An excerpt from my upcoming book, The Town That Raised Me
We drank a toast to innocence
We drank a toast to time
Reliving in our eloquence
Another ‘auld lang syne’ — Dan Fogelberg
When I was little, I had little concept of self. I had a blank awareness of how I was perceived, I only knew pretty girls were the popular girls. My perception was curated over time. I hung with the pretty girls at school, but I felt somewhat on the fringe of belonging. I remember in fifth grade, a new boy came to Marion School from Charlotte. When he and his younger brothers walked through the cafeteria, the tables fell quiet. All eyes turned to see who had entered the lunchroom. The girls at my table, in elementary school, looked at each other and said, “Who are they?” There was a long southern emphasis on extending the letters found in “they”. The conversation went on to, “They are soooo cute, is the tall one in our grade?” He had long, blonde hair, and he was tall and thin, and so very cool. We found out soon enough, that his name was also interesting. No one we knew, no one else, was named Strib, and he was indeed in our class.
I don’t remember a childhood without certain people. We grew up together. In many ways, I never really knew them and they really never knew me, but we became a kind of family of sorts. There were, undoubtedly, invisible bonds created between us in that time and in that place. People come and go, but childhood friends never leave; even as the years pass, we remember them and wonder where they are. My friend Strib, was one of those people.
After he walked into the cafeteria at Marion School, he became one of us. Belonging was an interesting thing, because we belonged in degrees. I always lingered in the back of the pack. I was there, but mostly unnoticed. It was surprising when, in my senior year of high school, Strib asked me to go to the prom. It was really unexpected. I was still trying to figure out who exactly I was, because my perception of who I was made me somewhat an outlier. I could not imagine why he would invite me to the prom. I accepted, and in a strange way, felt awkward and out of place to be with him, the prince of my fifth grade class, at the prom…there were so many very pretty girls in my class. I never knew why he asked me, yet it gave such a nice ending to my journey of growing up in the small town that raised me.
We graduated, and for many of my friends, I never saw them again. It was quite a while before I saw Strib again. I would see his mom at the Harris Teeter grocery store on Marion Street. It was always the place where I would run into those who could never be strangers, no matter the calendar of time that was lost. Often, I would come back to town and run into his mother and she would always call me Patty Brown and hug me tightly. She told me Strib had moved to the Keys. He was an orthopedic surgeon in Key Largo…She said she loved to visit him in this remote and exquisitely beautiful place. She was somewhat surprised where he lived, and yet she seemed to understand his why. Soon, I found out he was engaged. I attended his wedding, a lovely event in my hometown. It was a celebration, and also a reunion of sorts. It was a chance to see old, but not forgotten friends again. It was the very last time I saw Strib, walking down the aisle smiling as he moved into a new chapter of his very defined life. We are always writing the chapters of our lives, yet fate never fails to become us.
So there was a story I wanted to write. I could not remember all the particulars. My best friend, Liz, and I were camping out in my backyard. We were in maybe seventh grade. Strib and a few of his friends were camping out in his backyard the same night. I could not remember exactly who was with him. Mostly, I remembered Liz and I setting up a tent on the grass near my family’s back porch. Once it got dark, we had plans to meet our “boy” friends on Peach Street. It was summer and the days were long, the fireflies were abundant, and stars covered the dark sky. My backyard felt different at night. There were sounds I had never noticed before. Once the sun had completely set, and the kitchen light turned off inside my house, we snuck away into the dark. Everything was eerily quiet. All the houses were dark, and the roads were empty. We quietly walked up the street, our shadows followed us as the moon covered us in a golden light. We heard voices as our friends approached us on Peach Street. They were casually walking down the street and laughing. Liz and I were more afraid of the emptiness, something they maybe did not feel. So we stopped at the crossroads of Parkwood Road and Peach. They had plans as they wandered through the night. Places they were going to. They said “C’mon, let’s go!” Liz and I felt a little uncertain, and decided to head back to the tent. We said our goodbyes and walked briskly home, eventually falling into a run. We were relieved to find safety in our small tent with blankets and pillows. We stretched out with the grass under us, and talked about life. We noticed every sound. We were sure someone was out there. There were noises and rustling in the grass. We peeked out of the tent and there they were, our guy friends laughing at us. They were so comfortable under the stars, and we felt a bit vulnerable. They visited for a while, we laughed and talked, and then they headed for home. Our space became quiet once again. The ground was hard and cold. There was too much going on in the midnight hour, beside my family’s porch in the quiet dark. Liz said, “I think I’ll go home.” We went inside and called her parents, and in a few minutes, headlights poured onto the driveway. We said goodbye, and I walked into my room and snuggled under the covers. I fell asleep contemplating my first night lying in the darkness, the sky my ceiling, and that feeling of vast awe and uncertainty. After decades, I wanted to talk with my old friend Strib and ask him what he remembered about this night.
I looked on Facebook, and he was not there. I looked on Instagram, and I found a page with maybe four pictures and his name. His user name was theamazinglifeof_strib_ellison. I got the feeling he lived life, rather than posting it. I left a message, and received no response. I contacted his brother and asked if he could share my number with Strib, I told him my reasons. I finally got an email and eventually, we talked for the first time in years. The thing about childhood friends is that we grow older, and yet our voices never change. They rarely grow old, they just age like wine. There was much empty space between us and yet, like all my childhood friends, a bond remained. We caught up a little, and it sounds as if he does indeed have an amazing life. He did not remember the night that Liz and I camped out. I think it was a first for Liz and me, sleeping under the stars, but sleeping out for our guy friends, well, it was routine.
I sadly did, eventually, find routine in my life. Strib apparently found the amazing. I was too uncomfortable in the dark to find my way to amazing. I felt obligation and a loyalty to the ordinary, where most of us exist, and yet it, amazing, always gnawed at me, lured me. Sometimes, we know ourselves, where we have been, our perception of who we are and who we are not, in the memories we left behind. I contemplated who I once was, and now, finally, I am out looking for her again. I was once reticent, and yet I was keenly aware. I wanted to urgently make my dreams come true. The years passed, and yet, I was told I had time. But time does not wait. My friend Strib did not wait. Routine was forgettable, amazing was like being a king. A king of his one and only life. Maybe we should all be so brave. My New Years resolution for 2022, is to leave the ordinary for the extraordinary. I want to explore empty streets under moonlight. I want to listen to sounds I have not heard before. I want to find my place under a ceiling of stars. I want to find amazing as the center of routine in my one and only life, because I know I have limited time. I want my life to end remarkable; to do that, I must feel comfortable in asking for more of life than what’s for dinner and what’s streaming on Netflix. I must leave safety for chance. I don’t want to go home, I want to create it. I only want to belong to me, and hope all I love finds me there…in that place called amazing. Cheers to my friend who knew the answers of life, even way back when. I must add a long drawn out emphasis on the letters and sounds in “when” as a cursor of my point at which to begin. Happy New Year.
There was nowhere to go but everywhere, so just keep on rolling under the stars.
Art- “Camping Tent” by Nicole Blank