A Sister, A Home
“But oh! the blessing it is to have a friend to whom one can speak fearlessly on any subject; with whom one’s deepest as well as one’s most foolish thoughts come out simply and safely. Oh, the comfort – the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person – having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words, but pouring them all right out, just as they are, chaff and grain together; certain that a faithful hand will take and sift them, keep what is worth keeping, and then with the breath of kindness blow the rest away.”
Eighth and ninth grade, in terms of friends, allowed me continued access to Deb and Gabby. I wasn’t invited to all the sleepovers, and there were private jokes and references I never got, but overall, I was included.
Gabby and Deb attended make-out parties on a regular basis, could list an impressive number of boyfriends they’d accrued by the end of eighth grade, and were so sophisticated and worldly that I, with no boyfriends or other social resources, simply observed their junior high dramas with envy.
The island was growing so fast, that in our ninth-grade year, a new junior high was built. During the process, the two existing schools were juggled in a double shift configuration. We were “South” and attended in the morning. “North” had the afternoon session. Occasionally there would be a party that mingled kids from both schools, and it was at one of those that I met Laurie, who would change my life.
Laurie attended North, so I only met her a couple times before high school, but I was struck, as was anyone who saw her, with her singular appeal. She wasn’t pretty; she was adorable, but in an unusual way. Short, but with distinctive features that included a slight cauliflower ear, pointed chin, small sapphire eyes and a squeaky voice, she somehow magically blended those deficits into assets. And though seemingly petite, she had notably muscular arms and legs, developed as a competitive water-skier during her childhood. It was widely known that Laurie was the most popular girl at North, friends with everyone, and on each boy’s list of “Most Wanted” as a girlfriend.
On one of the first days of high school, at age fourteen, I saw Laurie in the hallway. She was friendly, as was I, and not long into our sophomore year, we began spending more and more time together. That year, there was a ‘click’ in my heart, triggered by the bond formed with this girl who had chosen me just as I had chosen her. We each had boyfriends throughout our high school years, but it was really Laurie, and for Laurie, it was truly me, that brought the most happiness and entertainment into our lives.
Laurie was several inches shorter than I, but we both had the same color of brown hair, worn long, and over those next few years our matching hairstyle created a perception that we were twins of a sort. It was as if our shared hair color and cut was a visible cue for the underlying alliance and simpatico of our connection.
My mother and stepfather had been married a year by that time, and Roy’s continued aggrievement about my presence in the home was pervasive. We had a dog that I’d been given when my parents were divorced, Pepi, and Roy quickly taught the cocker spaniel to move away from whatever room he occupied. Several times a day, Roy would say, “Other room” to Pepi, and she would obediently trot to the threshold of the next room. I knew, subliminally, he also wished for a similar displacement from me. He wasn’t a bad person, just selfish and simplistically immature. He wanted my beautiful mother, period. He was civil when friends would visit the house, but his welcome always had an unspoken time limit.
I had always felt like an outsider when my parents were married. After the divorce, my mother and I had a year alone, followed by her inviting my grandfather to live with us. The latter situation was disastrous, so when my grandfather departed and Roy met my mother and courted her, and me, I was hopeful for a new beginning.
It only took a few months for that ‘outsider’ role to return with a vengeance. I rarely saw my father, and of course had no siblings to align with, so the sense of isolation and pure loneliness when at home was a constant. My mother was happy, finally secure financially and emotionally, but I was miserable.
Then, came Laurie. And, a reverse universe from the one I occupied in my stepfather’s home.
Laurie lived fifteen minutes away with her parents, Jean and Russ, and her older brother, Benji*, who was two years older than we. I carried within me a passionate crush for Benji throughout high school and college, which Laurie tolerated with good cheer.
Jean and Russ were fine, spirited people, with a close group of friends who loved cocktail hour and a good laugh. At Laurie’s house, everyone – adults and teenagers, were included in everything, and that now meant I was part of the fray. Jean and Russ seemed to have presumed early on that I was Laurie’s missing sister who had casually returned home for an extended stay. It was as if I had always been part of the household from the first time I walked in the door. If it was cocktail hour, Laurie and I sat and chatted with whomever was included. At dinner time, both of us were assigned our prep chores. If we came home from school together, Jean would want a full report from both of us.
