Miss Freda.

You remember the first time you meet some people. The really important ones.

I was working at a day care. I took the job because my young family needed the money, but I couldn’t stand to leave my infant daughter with strangers. It was my first day, babies were screaming and I was wondering if I had made the right choice. Into that vacuum walked this person. She was trying to drop her baby daughter off while her other daughter held onto one of her long legs and wouldn’t let go. She side stepped over to me and unlatched her baby girl from around her neck and deposited her into my arms with a kiss and a quick swipe at her face with mom spit. Then, she gave me her warm grin and made a big deal of leaving while dragging her older daughter behind her along the floor. It made us all laugh. Me. My baby. Her baby. Even her older daughter who still wouldn’t let go of her mom’s legs. As she clicked the door shut behind her she winked at me.

That set the tone for decades of friendship. I could always count on her to bring some humor and warmth to whatever situation we found ourselves in. And, folks, there were lots of situations. We were the moms of that age. We went to work every day, but we still made every soccer practice and game. We made cookies for every party and helped our girls memorize a Bible verse for all 26 letters of the alphabet. We served countless plates of spaghetti at PTA fundraisers. We went to music programs and listened patiently while hundreds of kids butchered every Christmas song you’ve ever heard. We didn’t care. We were in the audience waving like idiots at our girls as they stood on stage in their full little dresses rocking back and forth to make them swish and scanning the audience trying to find us. When they did, we would wave even harder and smile even bigger and relish in every minute.

As the girls got older, we were thrilled when they became friends. Real friends. Quitting time became a flurry of who was going home with who. Her brunette and my blonde taking turns begging to drop their backpacks at our feet and disappear into another family for the afternoon. My kid knew there was more snacks at her house. Cosmic brownies and frequent trips to K-bobs for chicken strips and ice cream. Her kid knew there was a big brother at our house that would tease them and lock them out and add an air of mystery to everything. It was a good thing. In my life and in my daughter’s.

How valuable is another house you feel perfectly safe with your kid spending time in? On a normal day it’s wonderful. On a day when you’re sick, or mad at your husband or have an important project to get done it is the best thing anyone can give you. And, she was always willing to help me in any way she could. And, honestly, she was just farther along than I was. In every way you can be. She had already lived through one baby and knew you didn’t feed them Taco Bell refried beans (don’t ask!). She knew that kids will always find a way to hurt themselves. They will fall off of monkey bars and step in pipes hidden in the ground and do ridiculous things on a trampoline the first time you aren’t looking. She knew that a house will never stay clean and that there is always time to bake something. And, she knew God.

Her faith was as much a part of her as her corny jokes and her inherent kindness. If my daughter was at her house I knew to pack her a dress to go to church in. I knew if there was intrigue and gossip and cattiness happening at work (which there always was!) she would find a way to calm the waters and call out our better side. I knew that if I asked her to pray for me she would. And, I knew those prayers would happen every day until I told her otherwise. Most important? I knew she loved people. In word and deed. She was just there. And good. And ready with a smile. As a young mother, she was one of my first spiritual heroes. I don’t use that word lightly. She really was. She taught me to live my faith in every corner that my life touches. She taught me to show up for people and to extend them grace when they are being a little too human. She taught me how important a friend in Christ can be. And, she continued to be that person for me. For years and years. She was at my daughter’s wedding. I have pictures of our girls together on that bright fall afternoon. Mine in her white wedding gown and hers in a beautiful bridesmaid dress. Miss. Freda and her entire family loaded up and came. Including a new grand baby. Drove for hours just to be there with us on that day. Still living her faith in every corner her life touches. Still cracking jokes and smiling her smile. Still offering me prayers and friendship in equal portions. I basked in both.

This last fall my husband and I walked in a fundraiser for Alzheimers. It was a complete no-brainer. No way would we have missed it. Our t-shirts were purple and glittery and when they took pictures our group was huge. The biggest. It was Miss. Freda’s group. We were all there for her. So many familiar faces from years gone by. So many people touched by this wonderful human. Tears and smiles mixing easily. All of us hoping that every step we took might lead to a cure. A way to stop this disease from passing a shadow over her life. A way to give our sweet friend more time. To be her secret weapon like she has been ours. To live our faith in her life.

