Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Meet Me Halfway

As I would stare at the goldenrod clunky old phone, dominating the sunflower wallboard in the kitchen, willing it to ring, my impatience rising, my senses would sharpen right before the actual ring.  The 'hello' was perfuctory, as I knew who was on the other end.  Kelly.  "Meet me halfway?" She would ask.  "Yep," I would reply, then ask quickly-"leaving now?"  "Five minutes."  "K."  I would hang up the phone.  I never waited five minutes.  Not once.  I sometimes made it to three.  Impatience was ever-present in my young mind.  I would jump on my well-weathered Huffy bike; my used-to-be-red tape now a barely-there-pink on my handlebars not even getting touched most of the way across town, since Kelly had taught me to ride "no-hands."  I would make it to the tracks before her, then I would double back to the school, then back to the tracks, then back to the school...until I saw her.  Then I would meet her and we would ride.  No greeting.  Just start riding.  Sometimes we just rode around town over and over again.  Sometimes out of town-to Marion corner, to the creek, to the Maze, around the section; it didn't really matter.  What mattered was the ride, not the destination.  Don't remember ever getting tired, or ever having bike problems.  We just rode.

On the days we didn't ride, we walked.  Same protocol generally; we would meet halfway.  Sometimes, I would walk all the way to her house, which was really my second home.  We would take off for walks that would last an indeterminate amount of time...talking about Important Things...marching band, boys, school, the bus ride, teachers, what the inside of that house must be like as we walked by it, the mean dogs in town, what we were doing tomorrow.

In a town of 80 people, memorization of the houses, (and the yards, the trees, the bushes, the flowers, the dogs, etc.) was not difficult...and it was a great way to combat boredom.  Especially before we were able to drive.  There were many houses we never saw the inside of...and we would still like to explore.  We also talked a lot about what the town must have been like in the past.  The town had been much larger years and years before, but had been ravaged by fire, and had never recovered.  It was always interesting to consider what things were like before.

We also used to walk the railroad tracks.  They were active tracks, and sometimes while you were walking, you'd feel the rumble beneath your feet and you'd know the train was coming.  We'd wait until we could see it, and then we'd jump down into the ditch and watch it speed by.  Always a rush.  Oftentimes a group of us would gather up by the tracks where they crossed by the ball diamond and put pennies on the tracks, waiting for them to be flattened.  Sometimes we'd see people sitting in the empty cargo cars; they would look at us as they went by-probably wondering about our lives, while we sat and wondered about theirs.

The train track was right next to the ball diamond, which was a hub of activity in the summer.  Many softball teams were organized by all kinds of organizations and clubs-large and small-and they would meet at fields all around the little towns to play in the evenings.  I loved it, because the ball diamond was right by our house, and those big ol' lights would turn on, and the cars would come into town and there would be something to do, and people to watch and noise and activity and also there would be people from other towns flooding into our town...which didn't happen very often.

Right next to the ball diamond, was 'the trees.'  There was a big stand of trees where the Monroe kids would build forts.  More often than not, Kelly and I would build a fort, and end up trekking back in there a week later, to find the guys had taken it over or build over it...or, gasp....knocked it down.  Which usually meant hunting for one of their forts, in order to knock that down.  Those woods were our playground.  They were right next to a gravel road, but once you got into the first part of them, it was dense, and quiet.  There were quite a few deer in there, and also a lot of owls.  It could be a creepy place.  Once the sun started to set in there, you would want to start finishing up and head out of there.

On the opposite end of town was the creek.  That creek saw a lot of activity from a lot of us Monroe kids.  Kelly and I used to go hang out under the bridge there when the water was low, listening to cars drive over our heads.  When we were younger, we would go catch creek chubs and crawdads there.  Sometimes, it would be down to just a trickle....truly a creek.  Other times, it could be a rushing torrent of water, and we would do downright dangerous things while we were there.

