Initially, the transition from West Coast suburban life to a quiet existence in the countryside of my new Midwestern town was much easier than one might have expected. Outside of the obligatory initial stares I received upon being introduced at the front of my third grade class, I don’t recall feeling terribly out of place.
In truth, a full year went by before I was ever reminded of being the least bit different. That is, unless you count my friendship with a raven-haired girl we’ll call Emma, who always insisted upon us adopting the nicknames of “Vanilla” and “Chocolate”. This arrangement never sat particularly well with me, if for no other reason than I greatly preferred the flavor of vanilla to chocolate at that time. Aside from this slightly irksome, but purely innocent happening, I found the process of adapting to life in a racially homogenous rural area to be relatively “easy”.
If only my final days living in that town had been similarly marked with an air of ease.
Much to my surprise, being the vibrant new student with a curious “Valley Girl” accent came with strange perks befitting a celebrity. After all, new students rarely graced the halls of the small, brick-faced elementary school in the middle of town. Lord knows they’d never had the chance to see a real life Californian before, much less a brown one. Who knows? Perhaps I was the first and last; it sure wouldn’t surprise me.
For months, girls and boys alike flocked around my little desk or circled me on the playground, asking every sort of question you could imagine.
“Is Disneyland as great as it looks on TV?”
“Does everyone surf?”
“Do you know any famous people?”
“What is LA really like?”
Fortunately, I had an answer for everything, which seemed to greatly satisfy those who set out to probe ‘the new girl’ for intel. This gift of gab also enabled me to make friends quite quickly.
First, I made friends with the group of boys who lived in my little neighborhood along the outer edge of town. I also made friends with some of the children who rode our same school bus route, but had different teachers or even attended different schools. But of all the children I would come to befriend, the kids who shared my same third grade class managed to capture a particularly special place in my heart. This is especially true of the girl who would come to be my very best friend for the next few years to come. We shall call her Erin.
Erin was the tallest girl in our class and most certainly one of the tallest girls in our grade. Heck, she was taller than a lot of the fifth and sixth graders! With long sandy blonde hair and a rosy face that was ever so lightly kissed by a handful of well placed freckles, Erin couldn’t help but stand out among a crowd.
Although she was powerfully quiet in the presence of adults, Erin was extremely lively and downright hilarious when it was just us kids. She was the quintessential country girl. She loved big pickup trucks, Garth Brooks songs, going to Dairy Queen after Friday night high school football games, and playing fetch with her dog. I think that is why I gravitated most to her; we shared a similar spirit. Both bluntly honest, wildly carefree, and strongly driven by the pursuit of all things fun, Erin and I were inseperable for years.
Never was there a school day when you couldn’t catch us slyly tossing tightly bound bits of notebook paper across the desk aisles with messages for each other. We often had to enlist the help of our classroom crushes to ensure that the notes reached our intended recipient. This not only allowed us to escape the watchful eye of Mrs. A, but it also increased the likelihood of “accidentally” touching our favorite boys as they dutifully handed over their “deliveries”. Ah… the romantic mischief of childhood.
Out of all of the notes that I traded with friends, Erin’s were the best. Not only did she know a wide variety of note folding shapes, but she covered her pages with the most fanciful glitter gel pen ink known to man.
We talked about so many random things in the notes we passed one another as Mrs. A scratched multiplication problems or cursive drills across the clouded chalkboard. Some mornings we talked about how much we “loved” our most recent crush, but by lunchtime, the note would be updated with reports of having replaced him with a new boy entirely. Other times, we’d gush about what fun things we planned to do over the weekend.
Regardless of what the colorful notes we traded discussed, we never, ever passed a note without ending it with the most important salutation of all: B.F.F.I.L.Y.L.A.S
“Best Friends Forever. I Love Ya Like A Sis(ter)” was the acronym of all acronyms. If little girls in our town had ever drafted their own Friendship Bible, this surely would have been the principle commandment. When you received your first note from someone with this string of letters written across the bottom, you knew your friendship had reached the highest point possible.
Although we shared this badge of honor with several other girls, the sentiment between Erin and I was far from rote– we truly meant it. After all, would we have had matching Lisa Frank everything if we hadn’t?
Country Girls Will Be Girls (Beating Boys)
Over the course of four years, Erin and I grew as close as two friends could ever hope to be. We worked on projects and gave presentations together in class. We chatted and gossiped with our friends in the lunchroom. We always requested to play on the same soccer team at recess. We even hollered across the auditorium from differing lines as we waited for our respective buses to pick us up after school.
Once we got home, we happily tied up the phone lines. This would go on Monday-Thursday, but when the weekend came, life couldn’t have gotten better. And don’t even get me started on summer vacation. I wish I could have summers like that today.
When Erin visited my house to hang out, we had such a good time. My parents would usually take us to the “big city” for the day, where we might visit the mall and have lunch at our favorite restaurants. We’d play with my cat and listen to Deana Carter, Jewel, Backstreet Boys, and Spice Girls CDs on repeat. By then, the neighborhood boys would come by to invite us out for a few rounds of rollerblade street hockey (we always won, btw) followed by fort building in the woods behind our house.
There were times when we’d all pull on mud boots and aimlessly stamp about in the swampy abandoned plot of land where the street of my development ended and the wooded wilderness began. Other times, we’d climb my “dinosaur dig” on the side of the house, unearthing genuine arrowheads and fossils. And there never, ever was a time when we wouldn’t race the boys up and down the street on our bikes.
