The climb toward self-reliance was a bit steeper for me than most. In family movies, I’m five years old and hanging behind the crowd of family and friends as we trek toward a renowned sledding hill near my cousins’ house in Rochester—never more than two feet from my mother’s hip. She’d brought our new puppy, a Siberian Huskey named Pandi, on the hike leash-free. I couldn’t leave my mother’s side for fear that if I did, Pandi would pick that exact moment to run off and no one would be able to stop her. While the other kids careened down the huge hill in tubes, skis, and toboggans, I stood with my eyes peeled on Pandi and my astonishingly cavalier mother who continued to laugh and talk with the other adults while our new puppy could be just seconds away from a life fending for herself in the wild or annihilated by a passing Honda.
During a family vacation in Quebec City when I was eight and enjoying the cozy feel of the narrow, stone-laid streets, I began to skip ahead of everyone else. I overheard my father say to my mother, “She’s such a free spirit.” I was skipping, that’s true, but aiming my skips so that my back foot landed on only the dark-colored stones. If I didn’t, disaster would befall the rest of our Canadian travels.
Linda Jackman was a free spirit. In fifth grade she was everything I was not—tough and short. I would stand in front of the bathroom mirror imagining what I’d look like if I were born a Jackman. With a dirty blonde bob, half a head shorter, squinting my eyes so that they were wider and narrower like hers, adopting my best “been there, done that” gaze.
I couldn’t imagine her crying—ever. I went to her apartment one day after school. All the drapes were drawn, so it was cave-like but very alive. She and her sister passionately argued the perennial Good-Times-versus-Happy-Days debate. Her sister, a year older and a lifetime cooler than us, thought Good Times was far funnier and Happy Days was for babies. I agreed with Linda’s sister, although I watched Happy Days more, but didn’t say a word. Their passion intimidated me. At ages 10 and 11, they were sure of their own opinions in a way I’d never known.
Her mom was divorced, still uncommon in the mid-70’s, and did not sweat anything smaller than a broken bone. She later became my all-time favorite softball coach after I took a particularly hearty practice swing, conking the nearby Anna Marie Walton, solidly in the head. Ms. Jackman rubbed Anna’s head, saw the look of terror in my face, and said nothing to me. She was full of quick jokes and chain smoked. And I knew whenever Ms. Jackman was around, we were free to be ourselves. They were the real deal. “One Day at Time” without the fame, fortune and drug addiction.
I was a perpetual goody goody. Never so much as sneaked a pack of Bubble Yum into my coat, tried a cigarette, or played hookey from school with the other kids. This is why, I believe, Linda Jackman “called me out.”
To “call someone out” in 1970’s grade school parlance, at least in suburban Philadelphia, meant to challenge them to a fight after school. In our world that meant meeting after school at either the hill across the street or in a rundown local park—location to be agreed upon after the fight was accepted. The two fighters were shoved together by a self-appointed referee, typically the most aggressive and outgoing of the crowd. The shove was initiated to get the two in physical contact so the fisticuffs flowed forth naturally from that point.
I sheepishly said no, but then practiced punching Linda in that same bathroom mirror. If I could just practice my form enough times, maybe I could win. She called me out again. Again, I said no. “You’re such a Momma’s girl. You’re just afraid your mom will be mad at you.”
Of course, she was right. That and I was petrified of the unknown. Fighting was not my element. Linda’s was the first time I was called out, but it wasn’t the last. While I knew I was strong and could likely hold my own if I remained confident, I never accepted.
But Linda and I were still friends, and even arranged our sleeping bags next to each other at the fifth grade social event of the season—Josie Purcell’s slumber party. Josie was the girl most likely in a fight on the hill or serving as the referee. During our middle school years, her command not to talk to Lynn Richter, a girl on the periphery of the popular social circle, left Lynn with one or two friends until she moved away a year later. There was never any reason given not to talk to Lynn – just that Josie had given the order.
I’d known Josie since third grade and knew her in a way many of the other girls didn’t. Our moms were friends. We both loved to read, and she’d always found in me a particularly engaged listener when she spoke about her experiences with boys.
Josie’s party was shaping up to be the wildest of an already memorable year of elementary school slumber parties. She was inviting 20 girls and some that I did not know. I hated these slumber parties but went to every last one. I was afraid to fall asleep because, if I did, someone would paint my face with mascara or put my wrist in warm water to make me pee in my sleeping bag. And then there were the séances to bring back the ghost of Abraham Lincoln, Jack the Ripper, or some such long-gone historical figure. The worst was the behind-the-back gossip about other girls, some who were at the party but presumed sleeping. This happened to me. A group of girls were trying to top each other with the weirdest best friend they had when they were younger. One girl said, “Oh, that’s nothing. I was best friends with Robin.” I closed my eyes tightly, counting the minutes until my mom picked me up.
What I liked about the slumber parties was returning home the next morning and sleeping all day, so thoroughly grateful that another one of these events was behind me.
We never made it to the séance portion of the evening at Josie’s. Josie had concocted a different game to play. Her friend DeDe Marigold, one of the girls that I didn’t know, was going to hide under Josie’s sleeping bad and Josie was going to dare DeDe to take her clothes off piece by piece. I stayed in my sleeping bag next to Linda, clear on the other side of the room. Nonplussed about the atypical striptease about to go down, Linda asked me, “Will you wake me up if someone mascara’s my face?” I said sure but hoped I’d be asleep by then, thereby absolved of any responsibility.
Linda slept like a baby while DeDe slowly took all her clothes off under Josie’s sleeping bag. The front door of the house flew open and in walked Josie’s dad. The living room was dark and covered with wall-to-wall sleeping bags. Some girls whooped in excitement at Mr. Purcell’s arrival. DeDe scrambled to make sure all of her private parts were covered by the blanket. Josie yelled, “Dad, DeDe’s naked.” Mr. Purcell groaned, smiled slightly and clunked his way up the stairs.
I looked at Linda. She was fast asleep. It was the middle of the night but jeez, someone was naked under a blanket, Josie’s dad just walked in, throngs of girls stood ready to paint your face with make-up, and soon there’d be a gossip fest possibly mentioning you.
Linda didn’t wake up until the next morning, complete with mascara freckles all over her face. “They got you,” I said. “Why didn’t you wake me up?” she asked me. “I am so sorry, Linda.” I didn’t even offer an excuse for my cowardice. I knew without question that Linda would have woken me if I’d been the target.
During winter break of my freshman year of college, I saw Linda working at a local Bloomingdale’s. She was dressed elegantly in a black and white suite, her blonde hair grown out to shoulder length, with what I swear was a golden aura surrounding her head and shoulders. It startled me, as did a softness she showed. I couldn’t help looking back at her before I left the store. She was such a far cry from the scrappy young girl who tried to give me ringworm by touching her infected neck and then mine. I wanted to say something to her about how put together she was, but again my words and confidence were nowhere to be found.
Linda was killed in her early 20s, hit by a car as she was crossing a street. I’ll always remember her exactly as I saw her in Bloomingdale’s that day. And I’ll always believe that the golden shine was her halo.