It seemed like every kid in the complex knew where to get the goodies. I’ve seen nature shows on television about bees, which send out a single scout to find nectar, and before you know it, an entire colony has moved in. No one is quite sure how they communicate. They swarm, suck the flowers dry and move on. My apartment was a little like that, with swarms of kids that I had never seen before looking for a treat. Honestly, I loved it. I had always wanted to be the slender, pleasant, perfectly-coiffed TV mom who happily pours sugar water laced with Red Dye 40 from a frosty smiling glass pitcher. In an effort to complete the role, I saved points from the back of the packets to buy myself one of those iconic pitchers.
The mental picture of myself never quite measured up to reality. For one thing, that mail-order pitcher was not made of lovely frosty glass after all. It was plastic. It wasn’t even clear, but rather a weird shade of frosted yellow that made the Kool-Aid Man’s smile appear black when it contained Purplesaurus Rex, and brown with any other flavor. As for me, I rarely coiffed; sometimes I didn’t even shower. Neither was I slender, but no one could tell how heavy I was getting beneath my clothes. I practically lived in a shapeless pink knee-length T-shirt nightgown with a bedraggled bunny holding a coffee cup and proclaiming, “I don’t do mornings,” printed on the front. Anytime I actually got dressed, my kids would ask, “Where are we going?”
The great thing about serving as the neighborhood Kool-Aid mom, however, was that all the kids liked me, but they rarely came in to mess up my apartment. I would dispense drinks, cookies or popsicles and then make them take the food outside. This also provided our family with a certain level of “protection” like I had seen on gangster movies. As long as the Kool-Aid kept flowing, my kids were less likely to get beaten up or peed on. The best thing about befriending neighbor kids was that I was able to make friends with many of their parents as well.
The diversity of our community allowed me to get to know other moms from all over the globe. I learned a great deal about geography, culture and religion during our four year stint at the apartments. I also gained two lifelong friends there, Becky and Jill. Both of them made a significant impact on my relationship with money and possessions.
Jill, who was eight years my junior and had two preschoolers, exemplified nearly everything I imagined my life should be. She was genteel, graceful, organized and beautiful. Her apartment, though simple, was beautifully coordinated. An Irish Chain quilt, which she had stitched for her own hope chest as a teenager adorned her bed. An antique console radio acted as a lamp stand, and an old steamer trunk was her coffee table. Unlike me, she did not use chintzy pressboard cabinets to store her stuff. Her video tapes were tucked neatly into hand woven maple baskets. Instinctively she always seemed to know how to decorate with just the right amount of stuff: Her home was neither cluttered nor stark. Let’s not forget, we both lived in a mere six-hundred square feet of living space, including the hallway kitchen.
Her honey-colored naturally curly hair flowed down her back in perfect tresses. Her figure looked like it belonged on a naughty auto shop calendar, but she always dressed simply and modestly. Besides all that, she was a great cook, meticulous housekeeper and an attentive mother. To me, she was practically an urban legend.
The crazy thing about Jill, though, was that, even in all her apparent outward perfection, she was genuine, and genuinely kind. When my kids had the flu, and the four of them were tossing their cookies all over my apartment, Jill came over and helped me clean up the mess. When I was expelled from the Up Town Snotty Women’s Color Coordinated Tea Club because I was neither snotty nor color coordinated (believe me, it’s a sordid story), Jill let me cry on her shoulder. Her home was quiet and peaceful, while mine sometimes looked like a monkey wagon when the circus rolled into town. As a mark of her friendship, she once left some dry cereal spilled on her living room floor to prove to me that she, too, could be messy. Who could ask for a more faithful friend?
Jill used to have a simple graceful Windsor back pine rocker, the kind that rocked smoothly and fit my matronly fanny just right. Whenever I visited, I would relax in the chair and sip a friendly cup of tea. I loved that chair. It reflected many of the things that I admired in Jill herself: grace, beauty, simplicity and comfort. I sometimes secretly prayed for one just like it.
One evening my husband, Dan, came home with a broken rocking chair that he had retrieved from the apartment complex’s dumpster. One of the supporting cross braces was missing, so the legs and rocker on its left side had torn from their holes. The chair was pine with a Windsor back. Without the damage, it looked exactly like Jill’s.
Dan can fix anything. That, combined with the fact that he looked awesome in Angel’s Flight bellbottoms when he was twenty-five years old, is main reason why I married him. He immediately set about to restore the newly found treasure to its former glory. He re-drilled the holes and reset the legs with dowels. Then he amputated our toilet plunger handle to replace the missing cross brace. After a quick lick of matching stain across the wood, it was as good as new.
I was so elated; I could not wait to call Jill the next morning. “Jill,” I babbled, “Dan found a broken rocking chair in a dumpster last night, and he fixed it, and you’ll never believe it! It looks just like yours!”
“Where did you say he found it?” she asked glumly.
“In the neighborhood dumpster! Isn’t that amazing?”
“U-u-m, Marianne, that IS my rocker. When my husband sat down in it last night, the cross brace was missing and the whole thing went crunch.”
Suddenly, I felt nauseous. “Why didn’t you ask Dan to fix it for you, silly?”
“It’s okay,” my beautiful Jill was on the verge of tears, “I’m just glad it got a good home. I’ve gotta go now.” She hung up.
My elation had turned to sorrow. Of course, I thought grievously, I must give her the chair. I phoned her back again.
“Jill, I’m bringing over your chair.”
“Please don’t do that,” she sniffed, “I want you to have it.”
“But it’s your chair!” I argued.
“Please keep it. Don’t bring it over.” She hung up again.
The chair was no longer a blessing, but a curse. What should I do? I could not let a chair, even a beautiful dream-come-true-fantasy-life rocker, come between my friend and me. I thought about it a long time before calling her back.
“Listen, Jill, I am going to ask this only once: Would you be happier and more comfortable taking the chair back or leaving it here? Think clearly before you answer because, after this moment, I will never mention it again. I don’t want to feel a strain between us when you see the chair, whether it be in my house or yours. You’re my friend. No nonsense. No hanging up. No crying. What’ll it be?”
Jill was silent for a moment as she thought. “I really, truly want you to have it,” she said. “Yesterday, I was broken hearted to throw it away. Today, I am thrilled that you got such a beautiful rocking chair. You are my dearest friend, and I love you.”
After Jill’s husband finished at the university, they moved across the country, so he could further his education in medicine. She and I lived as neighbors for less than two years, but our bond has remained strong for over two decades. Jill is still close to my heart. To this day, I have a Windsor backed pine rocker and an amputated toilet plunger to prove it.