The family had a second home at a nearby lake, a half hour drive away. It was a humble, three-bedroom, one bath cottage on the lake where Laurie and Benji had learned to waterski. They spent each summer at the lake, and now I joined them on a regular basis. This worked well for Roy, but it was also bliss to me. The first night I visited the lake house, Jean said, “Romney, you fill the taco bowls.” I’d never had a taco, and when I told Jean this, she laughed and said, “You’d better learn, because around here, that’s every Friday night.”
Aside from Peggy’s family that I’d observed less than ten times in the year we were pals, and Ellie’s family’s television gatherings, I’d never been around a ‘real’ family for any length of time. Never witnessed full-on love for a child from two parents. Hadn’t seen mothers and fathers laugh with their children as if it were part of their daily bread. As I began to spend most weekends and several days during the week at Laurie’s family home, I was enfolded into the rhythms and freefall affection that formed the foundation of the household.
Laurie was just as good and generous as her parents. She was a steadfast friend, loyal and committed, and she modeled those qualities to me every moment we were together. I, in turn, so grateful not just for her friendship but for the family that now seemed to regard me as theirs, began to practice the basic, pure tenants of a real, true friendship.
Roy and my mother had never taken me on a vacation of any sort, nor had my mother and father. My mother and Roy always went away together, leaving me in the care of an unfamiliar college student or, if I was lucky, Laurie’s family. Those were awkward, lonely times, under the charge of someone who didn’t know me, with added restrictions to an already regimented structure at my stepfather’s house. That was another thing about the different environment at Laurie’s; she had no restrictions. There was such a level of trust and understanding that she had no curfew, drove her own little jeep she shared with her brother once she was sixteen, and operated within perfectly reasonable expectations of common sense. In Roy’s house, I had a strict curfew, study hours imposed (I was never a great student, and my unhappiness at home compounded the status) and, considering I was a good kid, overly restrictive bylaws. The freedom at Laurie’s home just added to the grand ride I was having. Then, they invited me to join their family on their yearly Hawaiian vacation.
I accompanied Laurie and her tribe two times, giving me the first and only family vacation of my life. I learned of their long-standing custom of having coconut cream pie every night after dinner at a local coffee shop, how to swim in the surf, and what a really bad sunburn felt like. Every day, Laurie and I would decide our plan for the morning and afternoon, and each evening we would join her parents and Benji for dinner. It was relaxed and joyful. There were times the five of us would walk down the street together and I would think, wondrously, Everyone thinks I’m part of their family. The sense of belonging was so unfamiliar, it took me some time to identify the sweet emotion I was experiencing.
The trip during our senior year was particularly heavenly, but there was a tinge of sadness too. I could now see, in the near future, that my brief life with a real family would, after leaving for college, develop into an adjusted, fractured version. I didn’t want to grow up and move on. I just wanted to nestle into that kitchen and living room I’d come to love, to the twin bed opposite Laurie’s in her bedroom, and with the beings who’d created a sacred and joyful space for me to exist.
Those years alongside Laurie during high school, welcomed into every facet of her existence, were the happiest I’d been in my life. I followed Laurie to the college of her choice, and it was Jean and Russ who drove us there for our freshman year, just like sisters. Laurie is my friend still, nearly sixty years after our first meeting. I have repeatedly told her how she contributed to my emotional well-being during those difficult years, and she always looks at me with surprise. To her, what she offered, and what her parents provided, was just life; normal, standard fare. To me, though, the growth I made under that family’s unconscious tutelage compensated for a number of random and collective factors in my emotional makeup.
Laurie’s friendship, and that of her family, was revelatory. It was sustenance, nurturing, and, ultimately, emotional salvation. I now had a launching pad for my next stage of life. Though my twenties would prove to be tumultuous, I often think, if not for Laurie, they might have been disastrous. This pivotal friendship remains one of my most treasured memories, and the appreciation for its gift in my life immeasurable.
Next: Diana, Changing The Rules.
New to the series? Start with ‘Ellie‘, the first chapter in “Female Formed.”
Art by Lisa Jensen.
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