For as much fun as Erin and I had spending time at my house, we had even more fun at her house. This was especially true during summer vacation, which was typically packed with wall to wall excitement. The early weeks of summer were always spent visiting my family in California, but this never stopped Erin and I from keeping in touch.
For the most part, email wasn’t commonplace back then, so I’d essentially stalk my grandparents’ mailman each day, hoping to catch a glimpse of a sticker-covered letter from Erin through the mailbox slot. A month’s stay only allowed enough time for us to exchange letters twice, so we made the very most of the stack of pages we shoved into each envelope. There were times when we’d have to use two or more stamps, we’d written so much and made our letter so heavy.
Returning home from my sunny homestate always felt like Christmas in July. Not only would I have my birthday to celebrate, but I’d get to hang out with Erin again. And because I usually had the green light to stay over at her house for days at a time, we made sure to get up to anything and everything.
One of the funnest parts about hanging out at Erin’s house was how relaxed her parents were. In comparison to my own parents, Erin’s parents never appeared to have any rules for their kids to follow. If they did, it had to have been, “Have Fun”, so “have fun” we did! For me, spending summers at Erin’s place definitely felt like a chance to walk on the “wild side”. It’s no wonder I never wanted to leave. It’s also no wonder how I got so close to Erin and her entire family.
Funnel Cakes & ATV Crashes
In all actuality, a major reason why I stayed over at their house as often and for as long a duration as I did truly isn’t because I enjoyed the amount of freedom doing so afforded (even though it was nice).
Instead, Erin and her family simply enjoyed my company and always encouraged me to stick around. Whenever I would plan to only sleepover for a day or two, they would plan a big BBQ or suddenly decide to visit the roller rink, urging me to stay “just one more day”. Naturally, “one more day” always turned into several, but they were such kind hosts that I never regretted sticking around.
In addition to allowing us to stay up as late as we wanted watching Beavis and Butthead on MTV, her parents never cared if we jumped on Erin’s waterbed, wandered around town without parental supervision until way past dark, or ordered pizzas for delivery– none of which was a luxury at my own house. When we weren’t spraying each other with supersoakers or battling each other with foam noodles in her pool, Erin and I might have been found blaring music in her room as we flipped through Teen Magazine and called our friends on three-way.
Twice a week, Erin, her little sister, Dina, and I would pile into the bed of their mom’s white pickup truck to go to Erin’s softball games. They were so much fun. I loved cheering on my best friend’s team and running back and forth to the concession stand with Dina. We’d come back with nachos and pocketfuls of candy and Bubble Tape, which we’d share as we clapped and shouted from the stands. Erin’s team often went undefeated each season, which meant many summer nights were spent celebrating at Dairy Queen. Funny enough, I rarely partook in the celebrations due to being too stuffed with the junk we’d eaten at the actual game!
More often than not, Dina and their cousin, Shannon, (another good friend of mine) would hang out with me and Erin during our summer escapades. As one might expect, this only added to the merriment.
Our little girl gang would commonly beg Erin’s mom to let us have some kind of junk food for lunch (who honestly never needed much convincing at all) before running through town randomly visiting the homes of whoever we could think of. I still remember a time when we visited some of our friends and loitered beneath the street lights talking to them until nearly midnight. For as simple and innocent as our get-together was, at around eleven years old, I remember it being the first time that I genuinely felt “grown up”.
Every now and again, Erin’s parents would drive us way out into the countryside to visit Erin’s aunt and uncle. They had this huge farm– acres and acres. Still highly amused by farm life, I always got a kick out of visiting. It was entertaining being able to see all of the pigs and cows up close and personal.
One of the funniest memories I have of my visits to their farm is the first time Erin tried to teach me how to ride an ATV. I remember how easy she said it would be: Just hop on, steer, and stop. Well, I was only about ten or so at that point; tall-ish for my age, but super tiny. I got on that thing and couldn’t control it for the life of me. Before I knew it, the ATV was tearing through a field, dragging me along the ground with it (missing a shoe, mind you). If the thing hadn’t crashed into a fence, I don’t know how we would have stopped it!
Despite all of the fun things we did, the real highlight of summers at Erin’s house was the county fair. Until this very day, I absolutely love fairs because they remind me of my summers hanging out with Erin and our friends.
