Friendship: How has a friend changed you or your perspective on the world this year? Was this change gradual, or a sudden burst? Author: Martha Mihalick
I have never been good at long division. It just felt like to me an attempt to separate the big number from the small. Part of me liked the architecture of it, all those lines and angles, and how you could make everything work out to zero, but when I looked at the big number at the top and the zero together, it just felt like something was lost in all that dividing. And sometimes there was a remainder. What about that?
I grew up in a town divided. White/black, rich/poor, white poor/black poor. Those kin to everybody/those kin to none. Those born there/those who were not. Farmers/farm workers. Educated/not. The black/white part everybody understood. It was just that way.
The rich/poor or upper class/middle class thing was harder to determine. I didn't think of my family as rich, though because my father was a doctor, a lot of folks in town thought we were. But I never had fancy outfits — everything I owned had to go with something else. I didn't get my own car when I turned 16. We didn't take fancy family trips. I guess back then, I thought that most all the white families in my town were rich, and all the black ones poor, not understanding divisions by degrees.
My own world was pretty small. School, church, home, riding bikes, playing Clue in the summer, hanging out with friends who were pretty much like me.
Though I don't remember when I met her, I had a friend named Hilda Kay. In first grade we took tap dancing and ballet together, and when it came time for our recital in the spring, we had our picture taken for the town newspaper. I'm seated on the front row, with my friend Lydia, and Kay is in the back, her eyes wide and wondering, or at least that's what it looks like to me. We played the roles of maids to the lone boy in our group, who played Mr. Clean. (He had an earring way before it was fashionable, but for heaven's sakes. Maids?) Hilda Kay didn't live near me, but when you live in a town that is about 2 square miles, I guess that's relative. Her house was in the neighborhood where my family lived when I was born, down Church Street and across 12th, then straight on the dirt road by the Boy Scout Hut where my brother went once each week.
When I was young, I remember Hilda Kay as a smiling girl who later wore glasses. Once when I played with her after school, she showed me her bb gun. My father had a shotgun, but it was buried in the back of a closet, and I had never seen him take it out. That day was the first time I ever shot a gun of any kind. I can't tell you now what I shot at, but I thought I was going to get in trouble. I do recall that when Hilda Kay shot, her aim was true.
Divisions within our class were fairly clear-cut as I recall: reading groups, smart vs. "socially promoted." Kids who sometimes didn't wear shoes because they couldn't afford them, who rarely bathed, or who didn't show up until after harvesting season ended because they worked on the farm. And the rest of us. Hilda Kay was one of us.
Though she was a bit scrappy, if she will forgive me that adjective. In 6th grade, Kay and another of my friends — who lived on my side of town — got into a fight after school on the playground. Girls in my group got into spats all the time, but this was an arm-slinging fist fight like the boys got into. I remember kids in a circle — boys and girls — egging the two of them on, and I like to think I was not one of them, but I likely was. I remember dust flying with the punches, and wondering how it must feel to be pulled to the ground with your underwear exposed for all to see. When I picture it in my mind, I am far away, but I was probably closer to it than I care to admit. The friend she fought was probably at the time supposed to be my better friend, but she was often not nice to me, or to others in our circle, so was I secretly pulling for Hilda Kay to win?
I never saw Hilda Kay as being set apart in any way from the rest of us, except maybe she was smarter that most. I certainly never thought of her as poor. Her Daddy was a mailman, after all. She tells me now that she was a keen observer when she played with friends who had more than she did at home, trying to emulate the manners her mother didn't teach her but our mothers did. She never had napkins on the table, she says — I thought everybody did — and when she visited our homes, she would watch closely how we used ours, so she would know what to do. She described my childhood home as clean and quiet and safe, and my mother elegant. I know about the clean and quiet, but whose home would not be safe when you are 11?
In 1969, when integration loomed, a bunch of us moved to a private 'academy', a euphemism for a place where no blacks where allowed. (My town, 15 years after Brown vs. Board of Education, had not fully integrated, and the white power elite took what they perceived as their right not too follow the law all the way to the US Supreme Court. Not their finest day.)Before we left public school, we all loved our classmate Vironette, one of the blacks to integrate before 1969. She could hit a softball harder than any girl I had ever seen, and when we left for the academy, she wanted to go with us. Kay and I both have often wondered what happened to her.
Kay stayed in the public school because her family could not afford otherwise. And she made friends with the black kids, played basketball with them, walked down Main Street with them, which was something none of the rest of us would do. I know these things, not because I knew them then, but because just a few weeks ago, Kay and I became friends again, on Facebook.
In 10th grade, she joined us at the academy. And then, when she was about 16, she vanished from our sight. In the years since, I have heard here and there about her. I knew she was an attorney, but that was about all.
When I found her on FB, I sent her a quick note, hoped she was well, wondered how she was doing, told her I was a writer. Soon, she wrote back, and in the weeks since we have learned a lot about each other we didn't know. And she has enlightened me about many things, about how much we are the same, and how divisions, real and unintended, shaped us both. We have discovered that we wondered about lots of the same things, but were too young to articulate what our thoughts were.
Growing up, I always thought I was a little divided from my group of friends. I thought too much, cried when somebody looked at me the wrong way, had long conversations with myself, some of them about the divisions I couldn't understand. Why was it was ok to have black servants prepare food for me when I spent the night with friends, but it was not ok to share a classroom with them, or to shake their hands in church?
I have come to learn that Kay wondered about these things, too. In her emails, she has shared a lot about her life and how different it was from mine, though I never knew any of it. We have laughed over the schoolyard brawl, which she says now was because she was tired of our "friend" choosing who would be left out of our group each day. She recalls getting in a pretty good punch before the fight was broken up.
Kay moved out of her house as a teenager, dropped out of high school, and I knew nothing of this, just knew she was not in our class for graduation. She later became a nurse, then went to law school at George Washington. And she flies her own plane for heaven's sake. Doesn't sound like something a scrappy little girl — who might be most famous in childhood for fighting a battle few of us were willing to — could accomplish. But I said she was smart.
Hilda Kay has done well for herself. She has her own private practice, is married to a doctor, and rescues precious puppies who need a loving lap to spend some time in. It seems now that she has finally made a safe home for herself.
Our email conversations have been a gift, and all these words have been an attempt to articulate what all I have learned from her. Much, but maybe I can say it like this: Dare every now and then to cross that great divide, even if though the answer might be zero. Because sometimes, when the dust settles and the angry crowd withdraws, you might just find that what remains is worth keeping.