Changing schools in January of sixth grade can’t be easy for anyone, so I don’t pretend to have been uniquely traumatized when our family relocated. I had always loved school (well, maybe not the third grade), so I expected to admire my teacher, enjoy my classmates, and be accepted by all. But it wasn’t quite that easy. Moving from a big city to a small town, in itself, was tough. Moving from a Seattle neighborhood school that drew from upper-middle class families, to an Aberdeen school that drew from the entire socio-economic stratification, was a bigger adjustment than I was prepared for. I felt like an alien.
Sixth-grade girls weren’t any different then from today’s sixth-grade girls in their (un)willingness to assimilate a new girl. Periodically I was laughed at, teased, and ignored in class. I wasn’t sure how to relate to my teacher, either. Not only was Mr. B. my first male teacher, but his swaggering style took some getting used to. And then, there was his grammar. He frequently used adjectives when adverbs were required, and dropped his “g’s” in “ing” words, both of which I found shocking. (Back in 1952 our presidents weren’t talkin’ that way yet.) Having been steeped in the use of proper grammar since kindergarten, I was horrified to consider that maybe my knowledge of well-spoken English was greater than his.
The Girl Scout troop I joined in February eased the pain of assimilation slightly. Mine was the ‘secondary’ troop, not the one the most popular girls belonged to, but these girls were kind (instructed to be so by the leader, Mrs. Hayes) in our meetings. Little by little I began to feel better about my new situation, but I wasn’t the self-confident girl who had lived in Seattle. I stayed around our rented house (we were waiting to move into our permanent house until it was remodeled) after school and on weekends, too—not having anyone to invite over or neighborhood children whose networks I could join.
One day in March, my dad asked me if I’d enjoy presenting a marionette show for my classmates, providing Mother could arrange it with the teacher. I was more than willing. Marionettes were one of my passions—I had written several plays and performed them for our family and its Seattle friends and neighbors any number of times. By the time Mother was done “arranging,” I was committed for entertaining at an assembly of fourth, fifth and sixth graders the following week.
On the day of my presentation, my dad drove me to school with the puppet theatre in the back of the station wagon, and my marionettes carefully packed in tissue paper, their strings twirled tightly so they wouldn’t tangle. The play, about a terrible rooster who disturbs the family so much they eventually boil him up for Sunday dinner (he gets in the last word by crowing from the pot), did not offend its audience, as it surely would today. My entire collection of puppets was required for its cast—parents and two children, a farmer and a rooster, as I recall. I was all the voices and the characters, the sole stagehand and string-puller, including the incessantly crowing rooster. The play lasted all of ten minutes and received enthusiastic applause.
Immediately after the assembly, we broke for recess. I took up my standard place on the playground, next to the wall by the jungle gym, watching others play. Recesses were the loneliest part of the day. A tall girl approached me, smiling. She was in the other classroom of sixth graders, and in the other Girl Scout troop. “Hi,” she said. “I really liked your puppet show. Would you like to jump rope with me?”
That was how I met Karen.
By seventh grade, she had become my best friend. She remained my dearest friend throughout high school, even after my family moved back to Seattle in 1956. We corresponded passionately during our college years, sharing our world views, hopes and dreams, and secrets of our romances. We managed in-person visits at my family's beach house every summer, which allowed us languorous sun-bathing during which we updated each other about everything that mattered. After college for a few years we both lived in Seattle, but after the late ‘60s, we never lived in proximity again.
But a deep friend is a friend forever—and because we were both writers, we wrote lovely, long letters to each other over the years. Eventually, as long distance rates became affordable, telephones replaced the post office as our primary means of keeping up. We didn’t talk often, but whenever we called, we immediately took up where we left off. That’s how true friends are together.
On August 5, 2009, Karen left this earth after a prolonged health decline. During the past two years we enjoyed a renewed closeness because of our frequent communication. In the last six months we talked almost daily. Her departure leaves a gap in my life that cannot be filled by anyone else. She was my longest-running friend and dearer to me than any other. Her friendship for fifty-seven years enormously affected who I am and enriched my life in myriad ways. I feel privileged to have known her and will miss her always.