Last night I Zoomed with Nina; we met 51 years ago in second grade at Congdon Elementary School in Duluth, Minnesota. Nina still has her girlish gush and sparkle; she has lost the pigtails. This morning I swapped dog photos with Kate, who was forced to share an office with me when we were editors at Penthouse magazine and young and cute. I just got off the phone with Renee; we toiled together in the lipstick mines of Ding Dong! Avon Calling! thirty years ago.
Renee and I were pregnant at the same time. We still argue about who was the bad influence. (“I was! I was much worse than you!”) The 60 pounds we each gained were thanks to mid-morning no-caf full-fat lattes washed down with chocolate croissants, and midafternoon ice cream sundaes, delivered expensively and quickly from the “Brooklyn Diner” in midtown Manhattan. My office desk was a sticky flaky mess for the eight months Renee and I luxuriated in our license to eat; we devoured enough for two hippos or one person at a Disney cruise midnight buffet. Our now grow-up babies were born a week apart in the same hospital; we never swap pix of our kids.
When it comes to friends, I’m a lucky girl, remarkable since given my druthers, my favorite thing is curling up alone in my comfy chair with a book and a box of cookies.
Which was how I spent most of my childhood. Nabisco Lorna Doones have given way to Walker’s Scottish shortbread. I don’t think my taste in reading has improved much.
I was seven years old when a flood of loneliness jolted my nose out of the Nancy Drew mystery, The Secret of the Old Clock. I had no Bess, no George. My friends were fictional: Dorothy Gale, Laura Ingalls, Pippi Longstocking, Alice of no last name, Meg and her three sisters.
At the moment of realization, my sister, the feral child, was down in the basement on one of rampages, besting a Barbie to death, and my mother was intermittently running the garbage disposal and cursing.
I felt as alone as Robinson Cruso pre-TGIF.
I tucked a finger into my book so I wouldn’t lose my place and walked into the kitchen, where my mother was battling the garbage disposal for a spoon.
“I don’t have any friends,” I said to my mother’s back, over her mumbled “Horseshit horseshit horseshit horseshit.” Without turning around, she said, “To have a friend, you must be a friend” and yanked the deformed spoon from the sink like young Arthur extracting Excalibur.
Mom, who believed in the power of a Chinese fat-melting bath soap and never met a zebra print, rhinestone, or sequin she didn’t like, was a woman of many words, few of them wise. Yet “Everything you do to your face, do to your neck” and “To have a friend you must be a friend” are two of the best pieces of advice you’ll ever be handed.With the enthusiasm of Charles Darnay approaching Madame Guillotine I schlumped to the red rotary phone on the wall, its extra-long coil as twisted as the Wicked Witch. (Ding Dong again!) From the junk-strewn table below I excavated the telephone book. (Unimaginable that such a thing could disappear from our lives. What are little kids expected to sit on at Thanksgiving?) I turned to the “E” section of the White Pages, and ran my finger down the teeny type till I found Judge and Mrs. E, parents of the smart girl in pigtails whose desk was next to mine.
It took Shackleton-like courage, but I did it. “Hello Mrs. E, this is Gay Haubner from Condgon. Does Nina want to come over and play?” Nina did, and my life-long learning on how to be a friend began. (Lesson One: Pick up the damn phone. Don’t wait for your friends to call/text you. It’s not a game, no one is keeping score.)
Nina was and is a great generous soul; she ushered me into her gang of brave, funny, intrepid girls. (Lesson Two: Do your pals a favor, introduce them to each other.) We kids of the ’60s made our own dates; mothers were chauffeurs and snack providers, not personal assistants. Unlike the benighted youth of today, we did not hunch mesmerized over a screen. Screens existed only on TV where kids’ programming was relegated to two hours after school and the glories of Saturday morning.
We played outdoors, in weather clement and in-, building secret forts in the woods, tagging and hopscotching and jumping rope in the quiet streets, burying each other in leaves, cracking-the-whip at one of Duluth’s dozens of skating rinks, and when the ice was finally gone (usually by the 4th of July) testing our Minnesota fortitude wading into sky-blue, steel-cold Lake Superior.
