Monday, May 3, 2010

A Memory from Ames, Iowa

By Alison

To say that Lois and I were little girls together in Ames, Iowa in the 50s is to say a great many other things, as Susan Allen Toth wrote in Blooming, her book about that very subject. It is to say that we were safe. Our parents were educated; most parents were in that college town. They were graduate students or faculty. We were not rich, we were not poor, we seemed not very different from one another in any way. We were white and had no idea this was to grant us privilege. We were female and had no idea this was to deny us privilege. We were just little girls. We probably met in the college nursery school where Child Development students sat behind a dark screen to observe us children at play, but I do not remember her there. We must have been in kindergarten, first, and second grades together but I do not remember her there either. Yet I recall that we were best friends, or almost best friends.
She lived too far away for us to visit daily. That is, the blocks in our neighborhood were long blocks, and though we both only had to walk two blocks to school, we were on opposite sides of the school; thus, our houses were four long blocks apart. Playing together was a Saturday event. I don’t remember if we could walk to each other’s houses on a Saturday and still get home before dark, or if we were driven by car. The visits had to be planned, so probably there were cars involved, and we alternated playing at each other’s houses.
I have no memory of Lois in my house. I remember her house. She only had one little sister while I was the middle one of five children, so her house was smaller and quieter and much neater than mine. Her mother was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen, and that was even counting my beloved second grade teacher Mrs. Winter. I remember her mother taught us to do a kind of knitting on a spool. I remember Lois would only ever eat shell macaroni with butter and peas. That was a favorite food for me, too.
I was afraid of Lois’s father, though I remember him being funny. He would roughhouse with us and call me silly names, but I remember once being terrified to be alone with him. Lois and I had been invited to another child’s party but at the last minute Lois could not go; she had received a vaccine and was ill in reaction. My father was on a (rare) trip out of town, and Lois’s father had agreed to take us both. When Lois got sick, he called to say he would take me to the party anyway. I remember crying and pleading with my mother not to make me go with him. My mother was unsympathetic (“He is a lovely man and he is taking you to this party even though his own child can’t go and you should be grateful!”). I remember clinging to the door on my side of the car going and coming, and alighting from the car at my own house drenched with relief that Nothing had Happened. Of course I wondered for years afterwards if he had ever been mean to me or physically hurtful, or worse, but nothing has ever surfaced from my unconscious on that score.
Lois and I played upstairs in her house, in a long attic that was a playroom. The only thing I really remember is that we played paper dolls. Lois had a paper doll that was a ballet dancer. Her legs were permanently in the arabesque position, and her name was Columbine. I remember that Lois’s little sister wanted to play with us and we didn’t want her to, but sometimes we had to let her.
Other than these things, I can’t remember a thing except something momentous that happened to us in third grade. I have never forgotten it my whole life, and I use it to explain personality traits I have now. When I lost Lois, after she moved away to California at the end of third grade, I looked for her wherever I went – that is, in phone books. She had an unusual last name. Her father was a well-known scientist. I kept hoping I would find her somehow.
In the 1980s I already had a computer. I had been writing on a (now primitive) word processor since it was invented. Then in the mid-1990s the Internet began, and my precocious son, an early teenager, was right on top of it. He and I had email before there was anyone else to write to and Web capability before there were any web sites. (A few years ago I met with a writing group in a community college art room. There were piles of old magazines on a table in the back; Smithsonians, National Geographics, and the like. I borrowed a Smithsonian one week and realized as I looked through it that the advertisements had no web addresses. It made me feel blinded and bound almost; if I wanted something from a company, and could not get on their web site, how was I supposed to find out more about their product or respond to their advertisement?)
Of course I looked for Lois on the Web. But she must have married because I never found her name. I had heard a rumor back in Ames that her parents had divorced. I did find out about her father, the scientist, on the Web, but he was retired and there didn’t seem to be any easy way to get hold of him. Furthermore, I remembered being afraid of him and didn’t very much want to contact him, especially if he was divorced from Lois’s mother.
Then it happened. Last summer, 2010, fifty-four years after I last saw Lois, I Googled her (maiden) name yet again and there she was. Her high school graduating class had finally developed a Web site, and her name was on it. Even more incredible, when I clicked on her name it took me to a website of hers! It turns out she was a writer and a blogger and a computer whiz; if I had known her married name I could have found her ages ago. We have renewed acquaintance, which feels like a broken piece of my heart sliding back into place, but this story is about when we were little.
Our third grade teacher was Miss Meyers. Lois remembers her fondly, but I remember her as a short, frumpy, older lady who scolded frequently. Her name, poor thing, was Mildred. She had been my older sister’s teacher and my older brother’s teacher and it seemed as though she had lived forever and would live forever. I don’t remember much about third grade either, but I do recall a chart up on the wall where we were to enter our bedtimes. I always lied and put 8 p.m. After all, I didn’t want my family exposed as a ramshackle family where third graders could stay up late. How could Miss Meyers ever find out the truth? She couldn’t.
I had two close friends in third grade: Lois, and Mary Jo. Mary Jo lived much closer to me and we had been playing together for years. At Christmas time, Mary Jo and I were allowed to walk to the little group of Campustown stores (there was a five and dime), and get our class Christmas presents. It worked like this: Girls got a present for a girl. Boys got a present for a boy. All were to be wrapped. On the last day of school before break, Miss Meyers would sit on a chair by the Christmas tree in the back of the classroom and hand out the boxes to us sitting on the floor, boy or girl (there must have been an even number of children!). Each would open a gift. I am not sure if the giver’s name was supposed to be a secret or not.
