Recently the loss of a childhood friend, Becky, has found me digging through piles of old photos. I have been looking for photos of us together with her sister and our group of friends–photos from those idyllic early days when we were little country kids pretending to be fairies, giggling about the New Kids on the Block, and being watched over by a communal pool of like-minded progressive parents…all of whom recycled before it was easy, ate organic before that was a thing, and raised household chickens before you could buy architect-designed urban chicken coops.
I haven’t found the photos I am looking for yet. I will find them, though.
What I have managed to find is a lot of other things that have me swimming in memories and thinking about where I come from. I’ve admired photos of my 19-year-old mother dressed as Titania for a college play and my uncle looking handsome in his navy uniform. I’ve dug through evidence of the trips my mom and step-dad brought my step-brother Max and me on as we worked to blend our families. We were even included on their honeymoon, which we were welcomed on because they married us as much as each other (take note future step-parents, for real). I’ve laughed at pictures of my awkward years (basically the entire 90s). And I have uncovered the most heartwarming evidence that once very, very long ago, even if I don’t remember it, my parents were beautifully and madly in love.
Although I started digging through photos with a very particular set of pictures in mind, and I was disappointed not to find them, there was something oddly comforting about seeing the odd selection of photos. The collection told some kind of elegant linear story about what I thought was a knotted mess. And many of the photos I found were images from around the time that I was running around with Becky having fairy fights…they were a sort of context for our friendship. Our friendship began in the golden era in my very early childhood (she and I were around four, her little sister was just a year younger) and it more or less ended when I was 11, when I moved away.
I have tended to avoid thinking too much of that time period that is bookended by that friendship. It always made me sad–in the way that our childhood memories can do, but also because it was the time period leading up to and during my parent’s divorce. I had all but forgotten until a few days ago how Becky was a big part of my misguided and childish attempts to keep my family together…we conspired to scare off my mother’s then boyfriend (now my beloved step-father) with embarrassing behavior at a restaurant. As was always the case with her, she went all in…loyally misbehaving in hopes that the suitor would never again return!
Fortunately, he came back (Again, sorry about that Phil…).
Since having Esmé it has been even harder to think about that time period. The beautiful independence of my childhood–running around acres of land with friends, limited only by our imaginations (and hunting season…) is something I’d always imagined my own child experiencing as well… But what I had is a kind of independence that Esmé cannot handle, the kinds of friendships she isn’t ready for, and the relationship with nature that isn’t available to her (yet).
So, I set that time aside. Tucked it away in the back of my mind…and traded it in for standers, and physical therapy, and limited peer exposure, and Yo Gabba Gabba.
But the death of my friend sent me in search of these memories…and made me realize how defining this time period was–and how much of who I am is owed to that time. And so I have decided to swim in it a bit…
At the time our families were involved in a huge battle with the county government, which was determined to bring in a trash-burning plant. Our parents were adamantly opposed to this…and they organized a citizens committee order to fight it. My mother was the president of the citizens committee and Becky’s father was also especially involved. The members of the citizens committee were eventually sued in a SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) suit when two counties filed a lawsuit against over 300 citizens. As my mom explained, the lawsuit was an attempt to “frighten us for opposing the Garbage incinerator project. It was the first time that a governmental entity in the US openly utilized the developers attorneys to sue the government’s citizens! It was a landmark case and we later sued the government in Federal Court for violating our rights and WON.” (Read this article to learn more about this case).
During this period I spent so much time with my little friends at least in part because our parents were busy fighting these battles–so they shared childcare a whole lot. In addition to time over at friends’ houses I spent many evenings playing by myself under a conference table during my mom’s meetings. I quietly drew protest signs for fun (my masterpiece was an image of what I thought a “burn plant” was–a plant with flames and smoke coming off of it). I tagged along as the only child at rallies. When I was five I was on the front page of the local newspaper wearing a cloth over my mouth as a silent protest for the exclusion of community voices at a county board meeting. My mother had expressly forbid me to wear one, but many of the adults were, so I snuck one. Sitting far away from my mom, next to an adult I knew well, I put it on and sat up straight. The newspaper photographer captured my small proud act of rebellion.
The photos I found reminded me of what my mother was up to in those days (I’ve written more about her here before–she’s pretty amazing)…her helping lead a rally on the steps of the state Capitol in 1989 and then photos of her campaign for state senate in 1991. This was before she started law school. I’d sort of forgotten about all of it. But as I looked over these photos I began to think about what a gift it was to have grown up around this kind of activity, with models of outspoken and driven adults, people who weren’t afraid to speak up about what they felt was right, what would make the world better and safer–even when it wasn’t popular or easy.
And it made me think about how I have chosen to respond to having Esmé in my life–how my immediate impulse was always to talk about her, to share her, in an effort to make some kind of change in the world…however small it might be. It is something my parents and their friends modeled for us: How to put yourself out there for things, people, causes that really matter–that when something matters, you speak up loudly. So, while my daughter isn’t growing up running through fields, or climbing high in hay barns, or chasing chickens…she does have a bit of what I had growing up. She hears me talking on the phone with researchers. She knows I have to travel for medical conferences. She visits pharmaceutical companies with me to show them how important their drugs are. She plays while I work on her school planning, while I write about her, while I plan foundation events. She must know, on some level, what we knew as kids, that our parents were fighting, in a some way, to make the world a bit better.
And I do hope that at some point she too will be as lucky as I was to have a friend who will play pretend fairies, giggle well passed bedtime, and loyally misbehave to some glorious end with her. Someone whose face will call back to her as she digs through boxes of memories. Someone that she will remember years later with such deep affection that it will make her heart skip a beat. As I did. As I do.