe even Kevin Roman got his hair cut at Frank’s, a possibility too terrible to contemplate.)

In middle school, when I finally decided to rebel, I just stopped getting my hair cut at all. Every girl I knew wore her hair long, straight, and parted in the middle, so that’s how I wore mine for the next few years, too, much to my mom’s dismay. For some reason, she really, really liked short hair, and she campaigned tirelessly for me to get mine cut. By high school graduation, I had caved and gotten it cut short again—more because a few of my friends were wearing their hair short than because it pleased my mother.

I kept my hair short and sensible throughout the late 70s and 80s. I was too busy getting married, working, building a house, having kids, moving to a new house, getting divorced, getting married again, and that sort of thing to want to mess with long hair.

Then I grew it long again. I was in my thirties, and my mother continued to bring up frequently how much cuter my hair had looked when it was short, and to make veiled references to my advancing age, and the inappropriateness of long hair after one is out of one’s teens. In fact, long after she had stopped sighing about my unfinished college degree and given up trying to get me to go to church, she still campaigned for short hair.

After my mom died, I cut my hair short again and realized that, along with all the other things she was right about, short hair probably does look better on me. I’ve kept it short ever since.

Score another one for you, Mom. But I’m still a little afraid of barber shops.