So Mary Jo and I walked down to Campustown and went into Mr. Peterson’s store to look for presents. There was a monetary limit but I have no idea now what it was. I got a dollar every year on my birthday from my grandmother, and that was a huge amount of money, so I doubt our gifts were supposed to cost that much. I don’t remember what I bought to give for a present. But I remember what Mary Jo bought. It was a puzzle, maybe 25 pieces or so, of a creche with Mary and Joseph and the animals and shepherds and the Baby Jesus. Mary Jo asked me if I thought that was a good present, and I said I thought it was very good.
The day of the gifts arrived. And here is what I remember, and it is all I remember. Miss Meyers handed out the boxes and gave Mary Jo’s box to Lois. I recognized the wrapping paper. I felt pleased that my two friends were connected by a present. Lois opened it and then – of all things! – she began to cry. She held the puzzle out to Miss Meyers and said she could not take this present. Miss Meyers was cross once she realized that Lois was actually turning the present down. “What is wrong with it? It is a lovely puzzle,” she said, and so on. Lois just cried and cried, her hair covering her face. She kept saying she just couldn’t take that present. Miss Meyers must have eventually subsided, clucking like a hen, never heard of such a thing, ridiculous, and I don’t know if Lois got a replacement present or not. I do know I felt stricken. I had told Mary Jo I thought the puzzle was a good present. Now, for some unknown reason, it was making Lois cry and it wasn’t a good present after all. It was a mystery, but I was not critical of Lois at all. I just felt sad and helpless for both my friends.
The mystery was partially explained for me months later. As I said, Lois’s father moved the family out to California that following summer. Before they moved away, maybe the day before they moved away, Lois called and wanted me to take a walk with her. Maybe we could walk to each other’s houses then. We walked on her street and she said she had a secret to tell me. A big secret.
I was already, in third grade, receiving some secrets. I wasn’t particularly close-mouthed, but I think I had then whatever open and supportive nature I still have that made me a good counselor and therapist when I was working in the field. I have a group picture of me from a party, very young, maybe six, and my arm is around the shoulder of the little girl next to me. I was very affectionate and I still am. I told Lois she could tell me her secret and I wouldn’t tell anybody. And as far as I know, I didn’t, until long after she was a distant memory and this story became a part of my biography.
She said, “I’m Jewish.”
I cannot imagine what I said back. I think it very likely that I said, “What’s that?” This was Ames, Iowa. I knew about churches: Episcopal (mine), Baptist, Methodist, Congregational, Lutheran, Presbyterian. That was it. Maybe Lois explained to me that it was a kind of church, only there wasn’t one in Ames.
I also think it very probable that I said, once I understood in some rudimentary way what she was talking about, that it wasn’t her fault, she couldn’t help it, and I didn’t hold it against her.
She moved away. Maybe in fifth or sixth grade I found the magazines hidden in my mother’s dresser with pictures of all the dead people, all the skeletal living people in the striped clothes with yellow stars in Europe in a place they called a “camp.” Maybe in sixth grade I read the Diary of Anne Frank. Over Anne’s face I superimposed Lois’s. I had bad dreams. I went all over the house looking for a place to hide, a good place, for when the bad men came to take me away like they took Anne/Lois. I knew it could happen anywhere, any time. They could kill you for the church your parents made you go to; for the religion you were raised in. No one was ever, really safe, if such a thing could happen.
I may have been in junior high when the Supreme Court ruled on the separation of church and state in the schools. I remembered Lois and I knew that without that stupid Christmas party, neither of my friends would have been hurt. I reviled Miss Meyers in my mind. How stupid do you have to be not to think of a certain name as probably – even possibly – Jewish? How stupid do you have to be to scold a little girl for saying, with complete truthfulness, that this was a present she could not take home?
When I got to high school, every spring there was a long-standing tradition called Friendship Week. It was a series of lectures and activities that should have been called “Christianity Week.” Two of my high school friends and I refused to go. But rather than just staying home (we would not have been missed), we presented ourselves to the principal’s office, saying that we were protesting Friendship Week because it was unconstitutional. We weren’t just being cute; we had already heard about the first lecture, in which a famous theologian told the assembly of high schoolers – and faculty – that Jews were like (foolish) people waiting for a train that had already left the station.
From there it was a short step to the Ames Youth for Equality, Mississippi Thanksgiving, SDS (I joined in high school) and majoring in antiwar activities in college. But the germ for all that, all my years of activism and idealism, came from Lois. It came from a little girl telling me her secret, with shame in her voice.
Lois tells me she doesn’t remember anything unusual happening in third grade where she was brave. I decided to write this as a way of telling her. It won’t surprise me if she doesn’t remember a single thing about it.


  1. Alison, is right. I do not remember this. I do remember that I was in 6th grade before I learned that being Jewish was something I could value. In Ames, I thought my family was the only one and that people would hate us for it if they knew. Now I live in Philadelphia where there are lots of synagogues and temples.

  2. I've been thinking about this for a few hours now, and I'm in awe that something I have forgotten changed my friend's life in such a dramatic way. I was in a no win situation. I couldn't bring a Christian gift home. I couldn't tell the class I'm Jewish. And I knew it was rude to reject a gift. I was terrified. That my dread and confusion could be perceived as an act of bravery astounds me. And I'm grateful to have this scene restored to me in such a positive light. Alison is a great friend.