I was fortunate to grow up with a bunch of neighborhood friends just about my age.
There was my across-the-street neighbor, Jason Cook, along with Jason DuPont and his kid sister, Amy. Further up the street were our friends Ady, Shannon, and Petey.
The seven of us made up the Dresden Avenue Posse.
Both Ady and Shannon’s parents were divorced and lived on our block. Ady lived with her mom, and Shannon lived with her dad. The rest of us had married parents. As far as I know, I was the only one who went to church.
We used to play in the street, in each other’s backyards and houses, and take long bike rides down by the train tracks. The more daring among us *ahem* brazenly bumped our bike tires along the train tracks.
I remember the time I found the two Jasons and Petey in Jason Cook’s backyard. They told me I couldn’t play with them anymore, because they were starting a “Boys Only” club.
My incense at gender discrimination started early in life. Steamed beyond belief, I raced over to Shannon’s house.
Shannon was a thimble-sized girl with blond hair that swung in long, curling waves nearly to her waist. As I hotly explained the injustice I had just experienced, Shannon looked at me and grinned, her blue eyes and blond hair sparkling in the sun.
“We need to start a ‘Girls Only’ club,” I insisted.
“Ann-Marie,” Shannon explained patiently, “Girls are just naturally better than boys. We don’t need a club to prove it.”
I like to think pint-sized Shannon was my very first feminist friend.
When I wasn’t playing with my posse, I was in my own backyard. It may surprise those of you who know me as an outdoor-avoiding, nature-abhorring sun-hater, but I spent the majority of my childhood outside.
Not to say I wasn’t still a bookworm. It was a usual occurrence for one of my parents to storm into my room, declare it a nice enough day to be outside, and shoo me insistently out the front door.
For countless hours, I played happily in my own little world.
Despite our house being hemmed in on all sides, we had a very nice backyard. My parents took great pains to make it kid-friendly, and I had a sandbox made out of a monstrous old tractor wheel, a tire swing (my absolute favorite), and a swing set.
This was before people were overly concerned with the swing set safety.
I can’t tell you how many injuries I obtained on my succession of swing sets. The cheap plastic seats would break, and I would scrape my legs. The hanging bar would rust and collapse mid-swing, sending me sprawling in the dirt beneath. The see-saw would fly up unexpectedly and smack me in the face every so often.
Safe to say, Sam will only be allowed to play on swing sets made of unbreakable steel and approved by no less than six quality control inspectors.
You think I’m kidding.
My favorite thing to do was swing on the tire swing. Dad had secured it firmly to a steady branch on a tall tree in the backyard. I estimate 80% of my childhood consisted of my standing half-in, half-out of that tire swing, pushing off with my foot against the tree, and swinging as high as I could, for as long as I could.
As I soared through the air, I couldn’t help but sing at the top of my lungs.
Being the sheltered Baptist girl I was, I knew only two sets of songs. The first was a varied selection of Patch the Pirate-themed songs. The second were the hymns we sang at church on Sunday.
My only other option was the dirty limericks put to music by Jason DuPont. Out of all my neighborhood friends, Jason DuPont had, by far, the foulest language.
Jason Cook once told me that if he ever used “those” words, his mom would wash his mouth out with soap for a week. I, myself, got in trouble when I asked Mom what certain of Jason’s words meant.
“Where did you hear THAT,” she’d gasp. I learned quickly to never, ever repeat Jason’s words, least of all in my own house.
Instead, I favored the spunky hymns for my tire swing song sessions. Two favorites were “Rouse, Then, Soldiers! Rally Round the Banner!” and “Onward, Christian Soldiers!”
When I think of the patience my poor neighbors must has possessed to hear me bellow out the bloody lyrics to “Onward, Christian Soldiers!” I must have sounded like a tiny terrorist-in-the-making.
They must have breathed a sigh of relief when I stopped singing and darted back in the house. How it must have tried their patience to realize I’d only gone inside to retrieve Dad’s old hymnal so I could now happily scream out all the verses in fractured harmony.
As I swung high above the neighborhood fences, I took stock of my surroundings.
Our neighbor to the right was Lou, a cashier at the local hardware store. Her daughter, Connie, lived with her. Connie had two young sons, didn’t work, and lived off welfare. She smoked, drank, swore openly, and was known to let her sons wander aimlessly. Often, she didn’t even put diapers on her youngest son, letting him do his business in the front yard.
Connie’s oldest son, Eric, was a troubled child. As a kid, I thought he was creepy. As an adult, I feel incredibly sorry for the way he had to grow up. He turned his frustrations outward, often instigating fights, lashing out, and setting fire to things just “to watch them burn.”
The Snyders lived in the first house kitty corner to our backyard. They had two young daughters, and the bulk of my teenage babysitting dollars was earned by watching the Snyder girls. While I hated babysitting, I didn’t mind sitting for the Snyder girls who were bright, creative, and went to bed without a fight.
Mr. Snyder worked for Hostess, and I can attribute at least 20 pounds of my teenage heft to the amount of free Hostess cupcakes I consumed while babysitting.
The yard directly behind us belonged to Jeannie and her husband. They were an older, retired couple who kept their yard ruthlessly manicured. I still remember Mom and Jeannie visiting over the five foot hedge that separated our two yards. Jeannie tended to snip off her words with the same veracity as the stray branches she lopped off with her garden shears.
My favorite neighbor was easily Mrs. Vaughn, our neighbor to the left. I began daily trips to Mrs. Vaughn’s house about the time I started walking. I loved visiting with her, and it didn’t hurt that she always had Swiss Miss chocolate pudding in her fridge.
