I ran into an old friend a couple of weeks ago while shopping at the supermarket. Her name is Rosemary and she is someone I knew back in elementary school. I happened to have some fresh rosemary in my shopping basket at the time. It was a coincidence that I found amusing so, true to form, I made a joke of it.
“I have a friend name Ginny too but I practically never run into her while buying gin.”
Rosemary’s reaction told me that she didn’t think the joke was all that funny and so I moved the conversation quickly along –even though we don’t have much of a list of available topics. It had been decades since we last saw each other and, well, we weren’t all that close to begin with. I braced myself for one of those awkward ‘re-meetings’ that one might have every now and then running into former schoolmate you were never really friends with.
But Rosemary’s enthusiasm over the chance encounter surprised me. She excitedly revealed that she had something “very important” to tell me and had been wanting to find me for quite a long time. She gestured to the coffee bar near the entrance to the supermarket.
Rosemary’s name isn’t really Rosemary. It’s Lauren. Just about everybody who first met her in elementary school will still call her Rosemary even though long ago she asked us not to. What you call someone is one of those things that are quite hard to unlearn once your brain’s neurons have formed around them. (Like using two spaces after a period when typing.)
Lauren and I first met when we were 10 years old. I first noticed her out on the grass field at school all alone wandering aimlessly near the back playground fence. Occasionally she would stop and point her front leg out in front her her before sniffing and stomping on the grass with her feet. Every five minutes or so she would lope around in a circle and shake her head as she came to a quick stop.
“That’s Lauren,” my new friend David would explain to me later in a rather matter of fact tone. “She’s a horse.”
Its far easier for a 10 year old to make these kinds of leaps without much judgement or concern. Besides, David’s tone was one meant to communicate what should have been obvious. I was the new kid in town so David’s matter-of-fact explanation gave me all the assurance I needed that Lauren’s behavior was normal.
All of Fifth Grade accepted the fact that while on the playground at recess Lauren was a horse.
One day a year or so later after we had all become junior high schoolers, Lauren informed us that her new name was “Rosemary” and would we please refer to her as such from now on. We obliged even though it seemed far stranger to have a friend just up and change her name than it was to think of her as a horse. Rosemary seemed like a nice enough name though and what would a bunch of 11 year-olds know about the mechanics of name changing anyway?
Certainly Lauren, er, Rosemary, had cleared this with her parents? When a horse asks you to call her by a new name shouldn’t you do it?
* * *
Rosemary and I wouldn’t share an actual classroom together until we hit the advanced 7th grade math class. There she would sit in the back row, sporting her outdated horn-rimmed glasses and never speaking to anyone unless answering the teacher’s direct questions. Her tone would be reluctant when called on since she didn’t seem to enjoy speaking much but her answers were always correct. Its really too bad that 11 year-olds aren’t wise enough to regard intelligence as a prerequisite for popularity because if they had Rosemary would have been our school’s head cheerleader and class president.
This girl was clearly smart but quite far from being popular. She was an outcast and her strange, loner-type behavior only ensured it.
Somewhere before high school she had stopped being a horse although every once in awhile she would unthinkingly let out a long, labored breath from the bottom of her lungs and let her lips flutter. When this happened the entire class would titter and she would be embarrassed — before she remembered not to care.
Some habits are indeed hard to unlearn.
We would never be actual friend- friends even though she lived only a few suburban blocks from my home. Mostly I would see her on our daily walks to and from school although we never made the journey together. Rosemary seemed too busy being a loner and I was busy perfecting what I would later refer to as my ‘protective cloak of invisibility.’
I was learning that you can’t be bullied in school if they can’t see you and Rosemary’s inability to go unnoticed probably made it all the more easier for me to fade into the background. Horses and invisible boys can only get so close after all.
* * *
Which brings me back to the encounter a month or so ago with Rosemary, the kind-of-friend while I was shopping for rosemary, the herb. Rosemary, who now always goes by Lauren, had just told me that she had something important that she had been wanting to tell me for quite some time.
She asked me if I remembered the day when I had found her eye glasses on the running track and brought them to her home after school. The look in her eyes told me it was very important to her that I remembered this event from so many years ago which made me feel all the more frustrated for her when I couldn’t. It must not have seemed important to me.
Why would I remember a small thing like that from over 35 years ago?
