I can still see Sandy standing in front of our 4th grade class her first day at school after they moved to Hartford from Vermont. She wore a green plaid dress I admired and her brown hair was straight with a bit of curl at the ends. She stared back at us with her big blue-gray eyes ("Irish eyes", my mom called them), taking our measure as we took hers. "This is Sandra Hale," our teacher announced, "from Craftsbury, Vermont." Dutifully, we chorused, "Welcome, Sandra." Her eyes twinkled as she smiled, then shyly ducked her head. Won over, we smiled back.
But I was stuck on the words "Craftsbury, Vermont." Craftsbury. Vermont. I pictured a place like our cousins´ farm where we had just visited that summer in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. But that day I saw it set against a background of huge mountains dark with evergreens instead of the Berkshires´ rolling hills, a creek with clear, sweet water trickled nearby, and I saw a tire swing hanging from a great majestic tree in the front yard, heard cows mooing in the distance and insects swarming around the sweet summer smell of flowers growing in the side yard. Craftsbury. Vermont.
We became good friends. Sometimes, on summer weekends, her parents took us to Lake Compounce where we swam, played games of chance and she tried unsuccessfully to get me to go on rides. The trip home was exciting when her folks had had a bit too much beer to drink, which they usually did. It was exciting in part because they were a bit tipsy but also because her dad drove so slow.
I remember winter afternoons playing an endless game of Monopoly in her kitchen while we ate her mom´s mince pie and drank tea with milk. Her mom, Ruby, was one of my favorite moms. She was always kind to me and never took sides when her daughters fought as they often did. Sandy’s older sister, Darlene, was never nice to us. At best, she just ignored us.
Sandy and I took turns sleeping over at each other´s houses on summer weekends when we were in junior high. My dad died shortly before I turned eight and Mom and I still lived with his family, his older brother Bob, a physician, and his mom. Uncle Bobby lived for medicine and was rarely aware of the world outside of that. My friends were either afraid of Uncle Bobby, didn´t like him, or both.
One morning as Sandy was lifting a piece of toast to her lips, Uncle Bobby looked up from one of his perpetual medical journals and, puzzled, asked my mom, "Doesn´t that kid have a home?" It recently occurred to me he looked up, recognized her and assumed she was now always there, not that he’d seen her two weeks earlier.
I laughed, mostly at his delivery. Sandy, poor kid, froze.
My mom glared at him, patted Sandy´s shoulder and said, "Eat your toast, honey." To him with annoyed disgust, "Bobby, they´re just kids."
He grunted and went back to reading and eating.
When I stayed at Sandy´s house on Lenox Street, we often managed to stay awake til the wee hours. Then we´d sneak out, muffling giggles, to sit on our spines, eyes closed, barely speaking in her father´s car parked on the street, our bare feet resting on the dashboard. We´d turn the radio on and listen to country western music in "those last years," to paraphrase Van Morrison, "before rock and roll." Late at night under clear starry skies we could pull in Wheeling, West Virginia which seemed as far away as Mars. During commercials we´d talk about boys and the latest mean thing Darlene had said or done to one or both of us.
Every now and then, her father would bang out of the house, stomp over to the car, dressed only in his trousers, bare feet shoved into slippers. He´d bang on the window and when he got our attention, yell, "Shut that darn thing off! You´re running down my battery. And get to bed - it´s late!" Then he´d stomp off again.
We´d nod dutifully, but then a favorite song would play and we´d be lost again as Loretta sang of "Honky Tonk Angels", Kitty Kallen taught us that "Little Things Mean a Lot", and Patsy went "Walkin´ After Midnight." Sometimes we sang along.
To this day, when I hear certain melodies or lyrics, I´m back in that old car again hearing the DJ say, "You´re listening to WWVA in Wheeeeling, Weeessst Virr-gin-ee-ah!" and I feel the warm late night camaraderie of those times when all of life with its hopes and dreams was before us.