When forced inside, we played troll dolls and Barbies, the Game of Life, Parcheesi, Chutes and Ladders, and my favorite, Go to the Head of the Class. We put on plays and forced our parents to watch. We decided to write a book in the style of L. Frank Baum, starring us as Princesses, Spunky Heroines, and Good Witches. Our total output was four pages of story and 14 crayon drawings. Then Duluth was socked in for days by a blizzard and our manuscript disappeared.
And we had slumber parties. I don’t think boys had slumber parties. Poor boys.
Slumber parties required a space as far as possible from the bedroom where parents were trying to sleep. A carpeted basement with a door at the top of the stairs was ideal. The party started with the assembly of a cozy nest; we piled up sleeping bags that smelled of wood smoke and as many pillows and blankets as we were able to smuggle out of the house.
Dinner was not served; the concept that you could have delicious hot food delivered to your home would have seemed like something out of The Jetsons.
In that pre-microwave era, Jiffy Pop was obligatory slumber party fare. Half the corn kernels never popped (we oblivious girls called these tooth-crackers “old maids”), the bottom burned, and there was a high risk of face melt from the steam that shot out when you tore open the tin foil excrescence. Hawaiian Punch was our usual quaff; if my mom were alive I’d get her technique for removing red stains from bed linens.
After finishing up what Jiffy Pop was actually edible, we devoured Old Dutch Potato Chips (only one flavor: salt), Pizza Spins and/or Bugles. (Bugles were first placed on fingers like yellowed Grand Klaxon hoods and then eaten off one by one.) Pizza, an exotic item in Duluth, made an appearance in Jeno’s Pizza Rolls. Someone always burnt the roof of her mouth, usually Crazy Wendy, who was the Best of Us and Gone Too Soon.
Between snacking we played Twister in flannel nightgowns. We ripped the ruled pages from our notebooks and manufactured dozens of folded paper fortune tellers, even though most of us had a Magic Eight Ball somewhere. We played Truth or Dare, which got racier and more dangerous each year. We talked about who the ickiest boys were, who had been spotted flicking his boogers or gotten caught peeing on the coal doors at the back of Congdon Elementary or carved his name with a jackknife into an already battle-scarred wooden desk. “He’s going to end up in Red Wing,” was whispered in horror. Red Wing was the Minnesota Boys Reformatory (A Home), which I’m sure was less horror-fraught than a WASP boarding school.
Gradually boys became less icky; we scribbled their names on the inside petals of those paper fortune tellers to reveal who secretly liked you. First Nina, our natural leader, was asked to the movies, and then Prell Girl blonde Paula found a boy with a car, and then there were no more slumber parties.
The last slumber party I went to was when I was 28: my hen party, thrown by three women I worked with at an Atlanta ad agency. Our boss was a Southern gentleman, Virgil Schutze, who showed his disapproval of 90 percent of the advertising copy I brought to him by holding it to his backside and farting.
The dress code for that slumber/hen party was flannel nightgowns. If you haven’t had many many glasses of wine while laughing your flannel-covered ass off, you have not lived. Our revelry was interrupted by a pounding at the door. It was a handsome, Tom Selleck-mustached, frowning policeman in a very well-fitting uniform.
“Ladies, there’s been a complaint.” We sobered up enough to apologize and promised to keep it down.
“There’s been a complaint that you aren’t having enough fun!” The policeman pulled out a boom box, turned “It’s Raining Men” up to 11, and removed his uniform while thrusting in our general direction. Thank you Virgil Schutze for the thoughtful wedding present.
Isaac Newton claimed he stood on the shoulders of giants. I have leaned on the shoulders of women with giant hearts, and I hope I have provided a comforting shoulder, attentive ears, and an open heart in return. (Lesson Three: No matter what fresh hell you are going through, do not forget to ask your pal, “And how are you doing?”)
I have one wish in my bucket: a big house anywhere, for just a night or two, so I can call all my girlfriends and invite them to A Slumber Party, Suggested Attire: Flannel Nighties. We’ll relive adventures from long ago, celebrate achievements small and mighty, pass around photos of kids and dogs. We’ll probably cry. We’ll laugh a whole lot more and many of us (raises hand) will drink too much Pinot Grigio because it will be very good Pinot Grigio. We’ll GrubHub or DoorDash or UberEats, making sure that each order has some gluten-free, some vegan, some no-salt, and some paleo. And I promise there will be Jiffy Pop.
Featured image: Gay’s 3rd grade class on Valentine’s Day (courtesy Gay Haubner)
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