Finding the First
“The most terrible poverty is loneliness, and the feeling of being unloved.”
The years from kindergarten through third grade my mother, father and I moved nine times. Seattle, California, Alaska. Alaska, Seattle, California. California, Alaska, Seattle.
My memories of the Alaska stays are clotted with running away from giant mosquitos in summer and carrying ice skates to school each day wintertime so I could skate on a giant pond in the playground during recess. I recall an oppressive shade of darkness in the mornings and evenings that furiously blanketed the frigid air. A distinct memory is of the moment I looked through a window caked with ice to see the black nose of a giant moose and its steadfast, sleepy eyes staring back at me, inches away. In California, there are memories of the awe-inspiring dark skin of my Mexican American classmates, the first children of color I had the chance to spend time with, and sitting on the grass beneath wet sheets as my grandmother hung them to dry inhaling the specific scent of sunshine caressing clean, wet laundry. California was also my first experience of the pleasurable sensation of heat on my body and face – an opportunity Alaska and Washington never provided.
In Alaska and California, our stays were so brief and I so shy that I never made a friend. I simply followed other children out to recess and back to never fully familiar classrooms. At home, I was often alone in my room as and never visited the houses of other children, nor did they come to wherever it was we were visiting for a few months.
During our Seattle tenures, which usually lasted longer than our stays in the other states, we returned to a family neighborhood called Laurelhurst, living in a red house with a turreted roof. As a child, I believed our house looked like a castle because of that small section that was distinctly different from neighboring abodes. It was not; just a two-bedroom, one- bathroom house that had “An apple a day keeps the doctor away” written on the steps that led to the bedroom housing a closet that justified the turret.
Retrospectively, I don’t recall or know the machinations of how we were able to return to the same house in Seattle so frequently or the lengths of time allowed the various houses or apartments of each move in every state, only that they occurred. But the turreted red house, and the Laurelhurst neighborhood, now a highly desirable destination for families in the Northwest because of its proximity to the University of Washington and lakeside views, was where I lived when I made my first friend.
Ellie (* name has been changed) lived at the end of our block with her brother Johnny and, of course, their parents. She was a year younger than I, with corn-white hair a la Dutch boy framing a slightly chubby face and blue eyes that seemed to always be in half-blink. Her brother was the visual counterweight, with dark hair and eyes. He was thin and energetic; Ellie laconic and watchful. I realized later that she was shy and quiet, but at the time, so was I.
This was in the mid-fifties, and most houses on the block now had a television in their front room. Ours did not, and my jealousy of the other kids on the block’s viewing pleasures daily compounded my yearning for Saturday cartoons and the Mickey Mouse club. More than cartoons, though, television represented what brothers and sisters did together, and the pairing of those two riches was not only unattainable for me but painful in the hopelessness of ever having either. My envy must have been palpable, as I, five years old, somehow was invited to trudge down the block on weekends to the Smith’s house where Ellie cheerfully opened the door and her family casually welcomed me into their home.
My memory of Ellie and her family center around the sense of contentment I immediately felt upon walking directly into their living room from the front door. None of the homes in the block had a formal entry way, as I recall, and certainly my parent’s home and the Smith home did not. Yet there was a transition as I entered their home, as if I walked through an invisible shield, once I ascended the five steps that led to their front door. Passing over their threshold somehow made me immediately feel healthier, more at peace. Happier.
Theirs was a busy house, filled with toys, noise and a sense of ongoing activity; mine was austere and silent. On holidays and birthdays, the Smith’s house seemed to overflow with candy and presents. The sight of the bounty of presents underneath their Christmas tree filled me with a different kind of envy. Yet Ellie always shared her toys, almost as if she were merely the conduit for such treasures rather than the true owner of them. I don’t remember laughing much with Ellie, having secrets or embarking upon adventures of any sort. We just quietly played with the toys she shared in their living room or her bedroom, freely moving about the house.
One year, Johnny got a train for his birthday. Each container was filled with malted milk balls, a sight I had never imagined but one that filled me with glee. Sugar wasn’t a feature in our kitchen or pantry, and the free reign the Smith family allowed their children with such treasures as unlimited malted milk balls imbued me with a giddy sense of abunJohnce and freedom. “Eat as many as you want,” whispered Ellie, as always, sweetly generous. Once sanctioned, I ate as many balls as I could stuff in my mouth, going home with a stomach ache and no regrets.
That family took me to Disneyland with them. I don’t recall the details, but my guess is they were traveling to the Magic Kingdom from Seattle and I was temporarily housed in California. Our mothers must have made the arrangements. Here was a family who included me in a real family trip, as foreign an experience as the rides and sights of the magical destination.
Why in the world were those people so generous to include me? I have to believe they were just good people. Maybe they liked that I would spend time with their quiet daughter, recognizing that neither of us had any friends of our own. But to me, Ellie had Johnny, and that was riches.
Thus, my first friend was introduced via a generous family and a moon faced, open-hearted young girl. Those early mornings, sitting on the floor directly in front of the TV watching cartoons, bequeathed me my first sense of being a part of something. Ellie’s gift was, simply, one of welcome and inclusion into a world that felt to me like all the wonder of television put into a small living room. It meant a door that always opened when I put my young hand into a fist and lightly knocked.
Having stepped over, not just the doorstep of that family’s home, but past the threshold of being absolutely isolated to acquiring my first friend, I began to think of myself as, if not normal, not completely separated from the world of other children. It wasn’t a giant leap, but a meaningful transition, small as it was, from loneliness being a constant to that state just a place I returned to. Now I had someplace else to go, and there was someone waiting for me.
Next Week: Katie, Meeting a Wild Girl
New to the series? Start with ‘Ellie‘, the first chapter in “Female Formed.”
Art by Lisa Jensen.
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