I hope we did that on that day. I hope our steps mattered and that some of those dollars raised find a cure. I also hope me being there said thank you. Thank you to my friend who taught me so much, who loved my daughter, who was partially responsible for me finding our Lord, who is the real deal in every way that matters.

E.T. and a funeral

A lot of decades ago, I was a little girl. I had four siblings, goats, dogs, cats and a stuffed purple bull named Lucky that I loved.

And I had an aunt. My Aunt Dee. She wasn’t very tall and she gave the best hugs a kid could hope for. Full, warm, squeezy hugs that pressed my face into whatever shirt she was wearing. I would stand there breathing in the scent of laundry soap and food while she hugged me increasingly tighter and rubbed my back at the same time. Then, as quickly as it had started, it would end. She would release me and move onto whoever else was standing close. But, as she was hugging them, she would look over at me and smile so big I could see both her dimples. Shirley Temple dimples. On my aunt. I loved that. And, for added measure, she had the curls too. Pretty much, she was the best.

A trip to her house meant that I would be the star of the show. As soon as I got there, she would ask me what I wanted to eat. More than once this question caused my kid brain to shut down. I lived in a house of seven people and it wasn’t a typical occurrence that my desires were relevant. Like ever. So, if I asked my Aunt Dee for Neapolitan ice cream ( why isn’t this everyone’s favorite?) a bag of Doritos and two snickers bars they would appear in the middle of her bar later in the day. I always felt like I had just won a kid’s version of the lottery. It was at her house that I first tried onion dip. I couldn’t think of anything I wanted to try less, but she teased me until I did and I loved it. I still do to this day. I never open a container of it that I don’t think about her.

Her house was also where my cousin Susie lived. As much as I loved my Aunt Dee, I loved Susie more. She was fun and always had the best toys and shared them freely. She was my age and, most important, she wasn’t one of my siblings. She was the different I needed coming from my crowded home. I spent many hours with her under her bed, laying flat on our backs, and staring up at the Valentine she had tucked under her bed frame. It was from the boy she loved and we both thought it was the most beautiful thing in the world. We knew she would grow up and marry him. We knew her wedding would be absolutely beautiful and we knew I would be there. It would be a dazzling day of yellow and parasols and happiness. The only thing we didn’t know was that none of it would happen. My family moved away to Texas and our relationship became summer visits full of walks and bus rides and begged-for puppies.

Then, years later, when I was a young girl and at my Grandmother’s house the phone on the wall in the kitchen rang. It was a hot summer afternoon and someone answered it. Of course they did. Why wouldn’t someone answer a phone ringing on a Sunday afternoon? I was sitting at my Grandma’s peeling formica table when I heard my mom start screaming. There’s not really a reference point for your mom screaming when you are a kid. It’s just terrifying. It was that day too. What came next was worse. My cousin was gone. Susie. She was gone.

That’s what my mom kept saying over and over again. “It’s Susie. She’s gone.” At first, I thought she had run away, but I couldn’t imagine that I wouldn’t have heard about that. Surely she would have called me first.

The next thing I knew my Dad’s heavy hand was on my shoulder. “Jean Ann, go pack the suitcases. We have to go.”

I went to the dark air conditioned room where all of our stuff was scattered and tried to pack like a grown up. I couldn’t. My dad found me sitting in the middle of the floor crying with clothes covering my lap. He put his hand on the top of my head and left it there until I stopped crying.

After that, it was a long car trip with my mother sobbing softly in the front seat while I pushed my face as hard as I could into the hard window. So hard that my nose felt bruised by the time we pulled up to Susie’s familiar house.

I hung back as my parents went to the door. I didn’t know if this was a house for me anymore. Where would I go? Sit? Be? But then, my aunt met me on the sidewalk and I was smooshed into a blue plaid shirt. She held me forever. At least it felt that way. When she pulled back her dimples weren’t there, but her kind brown eyes were.

“Come in,” she said. “Come in and let’s find you something to eat. Are you hungry?”

I didn’t really think my answer mattered, so I just followed her and ate whatever she put in front of me. I ate and ate while the grownups cried. Eventually, I understood that my cousin had drowned. It was a freak accident on a camping trip and it was forever.

That was the part that I couldn’t figure out. The forever part. It seemed so unnecessary, I was willing to live this new life for a while if I had to, but forever? That was too big.

