Tuesday, January 4, 2011

My Friend Irene

In 1927, I changed schools and went to a public school--the Sixth Street School, where older brother, Norm, was already enrolled. It was very different from the Adventure School; the classes were large, as they had been at Miller School in Evanston, and the kids and teachers different as well. I had a rather interesting teacher, Miss Martin, who was good at motivating students to learn.

I remember being quite overwhelmed at the numbers of kids, most of whom knew each other, while I knew no one and no one knew me. Because of this, I got to know another new girl, Irene Seahy, because we were both sitting on the sidelines watching everyone else, not knowing how to get involved.

Irene and I hit it off immediately. She was fun to talk to. Her hair was auburn--almost red--and kept in pigtails to keep her hair out of her face. She had freckles and blue eyes and she smiled a lot. We became very good friends, and often played together after school, usually at my house, because her family lived on State Street in downtown Geneva over an Italian grocery store, and there wasn't really any place there to play.

If the weather was bad, we played inside. Irene loved to play with my dolls and toys--especially the dolls, and most especially my doll, Catherine, who had real curly hair, open and shut eyes, and a slight smile revealing a row of perfect little teeth. Irene loved to pley with her, and put on all her different outfits.

My parents were going on a trip that spring, so my mother's mother, or "Gramma," as we used to call her, came to take care of us while my parents were away. We were slways happy when Gramma came. She was nice to us, had a good sense of humor, and made things fun. She like to laugh and made us laugh too. But some of this changed as soon as she saw Irene. She was horrified by Irene's black cotton stockings.

"How could anybody let a little girl wear those awful black stockings?" asked Gramma. I didn't understand. "I don't think she's from a very good family," Gramma continued, "and I'd rather you didn't play with her any more." I was horrified.

"But, Gramma, she's my very best friend!"

"You just don't understand, Marjie. People of good breeding just wouldn't dress a little girl like that." I had no idea of the concept of snobbery, and was at a loss to explain to myself what Irene's black stockings could possibly have to do with what kind of a friend she was. But Gramma was adamant: I was not to play with Irene.

From that day on, I could no longer bring Irene home after school, and of course couldn't go to her house either. We got around the ban by going to other kids' houses instead, and if Gramma asked if I had gone to Irene's I could honestly say "No."

But then one day, on her way back from viviting a friend, Gramma happened to pass the house where several of us were playing in the front yard. As soon as she spotted Irene, she stopped at the front gate and called me, her face expressionless, "Marjorie!" She never said my name full out like that unless something was wrong. I looked at her with a sinking feeling. "Marjorie, come with me now, please." I went out the gate and went with Gramma.

After that I had to come home every day after school and not go to anyone's house. That was my punishment for having disobeyed. I could only see Irene in class and on the playground at recess. I still remember with pain the look of hurt in her kind blue eyes when I told her I couldn't play with her anymore. Her freckles seemed to stand out even more than usual as her face grew pale. We were both very sad.

Then one day at school Irene told me that they were going to move away. Her father had been out of work and now had found a job in another town. "We're moving next week!" said Irene miserably, "Now we'll never see each other at all!" My heart sank. I felt awful.

"Oh, Irene, I'm really going to miss you!" I was holding back tears. "I wish you didn't have to move."

"Me, too," said Irene, "You're my best friend." We both had tears in our eyes.

As I walked home my heart was heavy, and somehow I couldn't help but feel it was Gramma's fault, even though I knew it wasn't.

My favorite doll, Catherine, the one that Irene loved to play with, had lots of clothes, and a little trunk in which to keep them. Irene would always put her oufits on her, one by one, imagining her to be a real little girl. The reason there were so many sets of clothes, hats and shoes was that relatives had been clued in by my mother, so that at Christmas and birthdays they kept increasing Catharine's wardrobe. She must have been the best dressed doll in the world! Now, I decided to give her to Irene.

The afternoon before Irene was to leave forever, I put Catherine and her little trunk full of clothes into a basket with a handle, covered it all with her doll quilt, slipped out the back door in direct defiance of my grandmother's orders, and set out for Irene's house, the apartment above the grocery store.

Everything at the Seahy's was in upheaval, with boxes everywhere. Irene's mother smiled when she saw me. "Come in, Marjie, we've missed you." She was packing and she looked tired, but she smiled anyway and called Irene. When Irene saw me, her face lit up. "Marjie! I thought you couldn't..."

"I came anyway," I said, "I had to say goodbye, and I wanted to bring you something." Irene eyed the basket with interest. We sat on the floor near the window so she could look.

"What is it?" she asked excitedly, as I put the basket between us.

"Take a look," I said, and watched as she gingerly lifted a corner of the quilt.

"Its Catherine!" she almost shouted, "It's Catherine and her trunk and her clothes and her little pillow!" Her face looked ecstatic. I smiled, feeling a great wave of happiness wash over me.

"Now she's yours, Irene," I assured her. Irene's blue eyes filled with tears. She couldn't say anything. She just sat there looking at Catherine.
Then her mother said,

"Marjie, I don't think you should give away anything as expensive as this."

"I have lots of dolls," I explained, "and I want to give this one to Irene as a goodbye present." No matter what Irene's mother said, I kept insisting, and finally she agreed that Irene could have the doll. I think somehow she knew how much I needed to give it to Irene to show my love, and to make up for my grandmother's cruelty in coming between us. It was an expression of the bond between Irene and me.

"Every time I look at Catherine, I'll think of you," said Irene.

"And every time I think of Catherine, I'll remember she's with you," I answered, "and I'll feel happy." We understood each other perfectly.

When I left and went down the stairs to the street, I turned at the bottom to look back, and Irene was there on the landing holding Catherine in one arm and waving goodbye with the other.

Nothing anyone could have said or done, no punishment, no matter how harsh or how long, could ever have erased the happiness of giving my favorite doll to my favorite friend, Irene.

I never saw either one again, but even now, I can't help but smile and feel that same happiness about my doll and Irene that I felt so long ago when I was nine and learned to give with my whole heart.