Karen and Libbett always held fort on the front row because they were short. Here they are in Miss Williams' 5th grade, Karen on the right in navy knee socks, Libbett (for Little Bit) to her left in the navy jumper. Betty Keeter stands between these two girls who never really got the message— as my good friend Anne Boone said recently about Karen — that they were short. They were together in their defiance, both of them growing larger in life than their frames portrayed. And now, at age 52 and 53 respectively, Karen and Libbett are dead, Karen from cancer in November, and Libbett on Saturday, from complications of a lifelong battle with juvenile diabetes.
This seems fairly impossible for me to imagine. Two girls I grew up knowing throughout my childhood — Libbett from birth and Karen from kindergarten, are not here anymore. Even if I didn't think about them as I drank my morning coffee or on my drive to work, they were there, somewhere. But now, how can it be that they are not anywhere, anymore? Except of course, in heaven.
Today memories flood my mind, particularly of Libbett, who lived just down the road, four houses from my own.
The fourth child— and first girl — in a family of three older brothers, she must have grown up fighting for her own space. I spent many a Friday night at her house, playing 'Murder in the Dark' with her brothers, down the long narrow hall of their house, scared more than half to death. In the morning, we woke up to Lon Cheney's Mummy on Sunrise Theater, watching the flickering black and white screen from the floor of the playroom of her house on the hill.
We didn't have a playroom at our house. But her house was all about play, from the playroom to the tennis court, from the horse barn to the handmade dough ornaments on the Christmas tree. Even the tenant house way out back where the maid lived with a daughter named Queen Ester was our playground. A real queen, living in an unpainted house with a wide front porch. Nobody else had that in their back yard. (I seem to recall the maid's name was Irene — I remember how she talked, in a low rasp that sounded like she had swallowed too much snuff — and that she was left-handed, which I am, and how she told me one day that her teachers wrapped her hand up so she would be right-handed, but she was ambidextrous instead.)
Saturday mornings in Libbett's house meant her mother would be in the kitchen, humming as she poured blueberry pancake batter onto a sizzling pan. After breakfast, it was to the bathroom to check her blood sugar with little strips of paper that turned color when dipped into the little potty she kept there. She even let me pee in it a few times. Her diabetes was as much a part of our lives as my left-handedness, a fact that made her who she was. I marveled, watching her bravery, as she stabbed herself in the thigh with a hypodermic. Who could do that at seven? Doctor's child that I am, I ran screaming at the sight of one, except in Libbett's little bathroom.
She was as creative a child as I was gullible — the tooth fairy lived in a tiny castle built in the woods that separated our houses with the teeth she gathered from beneath our pillows. Libbett said so. I imagined Tinkerbell, flitting about, a little dusty from the sandy soil, her toothy front door framed by tiny cotton boles gathered from the fields all around. But somehow we never found this magical home amid the stumps, wiregrass and kudzu in our woods. (Why the tooth fairy would want to live in a house made from missing teeth, I never understood, but she left a quarter under my pillow, so I dared not challenge her. Or Libbett.)
At the base of the hill in front of Libbett's house, there was a pond shaped like a footprint, and across the street in front of the old churchyard, another. Oh, the hours I spent trying to fall to sleep, imagining a giant strolling down the highway outside my house, deciding not to take that giant step in my yard but in hers instead — she was the lucky one.
And I will never forget the day she told me that Santa Claus was not real. My mother was ironing when I came home from her house with this most unsettling news. (I think I was probably 11 by then! He is who you choose to believe he is, my mother said, and so I have never really stopped believing.)
Born an artist, Libbett had the largest box of Crayolas in first grade that I had ever seen, the thin ones with violet and flesh for colors, and a sharpener on the side. The rest of us had the flat box of six giant ones to fit our nubby fingers. She drew full figures to our stick ones, girls with curled hair and eye lashes, window boxes when the rest of us could barely sketch a window at all.
And what a Barbie collection. I admit that I coveted her Barbie nesting mixing bowls. I believe — though I can't rely on my memory — that she had a Barbie mixmaster to go with them. And a kitchen.
Libbett's family had horses, and I learned from her not to go barefoot in the barn because I might catch hookworms. Sometimes we'd head out to the pasture beside her house, and she'd saddle up. She could ride, but I could not, and I distinctly recall her galloping down the dusty road behind our houses, as I labored, lopsided, to stay on the horse, scared that I would surely die that day. I wonder now if she failed to fasten the saddle on tight enough for me.
In thinking of what she taught me — childhood friends always teach you something —perhaps it is best to say this: to explore. The woods for the tooth fairy, the colors in the Crayola box, the complications of friendship — and ours was complicated. Sometimes we got into trouble. Sometimes we didn't get along. And sometimes I did stick up for myself.
But she is there in so many memories, at church, home, school, on the back road, in the old tobacco barn, in her room at night, watching the shadow of trees scrape across the window. Today, as I browse photos of her on her 50th birthday on the Facebook page set up for her by her family, I see something in there of the girl she was. I know nothing of what her adult life was like, nor she mine. I suppose we are both at a loss because of that.
She told me once that I could write about a paper clip and make it interesting. I don't know this to be true at all. The paper clip. If you filtered through my file cabinet now, you'd see that I favor it over the staple, though I am not sure why. It is a temporary fix, looping a hold on things that can too easily slip away.
I am thinking now that I want to staple myself to the people I am still connected to in the picture above by virtue of Miss William's fifth grade. I don't want to lose anyone else. We have a past together. I have kept up with some of you. But you can't know how often I wonder about the rest.
Bottom row: Mark Faithful, Woody Pridgen, Bobby Keeter, Johnny Hudson, Otis Cocker, Ralph Leggett, Libbett Gregory, Betty Keeter, Karen Todd; Second row: Robbie Mosley, Scott Allsbrook, Elizabeth Stallings?, Lydia Bray, Parks Boyd, Paul Oglesby, ??, George Johnson; third row: ??, :?? Sandra Coward (where are you?!), Betty Rufty, Susan Byrum, Toni Harrington (she had her hand slapped with a yardstick by Miss Williams!!); Charmaine Lofton, Billy Cook; back row:Douglas Pickette, Lanny Lawrence?, Ricky Payne, Bill Whitehead, David McLawhorn, Lee King. (please correct my memory if I have gotten a name wrong:)
(This is not our whole class. I don't have a copy of the one from Miss Holton's class. Miss Holton... now there's a story. She deserves a story all by herself.)