For our town, the county fair was THE event of the year. Besides the high school football championship game, it was pretty much the only noteworthy social event hosted by us at any given time. It always started right before my birthday, running up until a week or two before the start of school, so it was customary for our group of friends to attend at least twice– once to celebrate my birthday and a second time to flaunt in front of our crushes before school actually started.
After all, for school-aged kids, the fair was often our first time seeing each other since school let out. Parents would drop their kids off in the morning, letting them freely wander about with their friends until after the fireworks show that ended each day.
This being said, the county fair was like one big scavenger hunt. There were cool things to buy, adorable animals to locate, and one never knew when you’d stumble upon a classmate to link up with. All of us would spend the whole day sipping frozen limeade, riding rides, and playing as many games as we could.
And of course, there was funnel cake.
Home Away From Home
When I say that I loved Erin’s family, I mean it. Even now, I have nothing but fond memories and great affection for them. Indeed, there were other friends of mine who had lovely families. However, Erin’s family was not only the first to welcome me with open arms, but they genuinely cared for me like I was apart of their family. This mutual positive regard truly impacted me, even as a child, because I came to view their house as a home away from home. Being an only child and living so far away from my own family, it was a comfort to have found such a good support system with them.
Although I don’t remember Erin’s dad very much due to him being at work most of the time, I do recall that he was always very friendly towards me. Erin’s mom, on the other hand, was a saint. That woman was so kind and welcoming; you honestly would have thought I was her third daughter. She was the type of person who would have done anything to help me; I simply adored her. And as far as I was concerned, Dina was my little sister. We were both creative and outgoing, which made hanging out with her so much fun. As we got older, I was almost as close to Dina as I was to Erin.
And then… there was Erin’s brother.
Mike was always an… interesting character. From the very beginning of my friendship with Erin, he’d had this unfailing way of capturing my attention. Perhaps it was his mischievous smile or mysterious, quiet demeanor; I’m not entirely sure. It’s also highly possible that I always had a secret “thing” for my best friend’s elusive older brother. Highly possible.
But being a boy three years our senior, he was surely never interested in hanging out with me and Erin during our visits. I mean, what would he look like doing girl stuff? He did, however, make it a point to always greet me whenever he could. And every now and then, you might catch him watching us from the corner of his eye as he pretended to be much too busy watching TV.
That was the odd thing about Mike. He was always at the house whenever I came over, but he rarely bothered to participate in anything Erin and I did. You could tell he liked me and was interested in what we were up to, but for the most part, he stayed in the periphery, making it difficult to get to know him better.
Things went on like this for years. I’d come over, we’d greet each other, maybe chat for awhile, and then I’d go off with Erin and Dina on some adventure. At dinnertime, we’d talk and awkwardly catch each other’s gaze when we least expected it, but for the most part, that was the extent of our dealings.
As time wore on and we got older, I started seeing less and less of Mike. Now a full-fledged, moody high school kid, you never had to ask where Mike was if you didn’t see him around. He was always in his room, sitting on his bed with the curtains closed, listening to death metal or some other kind of angst-inspired music.
This never stopped me from knocking on his door to say hello though; it actually became a ritual after awhile. I’d come over, greet everyone in the house, then go knock on his door to let him know I was over. I can’t tell you how many times I’d done it.
Like clockwork, his response was always the same. I’d knock, he’d say, “Come in.”
So, I’d crack the door just enough to peep in, smile, and say, “Hi.”
He would shyly smirk in his customary fashion and return the salutation. Maybe we’d exchange a few more words, maybe we wouldn’t. Whichever the case, I always liked Mike and was plenty satisfied by the nature of our relationship. And then it changed. Apparently, we changed.
One time, on the first day of a weekend-long sleepover, I walked down the hall of Erin’s house and stopped in front of Mike’s closed bedroom door. Excited to see him, I knocked.
As always, he said, “Come in.” So, I did.
“Hey you,” I said, poking my head through the half-opened door.
“Sup?” responded Mike, watching me from his usual perch on the bed.
I didn’t end up answering him. Not properly, anyway. I couldn’t.
There, behind Mike’s bed, plastered across the majority of his back wall, was a Confederate flag. It had to have been at least five feet long. One day it wasn’t there. One day it was. I remember just standing there, clutching onto his door, staring at it. I heard him ask me something or another, but all I could do was mumble something about “See you later” before hastily closing the door on both him and the flag.
