Remembering Kathy on All Souls Day

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Today is All Souls Day. If you were raised Catholic, as I was, it’s a day for remembering and offering prayers up for departed loved ones.

How fitting then, that this remembrance day should come so soon after the too-early death of one of my beloved childhood friends, Kathy Pease.

Kathy came into my life like the fully formed goddess she was, in 7th grade, when we were both chosen to be junior members of what was mostly an 8th grade cheerleading squad. Kathy was a full-fledged member, as was our friend, Patty Horn, while I was a “spare” — who subbed when one of the other girls was absent. I think our coach, Mrs. Massa, chose me for my height, on a squad that already had a large number of shorter girls.

I wasn’t what you’d call the typical cheerleader type — I was already tall, with a more womanly body than most of the girls, about which I was deeply embarrassed. This was the age of Twiggy, when willowy slender types reigned. But I was also desperate to be a cheerleader — and practiced until my thighs burned so much I could barely walk up — or down — the stairs of our school. For many girls of our era, becoming a cheerleader was a dream in early adolescence — one of the few ways we could be part of an athletic team. I wanted in badly, but I was surprised and thrilled when I was chosen.

Though Kathy and I had been part of the same close-knit Class of ’69 at St. James School in Woodbridge, NJ, since kindergarten — I think she must have spent our formative years in the other of two classes for our grade, because I don’t recall her much in the early years, when she was forming what turned out to be a lifelong friendship with other SJS buddies.

The Class of ’69 was a typically huge class in the middle of the Baby Boom, and at 8th grade graduation, we numbered 84 souls, which meant 40+ kids in each of two classrooms – our poor teachers! And believe me, we misbehaved.

Kathy and I began to pal around together, at cheerleading practice and afterwards. I had known and loved Patty, the other 7th grader on the team, and her twin Penny, already, as they lived closer to me, and our mothers knew each other. In earlier grade school, in fact, I remember thinking I was the luckiest kid alive to be friends with not one, but two sets of twins – Patty and Penny and Karen and Patty Servilla! For some reason, the pattern of having two close friends at a time has followed me all through life, and I often wonder if my fascination with the twins was where those preferences were set.

But Kathy was new, and almost exotic. She also became my friend at a time when the heightened significance of friends was reaching a peak for me — a hallmark of entrance into adolescence. Up until that time, my family was my whole world, in terms of the kind of deeply connected and unconditional love for which we all yearn. It was only within your family that you could reveal those times when you felt vulnerable and insecure. That’s because you knew they’d love you no matter what. I was blessed to have that kind of family, though later in life, I was to learn not all people are that lucky.

Of course, I had also had other school friends who were special — Diane DaPrile had been my good friend since kindergarten, and hers was the first school friend’s home I remember visiting, because she lived close by. We ice skated at our local pond through childhood and spent all of sixth grade calling each other and laughing so hard that my mother would say afterwards: “you didn’t even speak on that call! What was so funny?” and I couldn’t explain. Everything was funny, remember Di?

And, tomboy that I was, I remember being friends with boys, too — mostly in our neighborhood — but from kindergarten on, there was my special friend, Paul Pancoe, whose mother drove us to school. At the age of 5, he gave me a gumball machine ring as we both sat in the back seat of his mother’s car, and then proposed, no less! Paul was always my friend! Still is!

Back in 7th grade, as our friendship grew, Kathy asked me if I might come over to her house after practice one day. I learned that Kathy was the oldest, and had an already-handsome brother Harry, a fun loving sister Cindy, and two littler sisters who were cute and sweet, along with a lovely Mom who welcomed me. There was also a family of red-headed and happy-go-lucky Murphy kids who lived nearby and were a significant part of Kathy’s life. We had a grand time and it was the first of many visits.

I had never been the most popular kid in school — by a long shot — and I was in awe of Kathy’s popularity — she was already the kind of girl that all the girls liked, and who was stopping boys dead in their tracks with her graceful, natural beauty. But she never made a big deal out of this, or ever even acknowledged it, if memory serves. She was kind, humble, and thoughtful to everyone, which I loved about her. Kathy was never, ever, a Mean Girl. That she chose me as a friend thrilled me in a way only early adolescence allows.

