Being There

a-heart-made-of-stone-from-god-to-remind-us-of-his-love-brigette-hollenbeckImagine being an American of Japanese decent immediately after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. It had to have been a very frightening time for everyone, but the overreaction to the incident resulted in fear of anyone who was Japanese even if they were born here and had lived in our country for decades. The United States government answered the attack by rounding up these citizens and placing them in detention camps, one of the more unfortunate missteps in our country’s history. Among them was a little girl who lived in Los Angeles. She was in the first grade at the time and her best friend was Mary Frances. Immediately after Pearl Harbor the little girl became a pariah through no fault of her own. Only Mary Frances continued to be her ally and to protect her from the taunts that rained down on her head. Eventually the child and her family were sent to Wyoming where they lived behind a chain link fence fortified with barbed wire. Their conditions were cramped and frightening, and the little one did not understand what was happening, but she would always remember how Mary Frances had stood up for her. She loved Mary Frances and never ever forgot her.

A lifetime of years passed. The little girl became a woman. She studied to be a nurse and worked all over the world. She had a very good and productive life, but more than anything she wanted to find Mary Frances to thank her for her unfaltering friendship. She had no idea how to even begin, but with the help of professionals she tracked Mary Frances down. They planned to meet in the Japanese Gardens in San Francisco. There the once tiny child who was now an old woman rejoiced upon seeing her old pal. She was finally able to describe how important Mary Frances had been to her at that crucial time.

As I heard this story I thought of the people who have passed through my life who were exactly where I needed them to be at important junctures in my development. Most of them were there and then they were gone forever. I never really had an opportunity to tell them how much they actually meant to me, and I so wish that I might one day see them again.

My first recollection is of a woman named Pat Wright. She was our next door neighbor when I was no more than four or five years old. She was a striking woman with a flair for the spectacular. She might have played the role of “Auntie Mame.” She was a commercial artist and her home reflected her avant guard take on life. She often invited me to visit with her and in those times she and I created art work together. She told me how talented I was and made me feel as though I was the most special person on earth. Nobody other than family members had ever before been so attentive to me and I loved her dearly. We moved when I was six and my parents made promises to get together for visits, but somehow that never happened, and so I never again saw Pat Wright. I have thought of her over and over again and smiled at the memory of being in her extraordinary home and drawing with her professional tools. I suppose that if she were even alive she would be well into her nineties. I would so enjoy being able to tell her how much I enjoyed our time together, but I suppose that will never really happen.

When I was five years old my parents enrolled me in the first grade with no warning. One day they simply announced that I would be going to school the following morning. I was terrified, but unwilling to reveal my fear with tears. I needn’t have been so worried because I was soon to meet two angels who have forever been in my heart. The first was my teacher, Sister Camilla, who in so many ways inspired me to become a teacher and influenced my teaching style. She was gentle and loving and helped me to feel welcomed and secure. I also met a girl named Virginia who seemed to sense just how upset and worried I was. She guided me through the ropes of being a student as well as a youngster is capable of doing. She gave me wise advice and encouraged me. I adored her as much as I did Sister Camilla. Between the two of them school became a happy place for me. I had thought that Virginia and I would surely be best friends forever, but that was not to be. My family moved to a new neighborhood and soon I was in another school.

I imagined that I would never again see either Sister Camilla or Virginia, but as with Pat Wright I carried the warm memories of being with them in my memory. Consider my surprise when I learned at my fiftieth high school reunion that a number of my classmates had been in that same classroom when I was, and among them was Virginia. I have learned that Virginia is today as sweet and wonderful as she was back then, and I hope that she doesn’t think it too strange when I tell her what a profound impact she had on me.

There have been others like Rose Marie Frey, a neighbor who was perhaps the most beautiful woman that I have ever known. She had five children of her own but somehow she always found time to talk with me and make me feel very grown up. She taught me how to do so many things that I might otherwise never have known about. I was quite sad when she and her family left our neighborhood. We went to visit them many times but as so often happens we soon lost touch. I truly hope that she has had a very good life.

Perhaps Edith Barry wins the grand prize for being there when I most needed someone. She and my mother were the best of friends and had shared many secrets with one another. One of the things that my mom had confessed to Edith was her fear of being diagnosed as mentally ill like her mother had been. She asked Edith to promise that she would be a protector if anyone ever even suggested that Mama needed medical care for such an illness. Of course how could Edith have known that my mother would have a terrible nervous breakdown requiring hospitalization? When virtually every adult abandoned me as I struggled to get my mom the care that she so desperately needed it was only Edith who was willing to incur Mama’s wrath and be a true and loving friend by insisting that she admit herself for care. By helping me Edith did in fact lose my mother. Their friendship suffered, but I understood all too well that Edith had made the ultimate loving sacrifice and she would become my all time hero. I don’t suppose that I really ever explained to her how much I appreciated what she had done. Now she is gone and I can only hope that somehow she knew.

We each have those special people. They do remarkable things for us that we almost take for granted at the time, but in retrospect we realize how wonderful they actually were. We would do well not to wait too long to let them know how important they have been.