Sick to my stomach, hurt, and terribly confused, I hurried to Erin’s room. I truly didn’t know what to make of what I’d seen, but no amount of rationalization permitted me to overlook it. Needless to say, I ended up going home soon after. I didn’t spend the weekend like I’d promised. In fact, I never visited Erin’s house again.
We were twelve.
The reason why I chose to share the tale of this particular incident in this manner is to help you guys, as readers, feel the abrupt surprise that I felt when I saw a well-known symbol of hate boldly displayed in the home of a family I absolutely loved from the bottom of my heart. After all, racism is experienced by people in different ways. Sometimes it’s more subtle. Sometimes it’s more in your face. However, in my own experience, it’s not always cut and dry, either way. There are often grey areas, leaving you unsure of how to perceive certain actions or statements.
However, something that racism and its associated symbols often tend to do is violently invade the life of those on their receiving end. One day, you’re out in the world, minding your own business, just trying to enjoy life like anyone else– then bam. Something is said. Something occurs. And once again, you’re reminded that your existence is thought to be of less value than someone else’s. No matter how many times you experience it, it always feels like the first time and you never forget it. You can’t and you shouldn’t– no one should.
I wanted to tell of the happy, positive experiences that I shared with Erin and her family because they were genuine. A major reason why I never look back at my time living in this town with a bad taste in my mouth is due to having had these positive experiences. Even though there were definitely dark times too, I wanted to illustrate the fact that negative occurrences, such as those related to racism or general intolerance, don’t have to define you, skew your view of certain groups of people, or sully your life existence as a whole.
All the same, racism–in whatever form a person experiences it–hurts. It’s as jolting and disruptive as it is unjust and unmerited. It has the power to damage people’s self-worth and destroy the hope of having otherwise peaceful relations with others.
In this particular case, a mere inanimate object ruined my friendship with Erin. In hindsight, I wish I had dealt with this situation differently. Part of me initially felt inclined to type “better”, but how does one handle an encounter such as this “better”, really? As an adult, I suppose I would now ask Erin’s parents how they could permit their son to display such an inflammatory item in their home. Or, perhaps I would ask Mike what the flag meant to him.
Even though the Confederate flag represents something very unsavory to me, members of my family, and my racial community, I do recognize that some people somehow fail to view the flag as being racist or the least bit connected to the concept of racial hatred. For some–as it may have been for Mike–it is nothing more than a symbol of “Southern Pride”; I acknowledge this. All the same, I personally struggle to understand how anyone could be so blind to the origins of the flag and its associated negative connotations.
A Teachable Moment
Do I think anyone in Erin’s family was actually racist or the least bit prejudiced? Absolutely not.
Do I think some of them may have been ignorant? Perhaps.
Looking back, I realize that Erin’s parents might not have been aware that Mike had the flag in the first place, but at the same time, it wouldn’t surprise me if they simply had no idea that the flag would offend me as it so clearly did. Although I sincerely wish that I had been wise enough and mature enough to view that situation as a teachable moment and preserve my friendship with Erin, unfortunately, I missed the opportunity. The very best that I can do now is urge people to educate themselves and not make similar mistakes.
If you are the parent of a child, please consider being more mindful of what your children say and do. Kids don’t have to pick up inappropriate behavior or hateful mindsets from your household; they can easily adopt them from being around the wrong kinds of people at school or by looking things up on the Internet. It’s really important to catch these types of situations early in life because it’s the sort of thing that catches quickly.
For many, it’s always going to be easier to hate other people– especially when they’re different from you. It doesn’t take much to adopt negative or hateful propaganda as your own. Meanwhile, it isn’t always easy to be compassionate towards others or accept cultures that you don’t understand.
Being aware of and educated about the things that some members of society might view as hurtful or in general bad taste costs nothing. It doesn’t require much effort or time out of anyone’s day to simply be respectful towards a fellow human being. As parents, it is always worthwhile to know what your child is being exposed to or is participating in because it gives you an opportunity to correct the narrative. For instance, if your child hears a racist joke or other form of hurtful speech somewhere, you can always use that moment to teach them that such subject matter is inappropriate.
We all have a responsibility to educate others on how to be kinder, more decent human beings. We do not have to wait until something dramatic happens in order to be cognizant of the basic fundamentals of right and wrong. By addressing and dismantling hateful attitudes and symbols as a part of our daily lifestyle, we can help inspire the next generation to create a more loving and accepting future.
© C.M. 2020 All Rights Reserved
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