“Characters who are on the screen from start to finish are not necessarily the ones who have the greatest impact.”—Jeanne Moreau
“No one you love is ever truly lost.” – Ernest Hemingway
“I know now that there is no one thing that is true – it is all true.” – Ernest Hemingway
New Year’s Eve we raised glasses to friends, to parents, to teachers, to brothers and sisters – to those close as close can be and those encountered fleetingly – who with a touch, hard or soft, had somehow shaped us. Whether with a moment or with years, with encouragement or challenges, lives are moulded and contours shifted by those we encounter. We’re pulled and stretched and when need be, patted gently with kindness. A few words uttered by a passing stranger might birth an epiphany while the cadence of long conversations shared with a friend are recalled less for what was said than for the smiles flickering in the waning of a candle. Thus, we are built by those remembered, and whether by luck or fate, or my penchant for stumbling, I count myself blessed with these merging of paths.
And so, Lest old acquaintances be forgot … this is the story of one girl who left her impression, very clearly, very deeply, very truly, without pointing a finger, without the slightest demand.
Hop-scotching forward through this new year, I can’t help looking back. I turn my head against the cold and feel a breeze, soft and warm. The ice thaws, the years melt and there it is, after all this time … the old schoolyard: Six well-worn swings, their rusted chains creaking with soaring girls, toes pointed toward the clouds, skirts fluttering. Over there, a dusty baseball diamond and a couple bleachers four tiers high and all around a wire fence and the trees beyond it, green-green, with the promise of summer. Kids race through the sunlight in a game of tag, their shadows darting like danger behind them. Tossed balls bounce off an orange brick wall while girls bounce through double-dutch ropes, counting 102, 103, 104… Listen: the wild laughter of boys in pursuit of their prey and the squeals of girls piercing the air. And Anne and I, like conjoined twins, walking with whispers, somewhere on the perimeter of all this, our fingers tracking the diamond link fence, our brows knotted with untold tales.
Stories were our game. With words or pictures, and often both, we took turns contorting ourselves into myriad shapes of being. Trapping our shadows upon the sand, we traced the lines of wisdom, fear, power, boredom, anger or joy, hunger or hope … all with the sun at our backs.
OK. What do you wanna be, Anne? She replied: FREEDOM.
Rising upon her toes, she stretched herself tall and spreading her arms upward and out, froze her pose for me to draw. With a stick I traced the shape she cast, like an insect navigating its edges from beginning to end. Shadows never look like what you’d expect. Taking their form from the angle of the sun, they often surprise us with a distorted blob, a form more akin to a dark deep-sea-thing, than to the girl in pink who stood emulating light. Leaving no room for ambiguity, I scratched a sun into the sand above her head.
Anne sought, always, to portray what was good, whereas I courted mischief and monsters. Humour did not come naturally to her and yet she could laugh, just not at the expense of anyone else. Ours was a merging of opposites. She posed as humility, I drew in her wings. I posed as wicked, she added my horns. We examined, then, our disparate array of characters and with a wonky web of narratives, spun them together.
We were artists, Anne and I – at least, so we were told, our drawings and paintings praised as examples and hung side by side on the classroom walls. I favoured people while she painted landscapes and her trees spoke more deeply than my faces ever could. Her scenes were not pretty, her visions not blind; her skies were skies be they heavy with grey and her trees were trees, no matter how broken. From time to time, as a class, we sketched en plein air, each finding a spot in the nearby woods. Why had she included that snapped trunk of a tree, white as birches are, in the foreground of her painting?
Anne replied, “Because it was there.”
Again and again, from its place on the wall, that painting snagged me with its broken trunk. Looking up from my books in moments of boredom, it drew me, dragged me deep into its world of imperfections, a place where nature was not sweet but raw, ragged with life, with growth and decay; my own painting beside it was deliberate and dull. Had there been broken trunks I didn’t remember them or, perhaps, automatically, I’d effaced their discordance with a sprig or two of green: hide what is ugly, shift what is wrong. What rendered Anne’s painting powerful was the truth of it, its lack of disguise, its bare-naked honesty, its screaming tension amid her forest of silence. Her painting spoke of architecture versus embellishment. No butterflies wafted their gossamer wings, no flowers sprung where they should not be. Simply, for all that it was, and it was a lot, I coveted that painting and hoped she would trade, sure that she would, either of us flattered at the request of the other. But something happened that last day of school and the only thing I know is that after we rolled up our artworks and gathered our golden-starred essays from the walls, I never saw that painting again.
True, girls fall out of friendships for reasons unknown and, as easily, they fall back together. Although Anne and I disagreed, it was rare, and often the case of me battling myself as she refused to engage. In many ways she was already a young woman – stoic, dignified and generous of spirit – not one to fall prey to the taunts of a child. She forgave without pause, with never a question, with a smile, even, yet her eyes spoke of disappointment, of pain. Few though such ruptures were, they happened … and they ended. I walked away sick with remorse and embarrassment and, yet, never seemed to learn. Thus, I know: whatever did happen that day must surely have been rooted in the quarrelsome me.
That summer, we glimpsed each other now and then, here and there. Sheepishly, I looked away, turning to other faces to fill the void, to laugh, to run, to pretend, to play. The days drifted like a boat on water, and July became August as though on a whim. Time, free and lazy, wafted like pollen and without demands, shaped itself with the impulses of moments. My only chore beyond making my bed was to polish the furniture Saturday mornings and then, one day, to my surprise, a new task was assigned: organize the hall closet. Hmmm… on the one hand, the laughter of blue skies beckoned, but on the other, the closet brimmed with intrigue. I’d poked around in there clandestinely from time to time but had never reached back into the guts of it. The mystery of all that stuff stuffed into shelves, musty old books, cryptic notes scribbled, boxes of photographs and God knows what else, enticed me with an archaeological curiosity – I might not find Tutankhamun, but surely other treasures awaited the light. Dark, cool and quiet, the hall was the perfect place for the unearthing of secrets. As I began to empty the contents of these shelves I was handed some money to slip out to the store. My mother was baking and something was missing: milk, eggs, yeast or vanilla – whatever it was, what was left over was mine to spend.