I remember in October of 7th grade, Kathy and I hatched a plot to go trick-or-treating as Bonnie and Clyde, a movie that had debuted that fall. Of course, we hadn’t been allowed to see it – I’m sure it was rated X by the Catholic Church, and our parents followed those guidelines! But the photos were everywhere. Kathy’s hair was a dead ringer for Faye Dunaway’s blond bob in the movie, and she had Faye’s cheekbones nailed– though Kathy was much more beautiful!

Naturally, I saw myself as the perfect Warren Beatty — hahahaha! But I knew I could borrow one of my Dad’s old suits and fedoras, and I think my mother loaned Kathy a beret — one of Bonnie’s signature looks. Mom loved berets! I think Kathy borrowed an old pencil skirt from her Mom, and we were off to the races! I wish I could say we had a photo of our costumes, but in those days, cameras usually only came out in our households for birthdays and holidays. Developing photos was expensive, and so was film.

Kathy and I knew we were really past the age for trick-or-treating as we walked around in the growing darkness, but it was one of those last childish acts that signal the confusion about leaving childhood behind and entering the more adult world. I remember doors opening and parents being startled at our height and age and grown-up costumes (let alone our role models!), but they mostly smiled, when they saw how innocently we looked for our then-full-sized candy bars. We truly were still children, even if we were playing at being adults.

I also remember talking to Kathy on the phone after each episode of Laugh-In, which had started in January of 1968. It was a wildly different and subversive TV show that introduced us to hippies and flower children (among other things). Laugh-In was among many shows that were changing the culture. It felt so grown up to be able to watch it, then call each other to dissect each episode and analyze it. Kathy was bright, and sensitive, and very, very perceptive about the show’s messages, I remember.

We were growing up by the day, and the culture was growing up and growing darker, too. Our innocence was shattered in the spring of that violent year, with the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy, who was running for president.

That summer, a young priest in our parish, Father Brian McCormick, along with several other parishioners, and a lot of older kids in our local CYO (Catholic Youth Organization), decided to stage a four-night series of evening events, called Project Understanding. Father Brian was encouraging the youth of our parish to begin exploring the issues around racism. We went to an all-white school, and I don’t think any of us knew a black person. But after Dr. King had been shot in April, a series of riots had rocked our country, eventually breaking out in 120 cities, and people everywhere were talking about race relations. I think the group of 7th graders with whom Kathy and I participated, was the youngest in the project.

The 7th graders were assigned to perform a play called “The Little Prince,” based on a story told in the book, “Killers of a Dream,” written by a woman called Lillian Smith. Smith had been struggling to understand and overcome racism in the 1940s in her small town in the South. The book, famous now as a catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, must have been known to the grown ups of Project Understanding. In the book, Smith describes her memory of being a counselor to group of children in a summer camp, who decide to create a play based on “The Little Prince” by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. In their play, the children explore how white people insist on separation between the races.

We 7th graders performed that play. The campers in the play create their own play about a little prince (ably played by our own Joey Vazzano), born on a faraway planet. He embarks on a journey through the universe, encountering a variety of people, including Conscience (played by our classmate Tommy Duffy — who went on to an acting career in Hollywood!), Southern Tradition (played by a group of the boys), Religion (played by Kathy and some of the girls), and Science, played by one boy. A bunch of us also played the other campers who observe the play-within-a-play.

When the prince finally arrives on the planet Earth, he wants to play with all the children there, but his traveling companions (and the other campers) object to him playing with black children, spurring a great conversation and debate among all of us, about ingrained racism. I remember one Biblical quote made by Religion: “Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not, for of such is the kingdom of God.” It was a great way for children to explore prejudice — and I’ve never, ever forgotten it.

In the midst of that halcyon year, another friend was mean to me, though I’ve long forgotten who it was. What I remember vividly was that Kathy was outraged, and said angrily: “no one talks to my best friend like that!” I was deeply affected – it was the first time anyone had called me a best friend. She was a friend who would stand up for me, no matter what. That was the kind of person Kathy truly was. It changed my life.

Our 8th grade year arrived and we were joined on our cheerleading team by a slew of other girls. Though Kathy and I remained friends, we were both part of a larger, co-ed group, which included the boys on the basketball team for whom we cheered. We went to parties and grew up some more. She now also had a handsome boyfriend, Jerry Dunn, and our closeness lessened. We kids were beginning to apply to high schools, and it soon became apparent that while some of us would go to St. Mary’s in Perth Amboy (me included), others would go to Woodbridge High (including Kathy). It was a shock to realize that our innocent time in grade school was almost over and many of us began to separate, almost instinctively, as a protective mechanism.

