I was 18 and very pregnant when I moved into the tiny house on East Street in Suffield CT. My next door neighbors were a young couple – about 10 years older than I was – with three young children. Truth is, I remember very little about that time in my life, other than the circumstances that got me where I was! And, I remember the pink sundress I wore almost constantly because I had very few maternity clothes. The only other person in my life who remembers that dress is my oldest and best friend in all the world, Josie, who was the young mother living next door.
When I finally delivered my baby, it was obvious I knew close to nothing – no, absolutely nothing – about babies. This became clear to Josie when I confided that I was worried my baby cried a lot and had lost a little weight. She asked me what I was feeding him and I said “Similac”, which is what the pediatrician recommended since I had stopped nursing. My new friend said, without hesitation, “He’s hungry. He needs some real food.” She went to the store and bought baby cereal, which he devoured. To this day, my son swears that he has food issues because I was starving him as an infant.
This was not the first time Josie saved me from myself. Later, when I was working as a waitress (which I almost always was in those days) and we had spent the afternoon drinking Bolla Valpolicella and I wasn’t in any condition to go anywhere, she got me into a shower, dressed me and delivered me to work. She was my big sister, the mother I missed, my playmate. When her fourth child arrived, I was the one who held her, wrapped in a towel with her head hanging over the sink so Jo could wash her hair. She hated it when her hair was washed.
Neither of us had any money. Dinner for us was often pancakes with syrup made from sugar water and maple flavoring. More than one Christmas found us at the Goodwill to get toys for the kids. What did they know or care that they were used? We had a ball finding those treasures. One year, when at the store buying Easter baskets, I wanted her to buy her baby a bonnet. It was a dollar. She refused to buy it. “She’s a baby. She doesn’t need a bonnet.” We still laugh about that and, over the years, I have bought her several hats – every time saying YOU NEED A BONNET.
I don’t remember feeling deprived. At all. There were parties. Christmas brought cookie making with everyone there. And, there were always kids at her house, cub scouts, neighbors, cousins’ children. Josie and her husband Wes had bought this little house when they were first married. It had 2 bedrooms, which the kids used. Jo and Wes slept on a pull-out couch in the living room. He worked hard to support his family, she budgeted every penny like Scrooge himself. They didn’t have money. They did have each other.
One Sunday morning, I was awakened by Josie shaking me. “You have to come over – something’s wrong with Wes!” I remember calling for an ambulance. I don’t know what made me do that – reflex, I guess. Then, running next door through a couple of feet of snow. Wes was lying on the couch, barely breathing, Jo at his side, telling him she was ‘here’. The ambulance came to my house first, I ran outside and flagged them down. Then they were there, putting him on a stretcher, carrying him out to the ambulance. Josie had her coat on and was going with them. I remember saying, “Everything is going to be ok. I’ll take care of the kids”. And that was it.
No one should lose their husband at the age of 30. Leaving her behind with 4 children under the age of 10. Without a driver’s license, even. What kind of hell is that, I ask. What does one do? Go on. That’s what. You have a family to take care of. You do what you need to do. And she did.
Again, this particular time is murky in my memory. Images of being in Forbes and Wallace, handing her black dresses to try on for the funeral. Her sobbing her heart out over his coffin. Let her cry.
The months, years following. Both of us, struggling to make a life of our own – each of us with our personal challenges. Hers always felt so much more weighty than mine. Whatever she went through, I was there for her. Even when I finally moved away. Coming to see Josie was coming ‘home’. She, a second mother for my boy. Me, giving her anything I could. Being her friend.
All this happened decades ago. Both of us have been through each other’s marriages, divorces, dogs, cats, birds & ferrets, broken hearts, grandchildren, more bottles of red wine. Eventually, trips to Mexico and California, a weekend in a haunted hotel in upstate New York. Our childrens’ and grandchildren’s crises. More Christmas cookies. Sickness. Loss. Life.
Now. it is my best friend’s 79th year. She’s been dealing with health issues for a few years. I always ask, “how are you doing?”. “I’m fine.” Always “I’m fine”. A couple of weeks ago, she was taken to the hospital and I called. “How are you doing?” pause. “I’ve been really sick. Not too good.” What happened to “I’m fine”?
I don’t want her to be sick. I don’t want her to be anything but fine. I want her to be with me forever. I want to buy her another hat and drink wine.