Stepping outside, momentarily blinded, the heat of the day toasted my shoulders. What beckoned my eyes leftward in the opposite direction, I don’t know, but there she was: Anne. Not too far away, but not close either, she stood to the side of the path where it rose beneath overhanging trees. She was dressed in orange. Orange? She often wore pink, white, blue or a certain kind of green, a cross between pistachio and mint. A new dress, a new colour … hmmm … tangerine. The sun-dappled light haloed her hair. The summer shadows shaped her smile. She waved. And grinning, ear to ear, I waved back. Really, that’s all it was, a wave to each other, yet, a great load lifted … we were friends again. Flitting off to the store, what remained of the holidays unfolded with the prospects of walks and talks, of flying through the woods, of sitting in the tree house, of long days dipping brushes into colours, of questions and answers and a thousand tales told with shapes of being we’d yet to trace. Returning with a clutch of licorice braids, both black and red, in a paper bag, I anticipated Anne’s delight, for unlike me, without a bone of greed, she’d divide them among her string of siblings, keeping but a bite for herself.
Those were the days of running. I was quick. Zooming and skipping and sometimes tripping, I was back within moments and while the kitchen clattered with my mother’s inventions, the hall closet project, yet, more inspiring, waited with wonders. To a small pile of gems I added a protractor and a compass, a Coke bottle key chain and a pen with a blonde-haired figure of a woman, which, when turned upside down, was stripped of her clothes – that was the big brother factor, as most of this hall closet was. Standing on a chair, my reach extended to a jar full of coins – another treasure for the pile – while those dusty old books, many, covers bent, pages torn, I plunked to the floor. But the one book forever in my mind, was that one in my hands on hearing the news – Papa Hemingway. Exhumed from the top shelf, the photo on the cover was a face, wide and white, bearded, not unkind, almost smiling … but not. Was he tired? Was he sad? He was not happy. He wasn’t angry, either. What his face said was beyond my discernment. And just at that moment, the dark hall grew darker as the silhouette of my brother blocked the light of the living room behind him. He’d been running.
On catching his breath, he said: Anne’s dead. She drowned. She drowned at the beach.
What he said made no sense at all. Anne didn’t swim. I climbed down from the chair and turned back to the face of Papa H.
Although it was impossible – I’d waved to her just moments before – it was true. Anne did drown that day. It was true because the stories came: how the kids had run for help, how the grownups then ran to her rescue, how they dove into the lake to find her, how someone carried her dripping limp body and set it to lie on a towel on the sand, how her father tried desperately to revive her, not giving up until, finally, he was pulled away. Anne was gone. Although it couldn’t be true, it truly was.
The afternoon of her funeral, I searched through the hangers to the find the dress – a dress, suddenly, too childish with its empire waist and poofy sleeves. Last week, I would have worn it with joy, it would have fit the girl I was. Anne’s favourite, it was that certain kind of green, rather bright, too bright, my brothers said and, thus, not appropriate. They were adamant. And they were right. I fully understood. I would rather have worn almost anything else but sometimes choices are not choices at all. Standing in the living room, ready to leave but unable to move, I waited. And then, in a rare act of empathy, my mother said: She’ll wear what she needs to.
With Anne in pink, we were two bright spots in the room. Like the wreathes of flowers we seemed fresh but everything in that room was wrong. Our summer colours defined our bond, renewing that last wave of friendship we’d shared and, yet, she lay silent now. Behind me, someone whispered, she looks like an angel. She did. She was. But coffins are not places for angels. Could I have drawn a nice pair wings for her, she’d be out of there in a minute. She’d be freedom or joy, wisdom or laughter and never at the expense of anyone else, she’d be flying high.
So … how did she shape me? … Good question.
After all this time, throughout the years, as challenges drop, as they always do, with their weight of rocks into our laps, it is Anne – that girl long ago -who helps to transform those stones into diamonds and inspires me still. As life’s path unwinds and experience expands the brain and heart, it’s the memory of this childhood friend that invites me to retrace perspectives and shapes of being as though we were still tracing shadows in the sand. That’s not to say it’s not always a struggle for one like myself who was born to criticize, whose opinions sometimes usurp my mind, hijacking reason with the passion of nonsense. Patience, forgiveness, and the desire to see more than one tiny facet, are those things that draw a wider perspective, with one simple line, from beginning to end.
Those last weeks of summer, I turned the pages of Papa Hemingway, struggling dismally with words I hadn’t known existed, the big dictionary fluttering as I lay on the grass, while inside, the licorice braids grew stale and dry on my window sill. Never opened, the paper bag was always there and then, one day, it wasn’t.
I’ve never been fond of licorice… not even as a child. Only many years later, with a new friend, hiking through the mountains of Spain, did I develop a taste for it. The earth spins, and what was once disliked morphs into that which, if not loved, is at least, palatable. And so, we move on. Going forward, we leave things behind, yet, there is much we take with us. Anne filled my pockets for the journey ahead and with a soft line she widened my horizon. Freedom, she whispered, Do you see it? … and with the lightest of touches she set my course onward, as though blowing a paper boat upon a pond.