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The new best friend

Food For Thought

It seems with my own children, as well as for those of my generation, the first five or six years of school involve the discovery and cultivation of a new best friend nearly every school year. By junior high and high school, friendships tend to be deeper and longer lasting, but it is a rare thing when those first early relationships survive for another year. The reasons for this may be as simple as the seating arrangement in the new classroom when school starts each fall, or as subtle as a crooked smile, a purple backpack, or a bandaged knee.
Norma Jo missed the first day of school in kindergarten. I encountered her mother and her strolling along under the shade of a large umbrella on my way to school the second day. Her mother spoke to me and introduced Norma Jo, explaining she had not been able to attend the day before because the weather had been too hot for her delicate health. Norma Jo looked delicate. She was pale and thin, with dark hair and huge dark eyes – pretty, in a fragile sort of way. Nothing like my rosy, outdoor-girl sturdiness. By the time we got to school, we felt like friends and, because of our last names being next to each other in the alphabet, she was assigned to sit at the table with me: Charles, Betty, Tom, Robert, and Rosemary.
The day before, I had been drawn to Charles, one of those sunny little boys who seemed to like everybody and everybody seemed to like him. We had discovered he lived only a block over and a block farther down the street from my house and we had walked home together after our first half-day of kindergarten. We talked about our mothers and what good cooks they were. On the second day, I felt obligated, protective even, to walk home with Norma Jo since apparently her mother had assumed I would. She lived just one block past my house and we parted ways at the corner, within sight of both our houses.
The next day, Norma Jo’s mother was waiting outside the school for her when it was time to go home, and I joined Charles and Betty, who lived just a block from school on the same route Charles and I had walked on that first day). After Betty left us at her house, Charles and I continued our snail’s-pace stroll to the corner, where I turned up the hill to my house. This would become a pattern most days with an occasional variation when I walked home with Norma Jo. Sometimes I went out of my way to walk all the way to her house, where we were allowed to make bread and mayonnaise sandwiches and play in the house rather than being sent outdoors to “find something to do” as my mother usually insisted, not wanting to risk ruining my little sister Betty Lou’s afternoon nap.
Norma Jo was an only child and I assumed it had something to do with her health problem. She had a heart murmur, though I wasn’t quite sure what that had to do with it. Since there were no younger brothers or sisters at Norma Jo’s house and her mother seemed to dote on her to an extreme degree, we were allowed to play anywhere, even in her mother’s bedroom. There we tried out her make-up, high-heeled shoes and even her jewelry and hats. All this luxury was a great temptation to me., I was taught Mother’s space and Mother’s possessions were sacrosanct, and I was torn between Norma Jo and her apparent privileges and my natural affinity to play out of doors at more active amusements. Besides, I had a strong attachment to Charles, who seemed to be some sort of soul-mate, and I preferred his company.
My sisters and I were active girls, almost tomboys by some standards, I guess. I liked Norma Jo well enough, but didn’t exactly agree with her choice of pastimes which was mostly the girly sort, playing with dolls and having tea parties with imaginary tea in doll-size cups. I’d rather be climbing a tree or building a dam to contain the rain water in the ditch in front of our house. And besides, she missed a lot of school due to hot weather, cold weather, appointments, “bad days” and other reasons that wouldn’t have kept me home.
Most afternoons found me walking home with either Charles or Betty, or both. And the next year, Eleanor joined our class, which introduced yet another set of habits and routines. While Norma Jo missed days of school the first year, Eleanor missed a whole year and, by time she joined our class permanently, she was a whole year older than most of us. Her father and her both contracted polio and she wore a heavy leg brace that clanked when she walked with an odd little hop. And she had a little sister named Betty (just like I had) and her own puppy, a little terrier named Chum.