Eventually, one of the grown ups asked me if I wanted to go to Susie’s room. I did not. I wanted to do that less than I had ever wanted to do anything in my life. I couldn’t imagine that room without my cousin. Without us. I froze in the middle of my aunt’s kitchen with an empty paper plate in my hands. Froze. Couldn’t have moved for anything. My aunt swung around from the casserole dish she was serving and announced that there was no time right then to look at Susie’s room because I was going to the movies with my cousin David.

My cousin David looked at me and I looked at him. We really didn’t have a relationship. There was no need. He had my brother and I had Susie. But, my brother wasn’t there and Susie wasn’t either. So, I went in the bathroom and brushed my hair and got in the car with my cousin. An awkward car ride with him was better than opening that second doorway on the left. I knew that. We didn’t talk much, but we did stop and pick up his girlfriend and another friend. A boy.

This boy climbed in the back seat with me and I suddenly couldn’t breathe. How had I come to be in a back seat with a boy? My first thought was that I wanted to tell Susie. My second thought was that the world had gone crazy and I couldn’t tell Susie. So, we went to the movie.

It was E.T. I sat in that darkened theatre and watched Elliott and E.T. forge their relationship and, somewhere in the middle, that boy I was sitting next to held my hand. It was me. I was in a movie theatre holding someone’s hand and I was biting the inside of my cheek to keep from sobbing. Life is weird.

When we got back to my Aunt’s house she was there to greet me. Again. With a hug. She fed me more food and I still didn’t go to that second door on the left. I couldn’t.

Instead, I hung out in their family room and played with my little cousin Rona. I knew how much Susie loved her and and how glad she had been to finally be a big sister so I tried extra hard to take care of her. I played every game she wanted to play and sang every song. I helped her get things she couldn’t reach and basically made myself her chief care taker for the rest of the day. It was something to do while I processed that I was in my Aunt’s house without my cousin and that a boy had held my hand.

It was because of my helpfulness that I was given charge of my little cousin the next day at the cemetery. It was me holding her hand while her mom sobbed and threw herself on her daughter’s coffin. It was me showing her flowers while people led her mom to the car and it was me that played with her the rest of that day too. I just wanted to help my aunt. I wanted to make her smile. I wanted to see her dimples and her eyes light up. I didn’t want to lose my aunt and my cousin. I didn’t think I could handle that. I didn’t want to handle it.

Finally, on the day it was time for my family to go back to Texas, I walked down that hallway by myself. I walked into my cousin’s room and I dropped down and looked under her bed. The Valentine was still there. I whispered into the dusty emptiness and told her my last secret.

“Susie, I held a boy’s hand and I miss you so much.”

That was the last time I ever went in my cousin’s room. In fact, I buried all of these memories. Put them in a room in my brain and closed the door.

I still went back to visit my aunt and she still hugged me tighter than anyone and fed me as much as she could get me to eat, but our relationship was infected. It was infected with sadness and it made being together painful and jagged.

When I grew up and got married we exchanged Christmas cards every year and she always began them, “Dear one.” I loved that. It was how she made me feel. Like I was dear. How many people in life make you feel that way? But, sadly, because of moves and miles and a greater distance than either of us could really travel we didn’t get to see each other much.

Then, the other day, my phone rang again. Not on a kitchen wall, but the message was the same.

Loss.

My aunt was gone.

Gone from me, but reunited with Susie. I hope they are hugging. I hope Susie’s face is squeezed against her mom’s shirt and that they have days and years and an eternity to not let go.

And, I hope these words help me remember. Remember what it feels like when someone makes you feel dear. Remember that you can do that with something as simple as a tub of onion dip and a warm hug. Remember that awful and wonderful sometimes show up together. Remember that many decades ago I was a little girl. I had four siblings, goats, dogs, cats and a stuffed purple bull named Lucky that I loved.

Remember that forever is forever.

The group on the corner.

What do you get when an Italian couple, an art teacher, a hunter, a couple of musicians and two salt of the earth southerners walk into a pandemic together? Well, if you live on a certain street in Houston, you get neighbors.

