Saturday, July 6, 2013

The New Girl

The moment I saw her, I knew we would be best friends. The feeling wasn't a hope or wish. It was intuition, perhaps the first true intuitive feeling I ever received.
  On the first day of seventh grade, a new girl entered the fishbowl society that was Our Lady of Holy Souls school. Most of us had attended classes together since beginning our grade school career in first grade under the watchful eye of Sister Brenda. The transition into junior high was made easier by the fact that the school's curriculum continued through eighth grade. Even so, I experienced the stereotypical awkward bumbling into puberty and needed all the help I could get. I was 13 years old, woefully flat-chested and still playing with my Barbies—when given the opportunity. I wanted to be grown up and mature but I had no idea how to accomplish that feat. That's when Wendy Rooney entered my life.
  She was from the north—Canton, Ohio to be exact—about as far north as I could imagine in those days. I grew up in Little Rock and had not traveled further than Silver Dollar City, Missouri. At the time, Ohio seemed worldly and exotic. Borrowing from an overwrought line from one of the coming-of-age teen mystery books in which I consistently had my nose buried (remember "Trixie Belden"?), when I first saw Wendy I "knew we would become fast friends." And we did.
   She was the New Girl and I made an effort to introduce myself and sit next to her at lunch. If she thought I was weird for carrying a Snoopy lunchbox (the yellow metal one shaped like his doghouse), she never let on. Somehow, inexplicably, she accepted me as her friend. Wendy with her real bra (not a trainer) and her northern accent and her long, flowing blonde hair befriended me back. Wendy was a seventh grade miracle.
  I became enamored of the entire Rooney household and their easy-going ways. Her parents were always present, but didn't hover. Her mom left goodies in the fridge for our snacking pleasure. Coca Colas. Chips. Frozen pizzas. From Wendy I learned the joy of eating frozen Ding Dongs. I became a fixture in the Rooney home on weekends, often spending the night.
  Wendy's room was the quintessential girls' domain with twin beds covered in matching chenille bedspreads. We stayed up late listening to music on her stereo and talking about the boys we thought were cute and the girls we thought were mean. But we also discussed God and the Razorbacks (one and the same to many Arkansas fans), and just about any topic that popped into our teenage heads. Nothing was too silly, or too serious or taboo. Since my mother wasn't comfortable talking about menstruation and sex, finding a friend like Wendy was essential.
   Wendy inherited a big box of cosmetics from her older sisters Peggy and Barb. For me it seemed a treasure chest that—if wielded skillfully—could yield my transformation from little girl to woman. Standing before her bathroom vanity, we'd dab our lids with generous amounts of azure eye shadow and slather waxy white concealer beneath our eyes. We painted our lips coral, pink and red to see which color we liked best and topped it off with a generous layer of iridescent Maybelline Kissing Potion lip gloss with its roll-on applicator. We dusted powder and blush all over our young faces to hide non-existent flaws, as if we could improve what was natural and nearly perfect. (Oh to have that skin again!)
  Most of all, we laughed so hard our stomachs ached. Wendy was witty and always quick with a clever response. For the life of me, I wish I could remember some of the things we found so hysterical. I do recall one particularly magical summer after we first earned our drivers' licenses (Wendy's birthday was just 20 days before mine.) With little else to amuse us in Little Rock, we drove around the local neighborhoods in her Dad's El Camino, singing top 40 hits along with the radio, talking and laughing. Somewhere near Hall High School (our high school's arch enemy), a cute boy in a convertible drove past us. Wendy and I shared a looked and then she made a U-turn and gave pursuit.
   We didn't know his name, only that he probably attended the rival school — and that he was a hunk. We didn't intend to meet him, but we followed him through the winding streets of the neighborhood, laughing our heads off at our boldness. We were laughing so hard that we didn't notice when the Hunk came to a stop in front of his house, got out and and waved at us. We were busted, which brought another round of incoherent giddiness.
   I wish I could remember more of our adventures. You always think you'll never forget those seminal days. I thought those moments would be captured like a little movie in my mind and yet, even the best memories fade with time.
   In the same way, I can't remember when Wendy and I stopped being best friends. I don't recall a rift or slight. Sometime during high school we simply drifted into separate interests and took on boyfriends. We attended different colleges and I moved away from Little Rock.
   I saw Wendy only once or twice in all the years that followed. We talked briefly at our 20th high school reunion and I told her I would call and we would get together the next time I was in Little Rock. Years passed. Life got in the way. Caring for growing children and declining parents are among my excuses (the good ones, at least.) I didn't call. I didn't know that she'd been diagnosed with cancer until I got a group text announcing that Wendy was gravely ill. By that time, she was hospitalized with little hope of recovery. Then, just a day later, word came: She had passed away.
   The fact that I could be out of touch with Wendy for 30 years and still feel her loss deeply is a testament to the effect she had on my life. True friendships are like that. It doesn't matter if the relationship lasts two or twenty years.
   Throughout my life I've been given wonderful friends to help me through the most difficult times. Wendy was the Godsend who carried me through puberty. She taught me it was okay to be silly, and okay to be serious. She taught me it was okay to carry a Snoopy lunch box. Just by being my friend during those oh-so-awkward days, she taught me it was okay to be me.
  I regret that I did not take the time to call or see her over the years, but Wendy had many, many friends who loved her. I am grateful for the time we had and the laughter we shared. Even in death, she leads me toward maturity, for today I see that no one is really lost. We are the sum of our experiences, an ever-changing collective. I would not be the person I am today if not for the time I spent laughing with Wendy so many years ago.

4 comments:

  1. So sad to lose another '81 classmate. Thanks for the memories Brigid.

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  2. What a wonderful portrait you have painted of Wendy and your times together. This felt magical, like an episode of the Wonder Years. Most of all Wendy's powers of friendship were made evident by that smile she brought to your face Brigid. Loved those pictures and love this piece. I would say "sorry for your loss", but clearly she is with you still.

    Best,

    Rich Wellen

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