More often than not, at the end of the day, one of us would end up spending the night.  My house was a bit smaller and my room didn't have a door, so we usually stayed at her house.  I always considered her house an adventure.  Often, her brother Bryan and Kelly and I would make Totino's party pizzas and kool aid and eat together in the kitchen, listening to records play on the hi-fi.  We would sit out on her back steps in the evening and watch the sun go down; discussing Life while I gleaned as much information as I could from her three-years-older, Very Experienced mind.  Those steps heard many a conversation.  Once, during a total downpour, the streets were literally covered in nightcrawlers.  Bryan and Kelly and I went on a massive nightcrawler hunt...followed by nightcrawler races!  Which were a first for me.  (Never to be repeated, I don't think!)  She also had a back porch right off those steps, which saw many card games, visits, and probably unwisely, a lot of Ouija board experimentation with her older brother Brad and some other neighborhood kids.  We dabbled in all kinds of things we were interested in...trying to feel/taste/touch the world all around us that we felt we weren't able to experience while living in such an isolated existence.

Right off the kitchen was their bathroom, where Kelly taught me how to apply makeup-and I watched in awe as she applied her mascara with her mouth open and her eyes wide-asking her a million questions along the way.  I used to love to watch her do her hair-because she would always get angry at it and things would get thrown-and I would laugh and laugh!  I always thought she was very sophisticated and classy-three years was a huge difference in age, after all-so anything she said, I listened to.

We didn't reserve our fun for her first floor.  Her second floor had three bedrooms, and her brother Bryan's room opened onto a very nice, fairly flat rooftop...a convenient place to layout in the summer, sit and visit, and also to have bottle rocket fights with the neighborhood boys.  Her mom hated it when we were up there-rightfully so!-but we loved it.  It felt very dangerous and exotic and we always felt a little reckless up there.  For two 'good girls,' it was nice to have a place to feel a little bit bad.

Speaking of neighborhood boys...there was a crew of them.  Affectionately known as "The Monroe Boys."  My brother, Kelly's brother, Tim, Chuck, the list is long...these boys rode bike around town, later drove cars, motorcycles; went hunting, went swimming out at Lake Vermillion, went out carousing on Friday nights...the list is long!  Most importantly, though, is that they had each other's backs.  And all of the Monroe girls' backs.  We really were family.  And although we were close, you didn't date.  That would be like dating a sibling.  It didn't happen.  We were like one big gang.

Monroe was its' own entity.  Our town was too small for their own school, although for years we had Kindergarten and then the middle school in Monroe.  And then they decided that was crazy and moved it all to Marion, six miles away.  (Enter years later, when middle schools became 'hip' again...guess who was wishing they had left their setup alone??)  So, we all had to ride the bus to school, until we were old enough to drive.  Kelly and I waited years until we were able to score the coveted back seats.  That was an achievement like no other.  Riding the bus was an experience.  We had some fantastic drivers, and some not-so-fantastic drivers.  I remember when we all went home and told our parents about one driver, who went down the 'big hill' on the gravel road a little sideways once.  No one believed us.  Found out later he was a big drunk, and was fired.  The parents believed our reports after that.  When the roads were bad, we were late to school more than once.  "The Monroe Bus" kids would walk into band late fairly often in the winter, usually freezing cold and with wet feet, from standing out in the ditches in ankle-deep snow, waiting for our bus to get there.  You didn't dare miss the bus, because our moms did not want to drive us in.  So you went outside on time, even on the bad days, knowing you'd be waiting.  So, in the end, the Marion kids were the 'city kids'-even though their city was only a population of 600-and we were the 'Monroe kids.'  Always.  To this day, really.  The distance may have only been six miles, but in reality, it could have been six hundred miles, as far as the disparity between us.