Not that we weren’t all neighbors before. We were. Old timers in our subdivision. Seen people come and go. Knew who lived in such and thus house before the people with the loud car did. Knew which neighbors scooped the poop and which didn’t. Knew whose kids took a path through the grass and whose didn’t. Knew each other to wave and to borrow a ladder and to drop off a Christmas cup towel and some cookies at the holidays. But, that’s it. And it worked. My dad always used to say people have things the way they have them because that’s the way they want them. Of course, my dad never lived through a pandemic. A world pandemic. The kind where they tell you to stay in your house and not go anywhere.

Remember those days? When we had all watched everything there was to watch on Netflix and were starting to go a little crazy? Every messy cabinet we had been meaning to get to had been gotten to. Every outside chore had been done. We had tried our hand at making homemade bread and sat through every hour of Tiger King and walked away embarrassed that we had. Something had to happen. And, in our neighborhood, it did.

It started one afternoon with our neighbors across the street. We were out getting the mail and they yelled, “Happy hour tonight at six. Bring your own chairs. Sit in your driveway. It’s happening!” So, we did.

Please know that my husband and I are not these type of people. We are nice, but not exactly friendly. If you are the same way you understand.

But, that night, we pulled our camp chairs out of the garage, dusted them off and plopped them on either side of our mail box. Our neighbors across the street did the same. So did the folks next door. And, for the next few hours we just visited. I don’t remember what we talked about that first night, but I know we’ve covered a lot since then. Politics-we all have different opinions. Movies–we all have different opinions. Music–boy, do we all have different opinions. We’ve set lanterns on fire and watched them float up into the sky. We’ve thrown hundreds of popcorn bags into the fire and cheered as they burned (don’t ask–it’s a thing.) We’ve cooked food together and had too much to drink together and dutifully looked at pictures of each other’s grandkids and offered up words like “adorable” and “the cutest”. We’ve even sang together. Granted, some of us are better than others, but it’s ok. As long as someone can carry the tune the rest of us will follow. Heck, we will follow even if nobody is carrying the tune. It doesn’t really matter, because in those moments we are having fun.

Remember that? The act of doing something for the sheer enjoyment? That’s what those nights have become. Those nights with their starry skies and bloodthirsty mosquitoes and the sound of laughter echoing off the walls of our houses. They are fun. They remind us to be human. To connect. To enjoy each other. They make the news headlines and the trauma we’ve all endured these past few years go away. For about three or four hours every Friday night everything is all alright.

And, I am happy to say, the official end of the pandemic hasn’t changed that. When they lifted the stay six feet away rule we brought our chairs a little closer. Now, everyone is in one driveway and still meeting. Over a year and a half later every Friday night that little crew drags their chairs out and sits and enjoys each other. Some things have changed. We added a ton of new people. Holidays and birthday celebrations have been added. And, I’m very sorry to report, my husband and I up and moved. The neighbors helped us and promised not to like the new people more than us and promised we would always have a spot around the fire.

That means a lot to me.

Knowing that if I’m ever in my beloved Houston on a Friday night around six-thirty I can drive to the corner of that cul-de-sac and find my neighbors. Find a lively conversation about which decade produced the best music or the best movie ever made or whether or not clean energy is ever going to take off. Find my friends. With everything the pandemic took from us it gave us that little group of people and I don’t want to ever forget what those nights meant to all of us. What they still mean.

I guess that’s why I’m writing this. In fact, I should have added myself to that list above. What do you get when an Italian couple, an art teacher, a hunter, a couple of musicians, two salt of the earth southerners and a writer walk into a pandemic together? I’ll tell you. You get life long friendships and you get this blog.

Here’s to you happy hour crew.

And here’s to the humid, co-vid, laugh-filled nights that made us a thing.

Jillietta Macallicutta

On my twenty-first birthday I was not at a bar. Or a club. I wasn’t taking shots or dancing to a band. I was in my friend’s sunny house across the street from my childhood home. There was a pan of chicken and noodles cooking on the stove and a freshly iced German Chocolate Cake waiting on the counter. If you could go back in time and look through the front window of that house you would see us there. Me and Jill. Both young. Both blonde. Both probably discussing the shocking centerfold Burt Reynolds had just done for Cosmo magazine. In the middle of all those giggles and preparations you would also see a little blonde boy who darted in and out talking about model airplanes and when we could eat the cake calling to us from the kitchen cabinet. It was a perfect hot day at the end of summer with the promise of so many good times to come. That night and in the future. It was the kind of day you hope exists for people in this world and it did. It existed for me. Because of Jill.

