Whenever I dip into childhood memories Mary Creswell appears. Waiflike with a bob of straighter than straight black hair and a covetable pointed nose. Every time she cried it sounded like she was laughing. The oldest of what would be six sisters— Irish twins, all— she didn’t need my company. I was desperate for hers. My sister and brother were nine and twelve years older than me, thanks to my father’s military service in WWII.
Our cookie-cutter houses— mine painted brick red, hers a dusty blue— were on the same side of the street, with two equally nondescript houses in-between. Close enough proximity to ensure an introduction, though I don’t recall the moment. Odd, since I specifically remember how Terri Riley and I met.
We were painting on opposite sides of a double easel during kindergarten free time. Terri kept peeking at my painting. Her forgery of my work bonded us until we attended different high schools. Absence breeds indifference. But not always.
The Creswells were Catholic, so Mary attended St. Karen’s, while I went to Serena Hills. Still, we played every day after school and were inseparable during the summer. Mary taught me how to tie my shoes, spell Dubuque and Mississippi backwards, and ride a bike. We daydreamed about our future as nurses living in Florida— don’t know why, neither of us had ever been, but we loved the beach and wanted a tan all year round— in houses next door to each other.
Life without her was unimaginable.
The summer that overpowers my memories was a sizzler. Most days, the kids in the neighborhood opted to stay inside until the temperature dropped. After dinner, we’d bolt outside to ride bikes, compete in hopscotch wars, or play some variation of tag.
Following breakfast and after dusting duty— which took forever because my mother insisted I dust not only the end tables and shelves, but every item that lived on them— I was released to play with Mary. I cut through the neighbors’ backyards and knocked on the glass portion of the Creswell’s screen door. Through the open windows— air conditioning was a luxury few families could afford in those days— I heard the sisters laughing and shouting over the blare of whatever television show was on, and a baby crying. Someone was always crying amidst laughter in the Creswell house. After a second knock, Mrs. Creswell begged her brood to see who was at the door.
Ann, the second oldest, appeared just long enough to say, “Mary’s not here. She’s at Karen Kennedy’s.”
I looked through the screen door and into the dark basement stairwell, while the joy of sisterhood tugged at my heart and sweat ran down my face and neck. An urge to knock again to see if Ann wanted to play kept me rooted in the spot. She might say yes, or better yet, invite me in, and I’d be swept up in the chaotic joy I coveted. But I’d never played with the sisters without Mary. And even though I was the most popular girl at Serena Hills Elementary, in my neighborhood— in close proximity to my parents, the least likable on Normandy Drive— I struggled with shyness.
Grasshoppers jumped onto the porch. I jumped off.
The Kennedy family moved in the previous summer as soon as their house was completed. It was the last one before the dead-end street that intersected with ours. The only brick house in the neighborhood. That fact coupled with her father’s daily commute to Chicago for work made everyone, grownups included, believe they were rich— at least richer than the rest of us. Karen’s snootiness didn’t help. When she wasn’t in her St. Karen’s Catholic uniform, she wore clothes that looked brand new. Her long white blonde hair always looked like it had just been brushed and styled with barrettes that matched her outfit, and she never wanted to play anything that involved getting dirty. She lived on the block, but because she never appeared interested in participating, none of us thought to seek her out if she didn’t show up for playtime.
She wasn’t anybody’s friend, but Mary was playing with her. In Karen’s house. I didn’t understand. I wiped sweat from my face. My stomach swirled. I wanted to play with Mary. Only one thing to do.
I cut through the backyards between the Creswell’s and the Kennedy’s and up the three porch steps. The back door was closed, windows open, but no sounds of joy spilled out. My heart pounded. Had Karen’s mom taken them to that fancy pool her family belonged to? I bit my lip and rang the bell— no other house on the block had one. It was as if the Kennedys were temporarily lost, and one day we’d wake up and they’d be gone— the house too.
But they were here now, and Mary was inside. I rang again. A butterfly flitted between the poppies and snapdragons in the garden beside the porch. When I looked back Karen was staring at me from behind the screen door. No greeting or smile.
I bit the other side of my lip, then pretended I was on a scavenger hunt. “Is Mary here?”
Karen cocked her head like she couldn’t hear and opened the door.
I tugged up some happy and repeated the question.
She looked to her right then back at me. “We’re playing.”
Mary came up behind Karen, peeked over her shoulder, smiled and waved.
Happiness expanded and made me breathe deep. “Do you want to come out and play?”
Karen glanced at Mary whose energy deflated faster than a balloon, then back to me. “We’re already playing. Inside.” She pulled the screen door shut and closed the back door.
Tears mixed with sweat bathed my sandaled feet, soaked my neck and made me itchy. I slapped at my face, ran home and banged through the back door.
“Don’t slam the door,” my mother said without turning away from cleaning the oven.
I sniffed and wiped snot with the back of my hands and plopped into the highchair that sat underneath the copper Jell-O molds on the wall beside the stove. I was old enough to sit at the kitchen table with everyone else, but it was more comfortable to sit in the highchair than on a stack of phone books.
“What’s the matter?” My mother, dressed in shorts and sleeveless blouse, paused mid-scrub and sat back on her heels. “Ugh.” She glanced away. “Use a Kleenex.”
