“Some birds are not meant to be caged, that’s all. Their feathers are too bright, their songs too sweet and wild. So you let them go, or when you open the cage to feed them they somehow fly out past you. And the part of you that knows it was wrong to imprison them in the first place rejoices, but still, the place where you live is that much more drab and empty for their departure.”
-Stephen King, Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption
The summer after seventh grade, the year of Gabby and Deb, I went to camp for the first and only time. I was twelve, nearly thirteen. Campers were typically six or seven through twelve years old, and most of the counselors were just a couple of years older than I. It had never occurred to me to want to attend camp, so the fact that I began my short career as a ‘senior citizen’ was due, I am quite sure, to a well-plotted scheme by my stepfather to remove me from the household for as long as possible.
Acquiescing, my mother got busy learning about options. Camp Armac, a good hour and a half drive away from my stepfather’s house, met the requirements. My mother packed for me as per the camp checklist. She threw in a couple of sanitary napkins along with jeans, one candy bar, and two new sweatshirts. I hadn’t had my period, so, despite the introduction to the phenomenon via the fifth-grade FILM, I was alarmed by the inclusion of the materials.
“Why are these here?” I asked, embarrassed.
“You never know,” my mother shrugged.
I was terrified someone would see the telltale sign of potential womanhood in my little suitcase, so stuffed them inside the sleeve of one of the new sweatshirts.
My mother drove me to the camp, walked me to the main office, and gave me a hug good-bye. I’m sure this was difficult for her – the pressure from my stepfather to create a life focused on the two of them an ongoing campaign, but she was upbeat about what a great experience I would have. I was already planning to get sick the next day, requiring her quick return, so gave her a brave smile as I saw her walk slowly to her car. I carefully unpacked my few ‘camp clothes’ and placed them into the two drawers that had been allocated, hiding the sanitary napkins under the sweatshirts at the bottom of the drawer. Then, I waited for other campers to arrive, hoping, but not expecting, I’d find a like-minded pal to help me through the next two weeks.
Some younger girls, clearly close friends, wandered in and giggled their way to a set of bunk beds. I had claimed a bottom bunk, as I was, even then, a neurotic scaredy cat and sure if I slept in a top bunk I would fall, die, and never see my mother again.
A dark-haired girl appeared in the doorway, and I did a double take. She was from my school – my very same school. A look of recognition was exchanged between the two of us – sort of well, you’d be all right if no one better comes along silent agreement. The girl’s name was not really Snow White, but she had a name not dissimilar, recognizable via a well-known children’s tale. It was such an unusual delineation, revealing, in some inexplicable way, how odd her parents were to burden a child with such a name in that manner, but ‘Snow White’ it was. This familiar, but not familiar girl, now at Camp Armac, quietly settled herself into the bunk above mine.
Snow White, to be clear, was not in the Popular Girl group at our school. The burden of her name was so pronounced, she was constantly being ridiculed. She seemed a chirpy sort, though, and used to such harassment. She appeared to, if not rise above the taunting, tolerate it well. She didn’t have a clique of her own but managed to maintain a watchful, hopeful air as she interfaced with various other outsiders. However, I was concerned that, if we associated at camp, she might expect a carryover to the next school year, so proceeded cautiously. No commitment was made, but there was an unspoken “I’ll be your backup if you need one”. The possibility of finding someone else to align with at camp seemed slim; we were the oldest in our now-full cabin and the next age group up were those counselors-in-training.
My worries about cementing a commitment with Snow White and the potential complications in the following school year were quickly trumped by what happened the next morning. As I sat on the toilet – one I found foul and painfully public (one of the few advantages of being an only child is you don’t have to share a bathroom) I went to pull up my underpants and found – blood.
Yes, my mother had somehow intuited, however young I was for this transition, my first period. I was devastated, scared, and immediately teary. I kind of knew what to do with the sanitary napkin, but not really. I wanted to be home with my mother, sure that confessing the situation to a camp official would be tantamount to death by shame. I quickly stuffed some toilet paper in my pants and went to find Snow White.
She was sitting on the top bunk, knees hanging over, looking about her with that same optimistic openness I’d seen so often at a distance. “Snow White,” I whispered, and gestured for her to join me ground level.
She lightly descended the ladder.
“Have you ever – uh – you know.”
“Had your – period?”
“I’m only twelve. Of course not.”
Then, she looked at my face, the tears, the terror. “Oh,” she said.
“Do you know how to put on one of those belts?” I asked.
