I was young. God, was I young. Seventh grade and I was in love. I don’t remember the first time I saw Sharla. Her sister was a good friend of my sister’s. They were in a girl’s Y group together. The group wore pink sweat shirts emblazoned with “Cher Ami” embroidered in green thread on the front.
I had heard of Sharla long before I actually met her.
I don’t remember the first time I met Sharla. We were in seventh grade student council together. I had won election to this group with the slogan, “Go far with Marr,” with a huge banner, poster paint on butcher paper, that I hung from the second story windows on the front of the school. Included was a cartoon Martian that I had created. It predated ET with an oblong ovoid head, thin neck and antennae.
What I do remember is a party I attended in seventh grade at my best friend, Billy’s, house.
Billy lived kitty corner to us and was from a big family like mine. There were five children in his family, six in mine. We ate punch and cake, then it was time for games. Someone suggested spin the bottle and to my surprise, Billy’s mother gave approval. We sat in a large circle, cross legged. Boys in stay press pants, hard shoes and oxford cloth shirts. The girls in flouncy party dresses, anklet socks and satin leather shoes. An empty wine bottle was placed in the center and the game began. Sharla did not participate.
She stood to the side with a sort of pouting look on her face and asked to be taken home. Disappointed, I continued to play the game. When it came to my turn, I spun the bottle hard. It landed on the cutest girl at the party, the daughter of a man whose restaurant chain was to be become very successful and well known. I was excited to be having my first kiss with a girl, but in my heart, disappointed that it wasn’t Sharla. I crawled into the center of the circle, as did the girl the bottle pointed to, puckered my lips and gave her a shy peck.
Sharla and I remained friends all through junior and senior high school. In high school, she worked at a popular chain ice cream store. I would go in at least once a week and get my favorite chocolate mint shake and shoot the breeze with her. Those were my favorite times with her, just talking casually and comfortably with her.
One day in high school, we were at a club car wash, I think it was for the Senior Class committee, but I am not sure. It was a hot dry day, the devil wind blowing in its acrid searing way. A water fight broke out. I remember wresting with Sharla, grabbing the spurting hose from her and dousing her heavily. I think she was the most attractive to me that day, drenched head to toe and laughing to death at my antics with the hose.
Sharla was a contestant for Homecoming Queen.
I don’t remember the details of the weeklong festivities or contest. I do remember the heart sinking feeling I felt when a friend told me she had asked a basketball jock to be her escort and not me. I worked behind the scenes at the pageant and remember seeing her standing in the footlights, dressed in a beautiful gown, hair coiffed, standing with her escort, and feeling forlorn and a bit sad.
We went to different universities and I didn’t see her much after that. She graduated, got a master’s degree from Michigan State and returned to work at her alma mater, eventually becoming Dean of Women at that college. The last time I saw her was at the grocery store in our old housing tract. It was Christmas time. I knew she had been diagnosed with cancer. I turned the corner of an aisle and there she stood, half way down the aisle. She looked up and saw me with eyes like that of a frightened deer. I could tell she didn’t want to talk, so I continued on to the next aisle.
Sharla died of breast cancer in her mid-thirties.
Her memorial service was held at a large multi-purpose room at the university she had attended and worked at. A very large crowd attended. It was perhaps the most difficult afternoon of my life. Not able to hold back tears, I silently cried. I looked up and my eyes met a class mate’s from high school, also crying, and in a moment, shared a communion of grief.
In contrast to Sharla, I think of my mother.
She led an active life. She raised six kids, was widowed at age fifty nine when my father unexpectedly died of an aneurysm, went on to teach elementary school, receive a Master’s in Educational Psychology and to both cruise the inland passage of Alaska on a 50 ft. sailboat and travel to Antarctica after the age of seventy. She developed Alzheimer’s and I care gave for her the last seven years of her life. She took up watercolor painting when she retired and was very good at it. My mother and I attended a class at the Los Angeles County Art Museum each Saturday. As she declined her painting changed. It became much more child like in imagery and spatial development. In the last few months she could no longer paint but I had her color in coloring books. She still derived pleasure from the process.
She fell and broke her hip. I had come home from an art critique and found her being loaded into an ambulance. My sister who was looking after her that evening and I followed her to the hospital. I coached her through an hour and a half of severe pain before pain medication was administered, having her focus on her breath. The pain came in spasms.
Mom was transferred to a rehabilitation hospital where she caught pneumonia and developed heart problems. She passed away a few weeks later. My feeling about my mother’s death is different than Sharla’s. Mom led a full active life. She raised six kids, had a fulfilling career as a teacher, was on the Board of Directors of a yacht club, and traveled extensively. I think her ability to laugh was the key to her success. This trait put life’s challenges into perspective and allowed her to persevere many. Because Mom led a full long life, she died at age eighty six, and because of her decline, when death came, it seemed right. It was as if her time had come.
With Sharla, death had seemed premature and unjust. Both she and I had been robbed of something; she , life, and me, a good friend. When I think of Mom, I now remember her laughter. When I think of Sharla, it is of that day at the car wash when I tousled with her. I still hear her hysterical laughter as well.
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