I blubbered my way over to the tissue box next to the chicken cookie jar, grabbed a tissue, and blew. My sobs relentless.
“Mary won’t play with me.”
“She’s at Karen’s house. I asked if they wanted to play and Karen shut the door in my face.” I blew into the soaked tissue. “Will you play with me?”
“You need to learn to play by yourself.” My mother stuck her head back in the oven and scrubbed. “And get another tissue.”
My tongue choked my throat. I stared at my mom’s butt, moving back and forth as she scrubbed and at the broken veins in her calves that she hated. They were the price for having a third child. Me.
I hiccupped, sniffed.
Her gloved hand slammed against the oven door. “Get a Kleenex.”
I plucked two tissues from the box and clomped down the stairs to the basement, where the cement walls and tile floor made the damp air feel like air conditioning. I climbed onto the ping pong table to reach the cord for one of the hanging lights, then pulled the cord to the light that hung over my play area. My friends kept their toys in their bedrooms. My toys were relegated to the basement, where I too, could be out of sight, out of mind
I grabbed my stuffed pink bunny and flopped on the daybed against the wall of the stairwell, squeezed bunny to my chest and cried into his droopy ears. Once the sobs subsided, I propped him up on my knees, gazed into his glassy green eyes, waited, but he didn’t say anything. I smashed him against my tummy and worried his ears. What if Mary never wanted to play with me again? Would the other kids in the neighborhood start playing with Karen and ignore me too? It was too awful to think about, but I couldn’t stop. Mary was happy to see me, then she wasn’t and Karen slammed the door. Why didn’t Karen like me? I was never mean to her. She was the meanie. I dropped on my side, curled tighter into bunny while the slam of the door looped in my brain.
The buzzer to the dryer went off on the other side of the basement. My mother raced down the stairs. Clothes weren’t allowed to sit in the dryer. It made ironing harder. I sat up, slid Go Dog Go off the coffee table and flipped through the pages with bunny, while my mom snapped shirts before putting them on hangers on the clothesline. I hoped she’d hurry and go back to her oven.
“You need more light if you’re going to look at a book.” My mother switched on the lamp beside the daybed, then raised an eyebrow. It was one of those weird things she could do that I couldn’t. Like winking both eyes. The only way for me to close my left eye was to shut both. I hated her raised eyebrow. A warning to stop doing whatever I was doing unless I wanted to be punished. But my pout weighed a ton. No way for me to yank up a smile when I might never see Mary again.
Tears rushed forward. I clamped my mouth as tight as possible to prevent any sound from coming out and pressed my face into bunny’s white belly. His soft fur soaking up hurt.
The television clicked on. A coffee commercial ended and the “Sorry, Charlie” tuna one came on. I peeked at the screen between bunny’s ears. My mother flipped through the TV guide, stopped, then changed the channel. A man with dark hair and mustache was looking at a little girl with short springy curls.
“You’ll like this,” my mother said. “It’s Little Miss Marker.” She pointed to the little girl. “That’s Shirley Temple. WGN is showing her movies today. The little girls she plays in the movies are always helpful and happy and never complain.” She lifted an eyebrow and went back upstairs.
I held bunny so he could watch. The little girl on the screen laid her head against the man’s chest and asked him if he was Sir Sorry the sad knight. She was so cute, and I could tell everyone in the movie liked her. The same thing happened in the next movie and the next. But Shirley wasn’t the only one I liked. The grownups were just as interesting. So, after the Shirley Temple movies I watched the grownup movies. I loved the way the women moved and laughed and cried and got mad. Mad was my favorite. When the women got mad, my body grew taller and made me feel stronger.
By the time WGN switched to news, bunny and me weren’t boohooing any more.
The next day Mary and I were together again. Neither of us said anything about what happened, and by the end of summer Karen was history just like I imagined. One day a moving van showed up and the next day the Kennedys were gone. No on in the neighborhood knew where they went. Not that any of us kids cared, especially me.
Mary and me were besties and destined to be besties for life.
But then along came sister number six, and the Creswells needed a bigger house. They found one in a neighborhood within biking distance, so one of us went back and forth every day for quite a while. Only everyday turned into a couple times a week, and then once a week turned into once in a while, and without realizing it we were besties only in memory.
But my obsession with movies endured. Every Saturday, WGN played Shirley Temple in the morning and grownup movies after. I loved Shirley, but I loved Barbara Stanwyck, Katharine Hepburn, and Greta Garbo more. Whenever commercials came on, I’d act out my favorite scenes in the mirror that hung above the daybed. The characters on the screen made me feel invincible, like I could accomplish anything.
Those feisty women who populated the movies became part of my life, lived in my imagination, as did the male leads— like Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart whose portrayal of George Bailey, in It’s a Wonderful Life, would resonate with me more than I’d ever want to admit, as did the lesson he learned in the end.
As the entire town of Bedford Falls gathered around George Bailey’s family, he picked up a copy of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and read the inscription from his guardian angel Clarence— “Remember no man is a failure who has friends.”
Clarence was referring to the real people in your life. But in the chill of the dimly lit basement, I understood the friends who would teach and inspire me most— the ones who would never leave me— were in the pages of books and on the silver screen.