Once the Monroe school was empty, it sat empty for years.  That never stopped Kelly and I.  We would regularly become Urban Explorers and set about to find a way into the school and spend hours investigating every nook and cranny.  We would go up on the stage, digging through old costumes and pulling open the huge, dusty curtains and pretending to put on shows.  We would go into the classrooms and dig through the old teacher's desks, looking for treasures.  We would wander the halls, freaking each other out over the echoes and shadows and the long, reaching, warm afternoon light that would find its' way in through the grown over vines covering the dirty windows.  It was really a dream for two girls that loved scary movies and creepy stories.  The interesting days were when Bryan and Tim would sneak in ahead of us and hide somewhere and jump out and shorten our lives by a few years....those were the times we wondered why we did this.

Sometimes, the whole gang of us Monroe kids would do things as a group.  Not really ever an organized thing, but we would go for walks on the gravel road south of town, or we would all go explore the dump and look for cool things to recover.  Sometimes we would set up things for the guys to shoot.  Almost all of the guys from Monroe carried guns in their trucks.  Around town, and also to school.  And it never seemed at all out of the ordinary.  Still doesn't.  When the old gas station and the old store were still in town, we could stop in for snacks or bottles of pop before our walks.

Being a resourceful town, though, the school didn't sit abandoned all year long.  Once a year, the town held a carnival at the school, and they would do it up right.  Each classroom would have a different activity, like a cakewalk, games, bake sale, etc.  They would hold a play in the gymnasium, (with a real wood floor, might I add...) with games for everyone.  We used to love that night.  Everyone would come out and have so much fun.  I should mention that baked goods in those parts weren't just baked goods.  They were Baked Goods.  The women around this area knew how to bake.  Our church cookbook was something of a coveted item.  People still try to hunt it down to this day.  So, winning at the cakewalk back then was truly a delicious feat!

Speaking of church, there were 2 churches in Monroe-a German Reformed and a Dutch Reformed.  So, we grew up Reformed.  Mom always took us kids to church.  I can't say that I enjoyed it; that would be a lie.  Kelly didn't go to our church, which made it extra excruciating.  I spent many sermons studying the Last Supper painting and the Christ at Heart's Door painting...and also coloring in bulletins.  Church is where I crafted my doodling; learned how much I hated dress clothes; how noisy candy wrappers are; and all about class warfare.  Even though our church was quite small, there was a definite hierarchy between The Best Christians and The Not So Best.  I was always in the not so best category...and my Sunday School teacher made sure I felt like it.  She was an evil woman.  Looking back, I think she disliked my free spirit.  But, she did a great job turning me away from organized religion.  What really stirred a fire in my belly at church, was when the organ would fire up.  THAT was why I was there.  Open up that hymnbook and let's go!  Four part singing was what our congregation DID.  They were masterful at it.  We had singers that would make you rise up and say, "Hallelujah!"  I still remember joining choir and learning to harmonize.  The hymn was, "Something Good Is Going To Happen To You."  I learned the alto part.  Singing harmony that first time was like taking heroin.  I suddenly felt like I had a purpose on this great earth.  After that I became even more interested in our hymn books.  Suddenly, I could sing the baritone parts...the bass parts an octave higher...the soprano parts an octave lower...and then I would start to make up second alto parts.  Music became the Thing that got me through church.  I felt like I was really worshipping when I was singing, or later, playing trumpet or piano.

Summers were the hardest season to sit through church.  Because I knew everyone would be headed out to the lake.  The minute church was over, we would head home, change clothes, gather up our things, and head out to Lake Vermillion.  That scene was happening back in the day.  My aunt would bring her tractor tire innertube, and us kids would ride in the back of the pickup.  Kelly and I owned that lake.  We would spend the day swimming.  All afternoon.  The water was mossy and nasty, but that never stopped us.  When we got home, there would be a moss outline of where your swimming suit had been.  But it didn't matter.  It was the lake!  Marion had a pool, but the Monroe kids always wanted to hit the lake.  That was our place.

