For a couple of years my husband and I lived in an apartment in Pasadena, Texas, a generally blue collar town just outside of Houston. It was a place dotted with refineries and manufacturing alongside nicely groomed neighborhoods and a multitude of churches serving it’s generally family oriented population. Much has changed since I lived there in my twenties just as I have changed from the wide-eyed innocent who grew up in a quantum leap of maturity during my short time there.
My eldest child was only two years old when we moved into our two bedroom apartment on the first floor. Ours was a quiet community of about sixteen units creating a square that overlooked a small garden like area. I quickly learned that the young women who lived there gathered on most days to chat with each other while they watched their children play in the sunshine. Before long a sweet gal from Pennsylvania named Debbie knocked on my door to welcome me and invite me to join them in their daily gab sessions.
I soon found myself in a group rather unlike the people with whom been friends up to that point in time. Most of these women had a rough edge brought about from life experiences that were gritty and well beyond those of my heretofore mostly insulated life. Of course I had lost my father at an early age and had begun to care for my mother after her diagnosis of mental illness, but for the most part had only interacted with people who were highly educated and often rather circumspect in their behavior and their willingness to discuss their problems. Such was not the case with my newfound acquaintances.
These women smoked and cussed without filters. They showed up for our daily meetings in bare feet with tousled hair, totally unconcerned with pretense. They shocked me day after day with their total honesty about their lives. I learned that one of them had worked in a movie theater that showed pornographic films. She laughed about her job of cleaning the seats after an especially vivid film. I sat wide-eyed as I listened to her hilarious descriptions of the “creeps” who came ther.
I heard about the woman whose husband was physically abusing her and later witnessed one of his tirades in person. I heard stories that curled my hair and helped me to realize that the world is filled with a great deal more tragedy than I had ever imagined, but it is also a haven for survivors with determination to overcome the hardships that have befallen them. I listened to their homespun and rather incredible advice about how to live and I loved every minute of being with them, of seeing a slice of life that felt so genuine and wise.
One day we were stunned to learn that one of our members had been raped. She had left her sleeping infant for a couple of minutes to race to the laundry room in order to place her washed clothes inside a dryer. When she returned to the apartment, which she had left unlocked. a man leapt out and attacked her. The tale of her ordeal haunted all of us. We whispered about it for days urging each other to be more circumspect and observant in our comings and goings. We grieved for our friend who out of fear and trauma remained locked in her apartment until she moved without ever saying a word to us.
The incident left a pall on our gatherings and slowly the women moved one by one to rental homes in quiet neighborhoods. While I was waiting for my lease to end I too searched for another place to live. In the meantime I visited my friends in their new abodes. Our one on one conversations became ever more revelatory as I learned more about their backgrounds and the tragedies they had overcome. They had an earthiness about them, a kind of survivor’s honesty about themselves. They were determined to take charge of their lives and to teach their children and me how not to be victims.
I suppose what I really learned from them is the value of those who seem different from ourselves. I was certainly better educated than any of them with a background of book learning that had somehow precluded the everyday common sense that they possessed. I was in awe of their confidence and grit, but most of all of their willingness to be shockingly honest about their mistakes. It felt good to be around such transparent women who also allowed me to express my feelings and my fears without judgement. With them it was okay to be imperfect and I found my time with them to be emotionally freeing.
One by one members of our once close group moved away like the vagabonds they had been for most of their lives. The woman from Pennsylvania moved to Dallas. The gal from New York state went to live in the tiny town of Brazoria. Another chose east Texas as her next residence. We tried to stay in touch from afar but those were the days before cell phone and computers. Our efforts soon lapsed into longer and longer periods of time between reaching out to each other. Then they stopped altogether.
I’ve often thought of these mighty women who played such a crucial role in forming my personality. Being with them was akin to attending a kind of reverse finishing school. They taught me about the realities of life, not just how to carry myself like a lady. They showed me how to find myself just as I was, not how I thought people wanted me to be. They enlightened my beliefs and showed me a confident and open way of approaching the world. The helped me to burst from the cocoon that had sheltered me and showed me how to emerge into the world like a butterfly, happy with who I am.
I’m not sure where any of them are right now. I often contemplate attempting to find them on the Internet but I’m not so sure what I would do if I found success in doing so. Instead I remember them with so much joy and appreciate what they unknowingly did for me. They were a great big wonderful surprise in my life and I’d like to think that in some tiny way they know how much I enjoyed my time with them.