Whenever we were feeling particularly brave, we would break my parents’ rules and venture far beyond the confines of my quaint neighborhood of fewer than ten houses. At times, we would sneak through the nearby woods to play between the shaded rows of a several acre corn field. There were also occasions when the neighborhood boys would dare us to come along for a rushed expedition to the state park, which none of our parents permitted us to do without adult supervision.
All of these instances of breaking the rules were fun, but there is one act of defiance that, now as an adult, burns in my mind as being both beautiful and bittersweet.
Against The Grain
My parents, much like the parents of the neighborhood boys I so often played with, had forbidden me to ever play in the nearby cemetery. However, in a largely stagnant place like our town, there was next to nothing for adults to do for fun, much less kids. Besides, for a kid who read as many R.L. Stine books as I did, there was nothing more thrilling than a good old fashioned cemetery. But our town did better than offer just one graveyard; it had two.
Crawling through a misshapen gap in the chain link fence that separated my neighborhood from the sprawling cemetery next door, Erin and I would streak across the neatly manicured grass, both squealing from a mix of rebellious delight and a fear of “ghosts”.
Deeper and deeper into the cemetery we’d go, carefully taking note of the various surnames that were etched into the erect headstones. They came in all shapes and sizes. Some large. Some small. Some short. Some tall. The further we strolled towards the back of the memorial park, the older the dates on the headstones read. 1980. 1944. 1911. Names became less legible. Trees in the surrounding area twisted grotesquely above our heads.
Still, we’d press on, leaving freshly plucked dandelions and daisies upon the headstone ledges as a means of paying our respects to the souls who had long been forgotten.
If and when we could drum up the courage to really push the limits of our bravery, we’d cross the boundary of what the townspeople referred to as the “new” cemetery to venture into the spine-chilling, crumbling graveyard everyone called the “old” cemetery.
The old cemetery was the kind of place that would have me think twice about visiting even today. Its land was densely packed with as many old trees as it housed time-worn graves, so the sunlight couldn’t quite find its way through the mess of leaves and branches. Cloaked in a damp and gloomy darkness that was reminiscent of a horror film, the old cemetery was home to several Indian mounds and some of the oldest graves in the state.
As one of the hotspots of the Northwestern Indian war of the late 1700s, our town still featured several monuments and historical remnants of the era; the old cemetery was one such site. Between the mystique of the Indian mounds, woebegone war stories, and the “ancient” moss-blanketed headstones, the children of the town could never quell their fascination with the old cemetery. Erin and I were no exception.
Battered and horribly aged gravestones dating back to 1780, or even later, packed every inch of trampled grass that we tread upon. We could scarcely resist the urge to “ooh” and “aah” in wonder as we quietly rushed to see who could find the oldest grave. There were young people, old people, babies, and families– all of which belonged to a time that our nine or ten year old minds couldn’t have begun to comprehend the likes of.
I’m not sure if it was the doom and gloom that hung over the old cemetery or the plain and simple fact that it was a cemetery, but there was always something so darkly oppressive and heart-wrenching about the place. Even though the children of the town were often warned against visiting and proceeded to take great pleasure in going anyway, none of us ever returned to school with tales of particularly lengthy or fruitful expeditions. It seemed as though we were unable to stomach that sickening, sinking feeling long enough to truly uncover the old cemetery’s secrets.
The Olden Days
Sure enough, the longest that Erin and I ever explored the old cemetery was fifteen minutes at most. The longer we walked and the more we saw, the quieter we’d become. The smiles always faded from our faces. The nervous laughs ceased to fill the air. Something sinister and unfriendly always seemed to grip us halfway through our adventures, quickly leading one of us to suggest turning back and going home. This request was never denied.
Before you knew it, we’d crawl back through the hole in the chain link fence, eagerly returning to the open arms of the living.
If only I had been old enough and wise enough to accurately perceive the stifling dark aura of the old cemetery as a child. Perhaps I would have better appreciated the time I was living in, as well as the company I was spending time with.
Looking back, I believe the old cemetery (and much of the lands surrounding it) was stained with the tears, pain, and sorrow of the people who lived and died during the war. Settlers, warring with the indigenous Native American tribes, fought for land that simply did not belong to them, costing countless lives.
Eventually, the victors claimed the land as their own, carelessly burying their own dead around and on top of sacred graves belonging to those they’d battled– a people that they likely viewed as “different” and less worthy in comparison.
What I failed to recognize as a child, but cannot help but now acknowledge, is that many of the graves of the old cemetery were dug long before the end of American slavery. For some of the people who filled the graves, individuals such as myself might not have been viewed or valued as people at all. In some people’s eyes, they may have been reduced to nothing more than property, just a step above livestock.
In reality, a friendship as pure and genuine as the one Erin and I shared would not have been possible in the time that the old cemetery’s inhabitants walked the Earth– not between two little girls who looked like we did, anyway. Despite us clearly sharing the same interests and dreaming the same dreams, had we lived in the land while those old, abandoned graves were newly dug, a good majority of society might have thought quite differently about not only us as individuals, but the relationship we had.
And still, there I was, freely walking atop their graves in a town that I’d later discover hadn’t changed quite as much as one might have hoped over the years.
© C.M. 2020 All Rights Reserved
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