A Light in the Wind
When I was nine years old, my family moved from our small community in the St. Louis area to a small, blue collar suburb in Iowa. My dad was a traveling paint salesman, my mom a secretary, and moving every year or so was an adventure I thought everyone did back then. Iowa sounded exotic and wonderful, and I’d listened with excitement as my parents told us about its corn fields and bean fields and winter snows that drifted above the roof lines.
In the chill of December, we packed up our little house at 282 Dandridge, where I’d learned to spit while playing whiffle ball with the neighbor boys, and where my best friend Kelly Radetic and I spent hours playing Chutes and Ladders on her front porch.
My dad drove the moving truck past the community pool where everyone went on hot summer days, and along the curved sidewalk where Jimmy Gill had given me a harrowing ride home from school the day before — the two of us doubled up on his Huffy, his feet on the pedals and mine held out wide as we both laughed and pretended not to be scared. We went past our school, where my teacher, Mrs. Thomasson, a round, grandmotherly woman with a smile as warm as cider, encouraged me to write and let me read my poetry aloud to the class on Thursdays.
I would miss these moments and places for years.
When we arrived at our new house in Altoona, Iowa, my heart sank. As much as I wanted to like it, gone were the hills of southeast Missouri where houses and horse barns were nestled among maples and oaks. Gone were the thick woods where toads and box turtles were waiting to be discovered, and where brambles of blackberries grew juicy and wild.
I peered brokenheartedly out my new bedroom window at bald dirt and bare roadway, and a few houses shut tight against the cold. Icy winds gathered speed across the plain that was our neighborhood. Our yard was just one of dozens of staked squares; other houses had yet to be constructed. Corn cobs — remnants of the land’s use just a year or so before — were still on the ground under a fine dusting of blowing of snow.
We had moved to what surely was the single most miserable place on earth.
The next day, I smiled with my usual small town Missouri cheer as I stepped nervously into my third grade classroom. Ms. Thorpe (I’m pretty sure no one ever married her) was my assigned teacher, and she frowned as she cleared a spare desk from the corner of the room. My arrival interrupted a lesson, and it was not a welcome intrusion. No one smiled back at me. I sat down in my chair and wriggled self-consciously as tears welled in my eyes.
On the playground that day, I met Tina. I’d never known anyone named Tina before, and I remember thinking about her name, rolling it over and over in my mind as I tried to match the syllables and letters to the tall, friendly girl with reddish brown hair who could spin all the way around on the cold monkey bars. She giggled when I said certain words and phrases I’d grown up with, and she asked me if I was from Texas. When I boarded Bus 13 at the end of the day, she’d saved a seat for me.
Over the next years, we grew taller in that bus seat together as we grew out of our pigtails, and our conversation topics changed from stuffed animals and TV shows to clothes and boys. We shared our deepest secrets, some of our most difficult growing-up moments (and there were some). She didn’t hold it against me when softball took over my life in the summertime, and I didn’t hold it against her that she had a crush on my brother (of all the people in the world she could have picked). During those years, she was the one friend in the world I knew I could trust completely.
Iowa was never home to me, although we stayed in that house in Altoona for nearly seven years — the longest we lived anywhere when I was growing up. Elementary school gave way to junior high. Our lives changed, and we went different directions. Tina moved to Kansas City. I moved to another Iowa town. Life happened, and we each took separate paths.
Childhood is full of lessons. The moments we share with others along the way mold and shape us to be victims or to be resilient; to be achievers or to be dependent; to be compassionate to others or to build walls of fear, hate, and anger.
The kindness of a friend can mean all the difference, and the kindness a little brown-haired girl showed to me more than 30 years ago still puts a smile on my face. Regardless of what we learn in English class, friendship is a verb; it’s connecting with and loving another person, solely because they make you smile.
There are some people whose very presence in our lives is a gift. They teach us how to be better human beings, not because of what they say or do, but because of who they are. They accept us as we are, and aren’t afraid to tell us when we’re not living our own truth. And, if we’re lucky, we can be a gift to them, too, when they feel lost in the world.
Today, Tina and I are friends once again, and although we’d lost touch for decades, some things never change. I’ll always be grateful for that day on the playground when she let her light shine, and I’m thankful for the opportunities we’ve had to connect and to lift each other up through the years. When it comes down to it, that’s what this life is for.
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