She explained that I had stood outside her front door and rang the doorbell and knocked on the door until she reluctantly answered it. Startled to see me, she took the glasses out of my hand quickly, said thank you, and then immediately shut the door in my face.
I don’t remember any of it.
You would think that having a door shut the door in your face by a schoolmate after doing them a kindness would be memorable to a young boy but evidently that is not always so. I was probably too busy or just too eager to get home before proximity to Rosemary would pierce my invisibility cloak to give the moment much thought. Stand-offish behavior from Rosemary, at any rate, would not have surprised anyone. We were talking about Rosemary after all.
Lauren then went on to tell me that she remembered the day quite often. In fact, she admitted to thinking about that day every day since it happened! Everything changed for her that day and my very brief appearance in it after school made it all the more memorable to her.
It turns out that Rosemary was not exactly thriving at home those many years ago. Over our coffee Lauren confided that her home life was quite dark and sometimes even violent. She had seen her mother physically beaten and Lauren herself was a frequent target of unrelenting verbal abuse and occasional physical abuse by her step-father. He was a man with uncontrollable anger issues and his brand of discipline would frequently leave small bruises and welts that Lauren would struggle to hide from her classmates.
Lauren explained to me that her childhood fantasies of being a horse were about her dreams of being able to gallop far, far away from home to a place where horses played in meadows and people who loved them brushed and took care of them. Being a horse wasn’t some random odd-ball behavior from a pre-teen little girl, it was her fantasy of freedom and escape from a horrible home life.
I asked her if her sixth grade name change was a part of this escapist wish and she nodded her head. “Rosemary” was her much older step-sister’s name. Lauren had met her step-sister, the real Rosemary, only a few times when her mother had first married her step-father. Rosemary the step-sister never came to visit her father (we now know why) and so while Lauren didn’t really know her, she knew that she wanted to be her because the real Rosemary was somewhere far away where she would rather be.
That the day I walked up to her front door, the day I don’t even remember, Lauren was fearing her punishment for losing her glasses at school. She had already experienced the wrath in store for her as she had lost them once. She had looked for them in a panic all afternoon hoping to avoid -the tirade of verbal and possibly physical abuse likely to come.
Someone would get hurt. Someone usually did.
Rosemary was thinking of how she would kill herself that afternoon. Killing herself before her father discovered the glasses were missing might just be better for everyone. Perhaps if she were dead he might even leave her mother alone?
It was at this moment I suddenly appeared at her front door with her glasses in my outstretched hand. The moment I don’t even remember.
Lauren said she doesn’t really know if she would have killed herself that day. She doesn’t remember thinking about any of the necessary details so guesses she probably wouldn’t have. She just knows that she was thinking about it at that particular moment, wondering if it might be the best way to help her mother. For her, suicidal thoughts were not all that unusual.
Lauren took my brief and awkward visit as some sort of sign and it jolted her into realizing that her situation at home wasn’t going to last forever. Someday she would be free of her step-father like the step sister she didn’t know and that someday she would have friends and a normal life. If she could just hang on, one day she wouldn’t have to be afraid in her own home. Her step-father would not be able to hurt her.
She never thought about killing herself again after that day and she wanted me to know about that.
When I got back to my home that day and started to make rosemary crackers with the rosemary I had bought when I ran into Rosemary I couldn’t stop thinking about it all. I came to understand that it didn’t matter much that I couldn’t remember my role in this important moment in Lauren’s life. All that mattered was that it was important to her. Perhaps it wasn’t even me but some other boy from the neighborhood that day who brought Lauren her glasses. What does matter is that somebody that day did one simple, ordinary kindness for her and it played a rather significant role in her life at a time when she desperately needed some indicator of hope.
A kindness that would give her the strength she needed to hang on. A kindness she would end up remembering for years.
So from now on whenever I cook with rosemary (the herb) I will be be reminded of the power that a simple act of human kindness can have whether we are aware of it or not. Whenever I make these Rosemary Parmesan Crackers I will remember how simply just being kind can have the potential for positive unforeseen consequences in people’s lives. I will think about how the small, effortless gestures (the kind that we are likely to forget) can have the greatest potential to impart real meaning — all in ways we will probably never know.
Or, maybe, if you are as lucky as I was, you might find yourself sitting down to coffee in a supermarket with a kind-of-friend and she will tell you.
Rosemary Parmesan Crackers