I have several cousins and a sister, but there is only one left with whom I am in contact with very often. She was three years ahead of me in school. When we were very young, we played together frequently. This blog is not necessarily in chronological order.
I can’t remember walking the mile home from grade school with her very often because she moved on to high school after my fifth grade year, but I know we did. My sister graduated to high school when I finished second grade so my cousin took over the job of walking me home safely.
One day she tripped and got some cinders in her knee. The whole village was a massive coal area. We could never fall down anywhere without skinning our knees and ending up with black flecks forever embedded in our skin. She kind of limped the last four or so blocks to my house and I took her upstairs to the bathroom. She sat on the landing with her feet on the steps while I washed the injury and applied the Watkins petroleum jelly. Why would I remember that? Because she thanked me and told me I did a good job helping her. I didn’t hear praise in my house. I tended to remember those moments.
She was much more a sister to me than my biological sibling. I can remember a few things from our childhood. I was a semi-frequent dinner guest. I believe it was in fourth grade when I was sitting at the table using my spoon as a shovel. My aunt noticed and made the comment, ” Aren’t they teaching you ANY table manners at home?” The truth was that, no, no one was paying much attention to me in any area of my life. I think she was more frustrated with the absence of any parenting but I took it as a failure on my part. I remember feeling my face turn hot and glancing at my cousin who just kind of put her head down.
We would play in the living room with my cousin’s toys while her mother played the piano. I used to love to listen to her playing and signing. We played in her bedroom. One day I attempted a summersault and my heel hit her in her chest. It must have been when she was first aware of becoming a woman. She said, ” If I can’t breastfeed my children because of this, I’ll never forgive you.” She clutched her hands to her chest. That was my first lesson in female biology. I had no idea what breastfeeding was about. I never asked her about that when we were older.I carried that guilt and fear that I had permanently injured her for years. She has two sons in their forties. I guess their infancies turned out alright.
For the earlier part of my childhood the road ended after her house. There were many wild berry bushes and we would spend many summer hours picking those berries. Eventually the road was constructed through the berry patches and across the ditch to extend it another couple of blocks and new houses were built further down the road and the wild berry picking days were over.
We made mud pies together in her back yard when it rained. Her dad also had berry bushes back there and we would pick the sweetest red raspberries and blackberries and take them into the house. We’d set ourselves down at the table and eat those berries with sugar and whole milk and think we were in heaven.
Her mother saw to it that I had a few outings since there was no one at my home all week who would take me anywhere. I remember the sled trip to the park and sliding down the hills. I also remember attending the children’s theater held in the auditorium of the junior high school. There were 3 D movies and trips to the drive-in complete with sacks of popcorn popped on the stove by my aunt.
Her parents gave her a 45 rpm record player and she had at least a couple of Elvis Presley records that we would sit on her bedroom floor and listen to. She began playing clarinet and I would listen to her practice. Her first three years of high school we didn’t really do that much together. Then when I was a freshman and she was a senior, we were both in band and she would provide the transportation to band events. Afterwards we would drive into the south side of Peoria and go to something called a drive-in where we bought a 15c hamburger, 10c French fries, and a 10c coke after the games.
Too soon she was off to college out of town. We wrote letters occasionally but seldom saw each other. Then I was off to college too. She married and within a year or so had a son during my final year of college. I visited her once and we sat on the swing of the house she and her husband were living in. We’d see each other at family gatherings maybe a few times a year but at that point we were leading separate lives.
She and her husband built their own home while her two boys were still quite young. She was leading her married life and I was the single 70s teacher. Our lives couldn’t have been much further apart. I married, moved away, and wrote once in a while to her father who would relay news between the two of us.
The last time I saw her for many years was at a family Thanksgiving when my son was not yet two months old. The two of us took a walk after lunch. I confessed to her I felt that having my son was the only thing I had done right in the world. I could tell her that because I knew she would understand.
I guess it was about fifteen or so years ago when the cousins started to meet every two years for a family reunion. She and I gravitated towards each other once again. The only reason I would go would be to see her. Somewhere along that time line something was developed for mass communication called email. She was reluctant to get a computer but was finally yanked into the end of the 20th century. Long distance rates plummeted to where they were reasonable and at last cell phones.
We had ways of communicating now that kept us in touch far more often than before. We became close again. Sometimes I think we are closer now than we have ever been.
Some time in the not too distant future that closeness will end. She had breast cancer about three or so years ago and every year was a milestone that it didn’t return. In some people the effects of the chemotherapy and radiation she endured causes an aggressive form of leukemia.
She called me a few of days ago to tell me she was going into the hospital and about all the aggressive therapy they had planned for her. She called me last evening. I had planned to give her a couple of days to get into the routine of the hospital stay before I called her but she beat me to it. Her voice sounded more firm and energetic like she had already gotten some energy back. She told me that there was a 40% chance that she could go into remission. I thought that sounded somewhat positive because she had fought so hard during her earlier chemo days. Then she said there would be a 15% chance that it wouldn’t reoccur. It dawned on me suddenly what she was telling me. She said she checked herself back out of the hospital and would be spending the rest of her days with her family.
I just walked down this same road with my oldest childhood friend whom I lost in November. It is not going to be easy. I promised I would giver her time with her family before I flew back up to see her and spend time with her. She talked about the peace and calmness that her decision gave her. She’s ready. I’m not. I’ve got to work on that so when I do see her we don’t spend the time crying. I’m hoping she can provide me with some memories I have forgotten. We make each other laugh all the time. That is my prayer that when I see her we will laugh until we cry one more time.