I would eat pudding, wander around her house, and pepper her with incessant questions. Sometimes, Mrs. Vaughn’s granddaughter, Jenny, would visit her. Jenny and I had an awesome time playing together. We would mount the full-size plastic deer, serenely posed in Mrs. Vaughn’s backyard, and gallop away to adventures in far away lands.
Sometime later in my childhood, I wandered up to Mrs. Vaughn’s door and knocked. She came to the door, looking unusually disheveled, and seemed confused. She asked me several times who I was, and at first I thought she was joking. I was devastated when she claimed not to know who I was and slammed the door in my face.
I sobbed the story out to Mom at home; convinced I had somehow made Mrs. Vaughn mad. Mom looked worried and said she would call Jenny’s mom, Mrs. Vaughn’s daughter.
Eventually, Mom sat me down and told me she had learned Mrs. Vaughn had a disease called Alzheimer’s. She said people with this disease lost their memory and that was why Mrs. Vaughn hadn’t known who I was. As a result, Mrs. Vaughn would be moving to a nursing home, and we would be getting new neighbors.
I was despondent about losing my long-time friend. Not only would I miss my daily pudding fix – and don’t think that wasn’t a felt loss – but I’d miss the conversation and silly jokes we’d shared.
For a long time, nothing cheered me up. Not even when Mom told me Mrs. Vaughn’s daughter had relayed to Mom that Mrs. Vaughn had adored me and looked forward to my visits with glee.
Months later, I was outside pretending I was on a deserted island, while covertly hiding in Mom’s prized lilac bushes. I heard a voice from the second yard kitty corner to ours.
“Would you like some lemonade?” An older lady was leaning over the hedge that separated our yards.
“I’m on deserted island,” I explained.
“What a coincidence! So am I!” She smiled and offered up a tray with two glasses.
I shrugged my shoulders, climbed the fence into my neighbor’s yard, and popped through the hedge.
The older lady introduced herself as Mrs. Olive Purdy. I knew my parents knew her. I knew she went to one of our former churches, but this was my first time seeing her up close.
She was thin and spry with a 1,000 watt smile. She led me to her outdoor patio and poured me a full glass of sweet lemonade.
As you might have guessed by now, I was quite the chatterbox as a little girl. My parents tried their best to listen to my relentless stream of prattle, but I caught them occasionally responding simply out of eye-rolling politeness.
I do not hold them responsible in the least; since I’m relatively sure I talked non-stop for eighteen years with barely a breath in between. I’m lucky they didn’t kill me in my sleep.
Olive (who insisted I call her by her first name) loved to listen to me! She regarded me with a slightly amused smile and engaged in delightful banter with me. In no time at all, I was hopping the backyard fence every week and landscaping an Ann-Marie-sized hole in Olive’s hedge.
We became kindred spirits. She’d serve me fresh lemonade or a steaming cup of hot tea, served in a real china cup. She would show me photos of her loved ones, and I’d marvel over the yellow haze that seemed to infuse those sepia-toned memories. I would ask her questions about her furniture and soon learned she lived in a house of “antiques.”
As I grew older, I became even fonder of Olive and the way she treated me like an equal. I was too old to hop the fence anymore and too rotund to barrel through her hedge. Instead, I walked around the block on the cracked sidewalk for my weekly visits.
When I turned 15, my parents decided to move. I still remember visiting Olive and telling her how my dad felt the neighborhood was going “downhill.” I was completely unaware of my tactlessness, never having been anything but completely honest with Olive. I didn’t even consider how that might make a little, old lady feel - living alone in that very neighborhood.
To her credit, Olive only said how much she would miss me. She hugged me tightly, and I took one last glance around the living room I’d come to love.
Somewhere, in the space of the next 15 years, I managed to grow up. I survived high school, thrived at college, and found a job I loved.
Talk about coming full circle, my office is now only blocks from my old neighborhood.
Over the years, I’ve enjoyed my daily drive by Dresden Avenue. I smile at seeing the neat row of houses that once contained my friends and still contain my memories.
Often I would smile at the sight of Olive’s house and wonder how she was doing. Was she still living? (I mean, she had to be at least 80 when I knew her.) Was she in a nursing home? Had she succumbed to Alzheimer’s like my beloved Mrs. Vaughn?
My thoughts of Olive were always infused with a warmth and honey-toned happiness of an unusual and extraordinary friendship.
Last night, I went to Pampered Chef party at my Cousin Tammy’s house. As Mom and I pulled into the drive, I saw a stooped, elderly woman climbing out of her car. A halo of soft gray hair surrounded her head, and I recognized her profile immediately.
“Why, it’s Mrs. Purdy!” Mom exclaimed.
“Olive!” I said joyfully.
Within a few moments, we were reunited. Olive greeted me warmly, and I melted effortlessly back 15 years. She embraced me heartily upon hearing the news of our impending arrival.
“A baby,” she breathed out in gentle wonder before favoring me with that amazing smile.
I had a good time at the party, but seeing Olive again stirred up the long-lost memories of my childhood. Memories I often let stay dust-covered in my mind’s attic.
By the time the party was over; this post was already percolating in my mind. I was thinking how much I wanted to remember – and honor – my dear friend, Mrs. Olive Purdy.
I find myself hoping that someday a special adult will take the time and effort to make a difference in my son’s life, as well. One day, I hope Sam is able to celebrate an age-defying friendship with his own “Olive.”
Now, I am looking forward to bringing Sam to meet my dear friend. Olive all but insisted we resume our visits. “And bring that baby with you!”
When I silently studied Olive last night (and realized she is perhaps just now reaching her 80’s), I found myself thinking of a wonderful quote –
"Some people, no matter how old they get, never lose their beauty - they merely move it from their faces into their hearts."
- Martin Buxbaum
That’s my Olive.
That’s my friend and forever neighbor-of-the-heart, Olive.