Kelly taught me to waitress at the cafe in town.  Being such a small town, you wouldn't think we'd have much of a cafe.  You'd be wrong.  Our cafe rocked.  The women, (the same church women who knew how to bake/cook) knew how to make amazing home-cooked meals.  And caramel and cinnamon rolls the size of your face.  And portion sizes that would make your head spin.  Leland would make thick malts that you had to use a spoon to eat.  People would come in from towns all around to eat at the Monroe Cafe.  We would regularly run out of rolls in the morning.  People would ask, how do we make sure we get rolls here?  We would say, get up earlier!  We would serve 120 people at noon-sometimes with only two waitresses.  I learned how to be organized and how to memorize at that job.  My mom cooked there, my aunt Sue also waitressed there and showed me the ropes, and every woman in town who I looked up to worked there at some point or another.  Tammy and I cooked there at night and she showed me how to short order cook.  I learned a lot about people during my cafe years.  The good, the bad, and the ugly.  Kelly and I would work together on occasion and it was always fun to finish a shift, get home, and pull the tips out of your pockets...stacking up the quarters and excitedly adding up your money...it all reeking of deep fryer-especially if you were lucky enough to get some dollar bills.

In marching band, Kelly played percussion.  She was just a tiny thing; barely five feet tall and very svelte.  But give her a pair of sticks...and stand back.  She would play like the wind.  Ten feet tall and bulletproof with sticks in her hand.  She taught me how to march and how to not apologize for being a girl in band.  I learned a lot just by watching her in marching band.  She was section leader and I'll never forget watching all the guys listening to her intently, doing what she said...this diminutive little person...whom they all respected immensely...who could play circles around most of them.  She was a powerhouse, but was able to lead without shouting.  A trait I've always admired.

As we got older, Kelly graduated three years before I did, which left me alone without my anchor for the last three years of high school.  It was weird.  The person I usually called and met and walked with and rode with, was gone.  But then, I grew up too, as we do, and moved on from Monroe, as well.  Now, when we talk, it's just as people speak of-we truly can pick up from where we left off the last time we spoke.

When you spend so much time with another person growing up, that person really becomes a part of the fabric of your whole life.  It's not so much that she is a part of my life, but more that she was woven into my life.  Much as Monroe itself was woven into all of our lives as we all grew up there.  I'm sure all of us who grew up there have different and interesting stories of our time in that town.  Mine are just a small sliver of stories.  I'm sure it's very individualized for all of us; what we each took from our time in this small village, if you will, that we were brought up in.

I used to lament the fact that we 'had' to live in such a small town; that we had to grow up in such a desolate area with so few opportunities.  I wanted to do Big Things and I felt like I was stifled by growing up in such a small place.  I think we all go through some form of that in our rebellious teenage years.  But, with age, comes some form of wisdom...hopefully...and now I see things differently.  Now, I am so thankful that I was able to grow up with one very close friend, and also a gang of so many really good friends, all the while in the warm embrace of our beautiful little town.  I think we all took it for granted, really; the ability to ride bike by moonlight, trick-or-treat by ourselves with no fear, hear a dog bark and know instantly whose dog it was and what time it was, hear the town whistle and know we should go home for supper, see a car go by and know who was in it and where they were going...all of it was really magical and unusual.

We aren't particularly similar.  Where she's quiet, I'm loud.  Where she's calm, I'm freaking out.  Where she's strong, I'm weak.  Where I'm tall, she's short.  Where she's refined, I'm...well, not.  And yet...when we speak, there's no 'laying the groundwork' conversation first, no background stories...we just dive in.  It's just understood.  It's a judgement-free zone.  I don't feel like I know her--I know her.  And she knows me.  Is it just shared experiences?  Maybe.  Or maybe we were placed together for a reason?  It's a wonderful gift to realize that we have that-all these years later-and that we will always have it.  I wonder if everyone has that someone in their life?  I don't know the answer to that.  But I'm glad that I have her in mine.  I will always be thankful for you meeting me halfway, and for all of the life lessons you gave to me.  And for Monroe having our backs all those years.  It's a rarity in this day and age to be able to say you have someone who knows you completely, and who loves you anyway.  Thank you for being that person.