Death was part of life on the farm, when I was a little girl. Cats died from milk fever, dogs got hit by cars, the cows and pigs we knew by name got sent to the butcher’s and returned as beef and pork for dinner. People only died when they got really old, like Dziadzia, he was my great-grandfather, or like that truck driver Mom and Dad knew who had a heart attack when he was 43. People always lived a long time. Except for Bobbie-Jo.
My sister Deanna’s good friend, Cleta, had a big sister, Bobbie-Jo. Cleta and Bobbie-Jo rode my bus to school. Bobbie-Jo wore big skirts with three can-cans underneath, so she barely fit through the aisle of the bus. She swished past me, heading for the back of the bus where the slick teenagers sat, but not in the very back seat. The hoods sat in the very back seats, with their DA haircuts all slicked back except for a slippery curl in the middle of their foreheads. I could smell just a whisper of lily-of-the-valley after Bobbie-Jo squeezed by; I tried to hold that smell in the back of my nose and not let go, she smelled so good. I probably smelled like wet straw, from doing morning chores.
Bobbie-Jo’s hair was dark brown, even darker than Bonita’s, and pulled back in a tight, high ponytail that she brushed into a loose ringlet. When she walked, the tip of that curl brushed against the back of her neck. Bobbie-Jo was always laughing and smiling, that nice kind of smile that meant ‘I really like my life’ or maybe her ponytail just tickled her neck all the time. Sometimes I just wanted to tug on her skirt and say, “Hey Bobbie-Jo, you can sit by me.” Of course I never did, ’cause my best-friend-from-the-bus, Betty, got on first and always sat right down next to me, and besides, Bobbie-Jo was a teenager, she only liked other teenagers. And her sister, Cleta. Of course she liked Cleta. Mom said you have to be good to your sister, you will never find a better friend, ’cause your sister’s gonna know you from the time you’re born. No one else will know you forever like that. A sister will always be there for you.
Bobbie-Jo learned to drive and got a part-time job after school over in the City. Sometimes, she had to drive home kinda late at night, especially on the weekend. One night when it was raining really hard, a man drove right into her lane and hit her straight, head-on. Bobbie-Jo never knew what hit her. She died right then and there. I know that because I heard it straight from the guy at the funeral parlor.
Cleta’s phone was on the same party-line as my phone. If you had a party-line and if you heard a voice on the line, you had to hang up really fast. Listening-in was super rude and an invasion of privacy. Besides that, Mom got hopping mad if she caught anyone listening-in. Deanna could lift that phone up and cover the receiver; she listened-in without anyone knowing. I tried sometimes, ’cause it was kind of interesting to hear boring stuff going on at somebody else’s house, but usually whoever was talking, mostly Lois, my best-friend-from-the-bus, Betty’s, teenager sister, would say “Hang up the phone!” in an angry voice. I hated people getting angry at me, even when they didn’t know it was me. Anyway, when Bobbie-Jo got in that car wreck, I stayed right away from that phone. I only picked it up once, and I heard Cleta’s mom crying to the undertaker. That was the worst kind of sadness I ever heard.
Teacher took the whole class to the funeral home to pay our respects to Cleta and her family; it was only three blocks away, so we all walked down there at Noon Hour. I think the whole school went to the funeral home that day. Lots of adults stood around saying how good Bobbie-Jo looked. That body in there did not even look like Bobbie-Jo to me: no smile, no can-cans fluffing her dress way out, and no ponytail at all, just a fancy curly hairstyle, kind of like her mom’s, that Bobbie-Jo never, ever wore in real life.
Now Cleta had no sister at all. Who was going to be her friend for life? I was so lucky, I had five sisters. Five friends for life. Cleta only had Bobbie-Jo.
Rainy days like today are good days for thinking about sad memories. Somehow we manage to keep going after deep losses; I guess it’s just what’s called human resiliency. But sometimes the memories come swelling up from way deep inside like a wave. The kind of wave that I can hardly see approaching until all of a sudden, I’m deep in over my head. I hope people like Cleta find someone who can be as good a friend as a sister is. I thank God everyday that I have five sisters far away, yet close in spirit. Everybody needs friends like that.
(Just for the record, my brothers are pretty darn keen friends, too.)