I don’t remember how many people came that night, or the presents I got, or even if we got a twenty-first birthday measure of drunk, but I do remember how I felt. I’ve never forgotten that. I felt like I was worth using up an entire Saturday on. Like I was worth my friend spending some of what was a single mom’s tight budget on balloons and cake ingredients and that Cosmo magazine–just so she could shock me with it and then laugh when I kept going back to take another look. And, I’m telling y’all, we laughed. So, so much. That night and many times over the years to come. About so many different things. If I could, I would catalog them all right here so you could all laugh with us. Those two young girls with life stretching out in front of them.

You would love the story of how I showed up at Jill’s house late one night and asked her to help me play a prank on someone. And, of course, she said yes. It involved intrigue and heavy lifting and mud. And, of course, laughter. When we were done, we drove back through town with the windows down and icy air blowing through her car singing some Dolly Parton song at the top of our lungs. I remember that night. It gets taken out and turned over in my mind and treasured. I can close my eyes in this moment and see her laughing from the driver’s seat. She is forever caught in the light of that open car door laughing at me and telling me to hurry before we got caught–a mischievous glint in her eye waiting to pop the clutch and get us to safety. I can see our muddy footprints tracked across her kitchen floor and I can see the steaming cup of spiced tea she put in front of me while we analyzed the genius of our prank and the impact it would have. We were sure it was the best prank ever played. I wish you could peek through that window too. It would also make you glad that nights like that exist for people. That there are friends like Jill that will answer their door late at night to help you pull a prank and then serve you warmth after. I am so lucky to have had her.

When I got married and we moved far away from each other and got really, really busy being grownups and responsible and weighted down we still found a way to stay close. To matter to each other. Then, it was long phone calls and surprise packages in the mail. Travel brochures from places I mentioned I wanted to visit. They would arrive in brown envelopes with her familiar looped handwriting printed across the front. Always anonymous except for her super-cool spy name she invented. She invented one for me too. We were going to use them when we ran away to live on a beach and be served umbrella drinks all day every day. I would send back brochures from house builders and even more travel brochures from her places. It was our way of seeing each other. Of remembering who we were before our grown up lives absorbed us. Before life and bills and being serious about things became so important. If you would have asked me then if I could ever lose Jill I would have said no.

I was wrong. I did lose her. Twice.

Once, the first Sunday of the new year to this damn, interminable virus that I hate with every tiny part of myself. And once, before that, in a way that hurts me even more. I say that because when Jill died it had been five years since I had talked to her.

How do I justify that? How do I pretend I don’t know better?

If you’ve been following my blog for even a minute you know I know better.

How could I not? My life has unfurled in a way that has taught me the same lesson over and over. I know how hot a funeral church is when you’re wearing panty hose and snot is running off the end of your nose and you just want out of there. I know that random men with pens in their pockets will always look like my dad in a crowd. I know that going to a little kid’s funeral is every kind of awful you can imagine and ironing their jeans beforehand is worse. I know that when one of your friends dies, barely a year after her wedding, you will keep the furry crown she wore at her bachelorette shower because you can’t bear to get rid of it. It will stay in your hope chest for years shedding pink fluff like it’s molting your memories. I know all of this and I still forgot. I got lulled into complacency. Into believing the awful lie that tomorrow would be a good day to check in. It’s a really crappy thing how life ends suddenly. And, almost always, when you think you have more time.

Jill and I had one more visit after we were young. I went home for a high school reunion and, even though it had been a minute since we had actually seen each other, she opened up her house to me. To my little girl. To my brother and his wife. She folded out couches and fixed breakfast and made us all laugh the entire weekend. When we left that morning I gave her a big hug and we promised to do a better job of staying in touch. And, then we didn’t. I didn’t. In the end, I should have held on tighter and sent more brown envelopes. I should have remembered who she was in that sunny little house across the street from mine. That moment when she was young, with her son running in out of the room, when the future was unwritten. I shouldn’t have lost her before life took her.

So, I’m sorry Jillietta Macallicutta for losing you before I needed to. I’m also sorry for revealing your most excellent spy name in this blog for the whole world to see. Can you forgive me for both? I hope so. One of us needs to.