After 8th grade, my story with Kathy utterly stops, as it did with so many of my dear childhood friends, including Patty and Penny, our fellow friend Carole Moscarelli, and many others who would stay tightly bound to Kathy throughout Woodbridge High, and, in Carole’s case, way beyond. It’s hard to describe how far away a high school in another town was in those days, but trust me, it was as though we St. Mary’s kids had moved to another planet! No Internet or social media bound us, as it does for my kids and their childhood friends. We just disappeared from each others’ lives.

I only saw Kathy once more after that, at a reunion we had when we were out of grade school for 21 years, in 1990. She had grown into a beautiful woman, as her early beauty had foretold. The basketball and cheerleading teams recreated our 8th grade photo, and it was great to see everyone again. But despite all of our promises to keep in better touch, we were all wildly busy with kids and work, and aging parents, and it never happened. What did remain was the glow we all felt at the remembrance of that happy cocoon we’d all been in at St. James School, and how much our adult values — whether religious or not — had remained tied to the lessons of that special time.

So, when our grade school friends Diane DaPrile and Debi Strish announced that they were working on a 50th reunion for our class this October, which would help raise funds for the school, I was all in. When I heard that Kathy would be attending, I realized how excited I was. Through many years of subsequent close friendships and cherished relationships I’ve been so lucky to have, I never forgot Kathy. There is something unique about that first friend who gives you the kind of unconditional love you had only previously experienced with your family — and that was Kathy for me. She helped me believe I was special. Every year on her birthday, February 3, I found myself silently wishing her a good day and hoping that her life was happy.

But, in the end, I was never to see her again. Kathy made it to Woodbridge on the Thursday before our reunion, for sure, where she first had a special meetup, hosted by those wonderful Murphy kids who were her earliest friends, and with whom she remained deeply tied. She also had a heartfelt reunion with Carole Moscarelli, who had remained a steadfast and solid friend to her throughout her life.

But that night, she suffered a brain hemorrhage, from which she died a week later. Among those surrounding and supporting her for that difficult final week she was in a coma were her devoted sister Cindy, who had traveled with her to New Jersey, her best friend Maureen Murphy Janiga (one of those Murphy kids), plus Carole, and Patty and Penny Horn, who lived nearby the hospital where Kathy was. This proved to me once and for all that the unconditional love of the friends from our youth truly does last forever, and I wish all of Kathy’s lifelong friends the deepest condolences. RIP, sweet Kathy, and “flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”

Oh What a Beautiful Morning

Why do I write? I believe it’s because from early childhood, I heard, learned, and adored Broadway show tunes. My parents’ stories of attending performances of “Oklahoma!” and “South Pacific” enthralled me. Their records permeated our childhood, and I can still here my Dad chuckling over “Poor Jud is Dead” and “There is Nothing Like a Dame.” The lyrics were amazing bits of art: compact, character-laden evocations of a time and place.

Before I ever saw a Broadway show, I imagined it all, mostly through the words of Oscar Hammerstein, one half of the team of Rodgers and Hammerstein. His words created worlds for me. Later, I would discover Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Sondheim, and many others – and Oscar would be joined in my pantheon by other great lyricists such as Lorenz, Cole, Ira, and Stephen.

But Oscar was my first teacher. When I later learned that he was also Stephen Sondheim’s teacher, and that Sondheim frequently visited Hammerstein’s farm in Bucks County, PA, I imagined the house, the setting, and how those early sessions went.

So it was a joy to discover that Hammerstein’s farm is now a bed & breakfast. My friend Marcia, who lives nearby, took me there recently, and the owner graciously took us through the house, at a lull between seasons when the rooms were unoccupied. I was able to see where Oscar wrote, where Stephen slept, and the meadow outside Oscar’s front porch that inspired his immortal line, “There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow…”  http://www.highlandfarmbb.com/

What worlds he brought to me, through the power of words.

I took the photo that illustrates this blog in Sondheim’s guest room. The light, the desk and chair, the bit of bedpost. Could there be any more perfect place to be a writer?