For years, she’d been in my class – first grade, second grade, third grade, fourth grade.
I don’t know if you remember those years for yourself, but I do. The girls paired into inseparable best friends. And the pairs of best friends glommed together into sets. We played in these sets on the playground, with skip-it contests, jump rope, Chinese jump rope games. We chanted, jumped, and giggled.
Lots of giggling.
And one day, the quiet girl wanted to join in.
Now, I’m not saying my friends – my set – weren’t nice girls. They were. But I felt that some of them may not have always been inclusive. These girls did not want the quiet girl to play with us. But Sarah did. And I did.
That was that. She began jumping and singing with us, though she always seemed a little vacant, a bit distant.
Let me back up a little and tell you that we lived a nice middle class life. Our house was warm and happy. I shared a bedroom with my sister and my brother had his own room. And we had 2-1/2 baths. I’m not going to say we didn’t struggle at times. There were years of going to the outlet stores for clothes and years of casseroles that stretched the protein like tuna noodle casserole and an egg and noodle dish. And I still make the spaghetti and meat sauce and the meatballs with the Lipton onion soup mix gravy that I loved as a kid. I say this much to Andrew’s chagrin.
My closest friends had houses similar to mine, though I’ve learned over the years that they weren’t all happy homes. But that’s a story for another time.
My mom always welcomed my friends at the house and was ready with homemade cookies or another treat. I loved having friends over. They’d come after school sometimes and sometimes for a weekend sleepover.
I don’t know what year it started, but it started. The birthday sleepover parties. I’m sure I didn’t appreciate the effort it took on my mother’s part, in hindsight. Now that I’m a mother, I can safely say that I didn’t fully appreciate the effort on my parents’ part in so many ways. Oh, I’m not suggesting I was ungrateful. I’m simply saying I didn’t realize and my parents always made it seem like a pleasure. I am sure now that it was not always a pleasure. But I digress.
Every weekend, it seemed, there was a sleepover somewhere. It was an unspoken exclusive club; we’d rotate between houses where we’d giggle and eat and, sometimes, sleep.
And then it was the quiet girl’s birthday.
She brought handwritten invitations to school. Eyes down, she asked tentatively if I’d come.
And I said yes. Not all the other girls said yes, though.
For the days leading up to the party, she’d shyly remind me not to forget to come.
The day came. The day of the party.
We didn’t recognize the street name. Now, mind you, it wasn’t that big of a school. And pretty much everyone lived in walking distance. I don’t remember if I asked for directions or if my dad just figured it out. (He always found his way, long before GPS devices. In fact, it was a huge source of pride. My dad knew his way around in more cities and more detail than anyone. I thought it was remarkable and it became a skill that I’d work diligently on for years. I’m still great with a map but, alas, I admit that I’ve become a little dependent on Waze in recent years.)
The house, as it turned out, was down an unpaved road tucked away and almost impossible to see from the main. We drove up to the house. It was small and in very serious disrepair. I’d never seen a house like this before. Not in real life.
And now I was nervous.
I’d never seen poor.
My mother walked me to the door and the girl’s mother answered. I wouldn’t say she was smiling, but neither was she frowning. She just was. She was wearing a light, cotton housedress like my grandmother did. Her hair was in curlers. Not those plastic curlers but the pink, wiry squishy ones. Lots of them.
The quiet girl was also nervous. I imagined she was worried that we’d have a good time. That we’d want to be her friend. That she could fit in.
There was nothing different about that slumber party than any other. We had the same snacks. The same giggles.
Today, I wonder if it was a hardship for her mother to provide those snacks. If it was difficult to have us over. And now, as a mother all these years later, I wonder how much she worried for her daughter. How much she wanted her to be happy. And, yes, to fit in.
While I know that I was nice to the girl – because I was nice to most everyone – I honestly have no recollection of seeing her socially again.
But I was thinking about her the other day.
PS: When I searched for her name, I find lawyers, real estate agents, volunteers, a deputy, and a criminal. Of course, her name could be different 40 years later. But whatever she’s doing, I hope she’s happy and that she found her voice.