“I saw that film. I can figure it out,” she answered, matter of fact.
Snow White proceeded, upon my direction, to remove the equipment required from beneath my sweatshirt, follow me into the narrow stall of the bathroom, and hook up the apparatus. Suddenly, my concern about her status at school dissolved, and she became, in that instant, a friend.
We spent the two weeks dutifully following the camp regimen. It wasn’t exactly fun; I yearned to return home early, but it was, thanks to Snow White, tolerable. I finished my period and told her I would help her when the time came. Strangely, she was one of the last of my acquaintances to achieve that developmental milestone – not until she was fifteen.
When the school year began, I was prepared to vouch for Snow White’s legitimacy as acceptable, socialize with her, (outside of the cafeteria, which was sacred ground) and always honor her confident willingness to assist me in my time of need. My vow was never challenged. Snow White remained apart from all the groups, still positive, still open-hearted, always greeting me with a smile. We did something together and survived, didn’t we, we radioed as we passed in the hall.
Throughout high school we maintained the same I know you but don’t worry distance. Then, when we were sophomores in college and attending the same state university, we both signed up for a semester abroad. I had done so because my best friend Laurie had enrolled, and I went wherever Laurie went, including to that particular university. Snow White a French major and had always planned for the experience.
Laurie cancelled last minute, and I found myself, again, though this time in the beguiling location of Avignon, France, in strange territory with Snow White the only familiar, and now dependable, source of companionship. But in Avignon, something extraordinary happened. Snow White, who’d never found a social niche, blossomed in every possible way. Always a cute girl, now her dark hair, piquant features and positive energy vibrated. As if the transatlantic voyage had acted as a magic wand, Snow White had transformed into a stunningly beautiful young woman. The members of our group found themselves constantly drawn to her – not just for her captivating looks, but her presence. Her French was excellent, and she immediately befriended the locals, including a watchmaker with whom she had a brief affair. It was as if that positive outlook and constant openness all those years had been a bank Snow White had contributed to, penny by penny, and now the vault was overflowing, the investment having dramatically, and mystically, compounded.
One day, we were on an excursion, part of our weekly curriculum in that gorgeous part of Provence. Snow White and I sat together in the bus, and I felt lucky to have been chosen as her companion. We’d all packed lunches, and as we ate, she pulled an orange out of her bag and held it up.
“Look at this,” she said, awe holy in her voice. She began to peel the orange. Then, once denuded, she held it up for my perusal. “Isn’t this the most amazing thing you’ve ever seen?” she asked. “Look at the veins. The color. Now,” she said, as she extended me a portion, “taste the juice, and when you do, remember that color, and those veins, and where it came from – all for you, and for me, in this moment.”
This girl, at the peak of her beauty and consciousness, transported and elevated my perceptions on that bus, somehow delivering the kind of awareness that usually comes with a substance-altering drug. She did so with her essence, now like a constant, vibrant glow, but also with that same core of confidence that had rescued me so many years before.
Sadly, so sadly, that spring in Provence triggered something in Snow White. We both returned to our pedestrian campus in the fall, no longer immersed in the romance and thrill of life in France. The adjustment was difficult for me at first, but I quickly returned to the rhythms of college life. Snow White’s transition was different. It was brutal, as if she’d been hurdled into the heavens, cavorted with angels, claimed her rightful place in the universe, then had been maniacally grasped by a dark, manacled hand and thrown into Hell.
She suffered a psychotic break, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and spent the next ten years bouncing from manic high to horrid low, giddy to desperate, captivating to distressing. Eventually, after a couple of attempts, she committed suicide by jumping off a building. Her rise and fall were particularly heartbreaking because I had seen her when she so joyfully claimed her true, rightful place on earth. When she was gone, my sadness at the sentence of her disease was sweetened by remembering her in her glory. The orange, the enchantment of that moment.
The final lesson from my friend Snow White? Most of us muddle through, with our ups and downs, meeting challenges, experiencing disappointments, chalking up small glories. But there are a few of us who were meant for higher highs, and lower lows, and their journey is one that should inspire heartfelt empathy. Yet, there will be those moments, if we are by their side, when the brightness from their shining star lets us bear witness to gasp-inducing transcendence, and all we can do is bow in gratefulness for having been present in that glorious moment.
Next: Laurie – A Sister, A Home.
New to the series? Start with ‘Ellie‘, the first chapter in “Female Formed.”
Art by Lisa Jensen.
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