This morning/afternoon, I spent three hours talking to my dearest childhood friend. It was like balm to my soul, a long overdue visit with someone who has loved me almost as long as my parents and sister, and a little longer than my husband and daughter. We met on the last day of school in seventh grade. We were like Anne and Diana, Trixie and Honey. From the first moment we met, we were kindred spirits and friends forever.
I remember we spent the entire summer between seventh and eighth grade talking on the phone. We obviously couldn’t go anywhere, being too young for drivers’ licenses. Her mom was the city secretary, so she worked every day and my mom was busy with my little sister and volunteer work at our church. So I laid on the carpeted floor in my parents’ bedroom, the receiver of the princess-style phone between my chin and shoulder and she probably did the same at her house on the other side of town. We talked about all the things that not-quite-eighth graders do: who our friends were, which teachers we hoped to get, which classes we liked and hated, how much we hoped our moms would let us start wearing makeup to school. Boys were just barely on the radar — we’d both had baby crushes the year before like all girls that age do.
When summer ended and the school year began, we were very happy to discover we were in the same English class. We were in Mrs. Goen’s class and we were not given assigned seats so we were able to sit near each other. We passed notes back and forth, finally had our first serious crushes (unrequited, of course), learned to diagram sentences, and she became my first and biggest fan when she read my poems and short stories. I remember her asking me that if anything ever happened to me, “would you please leave me all your writing?” Eighth graders can be so dramatic!
I won an honorable mention in a Houston writing contest that year and the awards ceremony was held in the La Fontaine Ballroom of the Warwick Hotel . My teacher said that I could ask a friend to attend the ceremony, along with my parents and so I asked Renae to share the most grown-up moment of my life to that point. Lynn Ashby, a well-known columnist for the Houston Post, was the guest speaker and I knew we were on the fancy side of town when I spotted an exotic and rare “anchovy” atop my salad. The night was absolutely magical and I was so happy my best friend was there to share it with me.
We made it through the remainder of junior high, spent another summer talking on the phone, and began our freshman year of high school. We just thought we’d been something in eighth grade. All the confidence that we’d built up being the upper classmen to the seventh grade “kids” was dashed to smithereens when we migrated from a campus that consisted of one large building to a campus that covered several acres. Eight minutes were allowed for class changes to ensure there was enough time to traverse from one side of campus to the other if your classes were so unfortunately scheduled. I’m sure the 900 “fish” that descended on Alvin High School that first day looked quite comical, trying to find lockers, classes, and the cafeteria without looking totally lost. Thankfully, we had each other for support as we navigated our “new normal”.
By this time she’d decided she wanted to be a brain surgeon and I was pretty sure I was going to be the next Great American Novelist. We met most days in the sub cafeteria beneath the auditorium for lunch and discussed the future and all its possibilities. And the cute guys, of course.
Two months into ninth grade, my dad took a job overseas and I was gone for fifteen months. Neither of us developed the knack of written correspondence and so we were excited that my dad’s employer allowed us to return home for a month in the summer to visit family and friends. I still remember meeting Renae and three other friends at the Pizza Inn on Gordon Street to eat pizza and talk, talk, TALK! It was wonderful to be home, but I didn’t regret moving to the Caribbean, because the islands offered so much inspiration for my poems and stories. In fact, I fell in love with St. Croix and seven months later when my dad said we were moving back to Texas, I really struggled with mixed emotions. I was thrilled to be moving back where my dear friend lived, but I didn’t want to leave the island, either. So when I returned a few days after my 16th birthday, she understood my mixed up emotions and was a true friend in the way only a kindred spirit can be.
We had a few classes together over the remainder of our high school years and made lots of memories. We went to plays together (Dracula, The Merchant of Venice, Wait Until Dark, to name a few), hung out when studies allowed, and never stopped being each other’s confidant. One autumn, her parents took us to the Texas Renaissance Festival and christened me “Jaws,” because I could not stop talking about all the wonderfully fantastical things I’d seen that day — and later I returned the favor by calling them “Papa Jaws” and “Mama Jaws” because they truly treated me as one of their own and I’d come to love them as though they were my second parents.
Graduation came and went and we spent the summer hanging out when we could prior to entering the “big leagues”: college. She went off to Baylor and I stayed at the community college, before transferring to Sam Houston. Life got really busy and it became harder for us to whittle out time for visits, but we stayed in touch as much as possible. Eventually, we both graduated, got jobs, and ended up living in the same apartment complex in Houston. Work schedules (lots of overtime at the law firm where I worked; her work in the Medical Center as a speech pathologist) and social lives (she had a Greek boyfriend at the time; I had a black cat) managed to make that apartment complex seem HUGE, but we knew in our hearts that if either of us ever needed the other, we would be there for each other.
Then . . . she took a position at a hospital in Ohio and our lives changed forever. Before it was a walk across the complex, or a car drive down the road — but now it was half way across the country and I wondered if our friendship would be able to survive that “new normal”. Thankfully, I discovered it could and would. She was there to stand by me when I pledged my vow to my husband, and I was there to stand by her when she pledged her vow to her husband. We sent photos back and forth of our children, and while phone calls are not as frequent as either of us would like, when we do connect it’s as if we’re still those not-quite-eighth graders, lying on the carpeted floors of our parents’ bedrooms sharing our hearts as only two kindred spirits can.