I ran into my old friend Rosemary a couple of weeks ago while shopping at the supermarket. I had rosemary in my shopping basket at the time but that just just a happy coincidence. Still, I made a joke of it when I saw my old elementary school acquaintance.
I have a friend name Ginny too but I practically never run into her while buying gin.
Rosemary didn’t think the joke was all that funny so I quickly moved the conversation along –even though we don’t have a very long list of available topics. We weren’t that close to begin with. Despite this she said she had something “very important” to tell me and invited me to sit for coffee. Right there in the market!
Rosemary’s name isn’t really Rosemary. It’s Lauren. Just about everybody who knows her from elementary school still calls her Rosemary even though long ago she started asking us not to. Some things are hard to unlearn once you have learned them. Like using two spaces after a period when typing.
Lauren and I first met when we were 10 years old. The first time I noticed her she was out by herself on the grass field at school all alone, near the back playground fence. Occasionally she would stop her wandering, point her front leg out in front her her, and then sniff and stomp on the grass with her feet. Every five minutes 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 explained to me in a rather matter of fact tone. “She’s a horse.”
His tone was either meant to communicate what should have been obvious, or instill some sort of assurance that Lauren’s behavior was normal. I didn’t know which it was so I didn’t ask any more questions. It was accepted fact on the playground that Lauren was a horse during recess.
One day, a year or so later, Lauren would inform us that her new name was “Rosemary.” We were politely asked to call her Rosemary from now on and we obliged. Rosemary seemed like a nice enough name and what did 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 you do it.
* * *
Rosemary and I wouldn’t share an actual classroom together until we hit 7th grade math. There she would sit in the back row, sporting her outdated horn-rimmed glasses and never speaking to anyone unless answering the teacher’s questions. She would always have a reluctant tone to her voice when called on and forced to speak but her answers were always correct. Its too bad that 11 year-olds aren’t wise enough to regard intelligence as a prerequisite for popularity. If so, Rosemary would have been our school’s head cheerleader and class president. The girl was clearly smart.
Yet far from being popular, she was an outcast. Her strange, loner-type behavior would ensure it.
She had stopped being a horse somewhere along the way before high school although every once in awhile she would unthinkingly let out a long, labored breath with her lips fluttering. When this would happen the entire class would titter and she act 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 house. Mostly I would only see her on our daily walks to and from school. Rosemary seemed too busy being a loner and I was too busy perfecting what I would later refer to as my ‘protective cloak of invisibility.’ You can’t be bullied in school if they can’t see you, right?
Perhaps it was Rosemary’s inability to go unnoticed that allowed me to fade into the background. Horses and invisible boys can only get so close after all.
* * *
Which brings us back to my encounter with Rosemary, the kind-of-friend, about a month ago while I was shopping for rosemary, the herb. Rosemary, who now always goes by Lauren, told me that she had something important that she had been wanting to tell me for quite some time. Every since Facebook appeared on the scene encounters with former classmates has not been uncommon.Without exception I have found it a pleasant if not a thought provoking exercise. My visit with Lauren (who used to be Rosemary) would pretty much change that.
She asked me if I remembered the day when I had found her eye glasses on the playground and brought them to her home after school. It seemed very important to her that I remembered this moment from years ago — so I felt badly when I couldn’t. It must not have seemed important to me at the time. Why would I remember such a small thing like that from over 35 years ago?
Apparently 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 friend shut the door in your face after doing them a kindness would be memorable to a young boy but that is not necessarily so. I was probably too busy or just too eager to get home to give it much thought. Perhaps I didn’t think it was all that much of a kindness at all. At any rate, stand-offish behavior from Rosemary would not have surprised anyone. It was Rosemary after all.
Lauren said that she remembered that day quite often. In fact, she admitted to thinking about that day every day since. For her, everything changed that day and my brief role made it memorable to her.
It turns out that Rosemary was not exactly thriving at her home those many years ago. Over coffee Lauren confided in me that her home was quite dark and sometimes violent. Her mother had been physically beaten in front of her several times and Lauren was frequently the target of unrelenting verbal abuse and more infrequent physical abuse by her step-father, a man with uncontrollable anger issues. His brand of discipline would frequently leave bruises and welts that Lauren struggled to hide from her classmates for years.
Furthermore, Lauren explained to me that when she fantasized about being a horse those many years ago it was because she dreamed of being able to gallop far away from home. Far away where horses played in meadows and had people in their lives that brushed them and took care of them. So being a horse wasn’t random odd-ball behavior from a pre-teen little girl, it was a fantasy of freedom and escape from a horrible home life.
I asked her if changing her name was part of this escapist wish and she nodded her head and revealed to me that ”Rosemary” was actually her much older step-sister’s name. Lauren had only met her step-sister, the real Rosemary, a few times when her mother had first married her step-father. Rosemary the step-sister never came to visit her father (we know why) and so while Lauren didn’t really know her, she wanted to be her.
Because the real Rosemary was somewhere out there, far away from home.
It seems that the day I walked up to her front door, the day I don’t even remember, Lauren was in fear of being ‘punished’ for losing her glasses at school. She had lost them once before so she looked for them in a panic all afternoon — she knew from experience that when her step-father found out he would unleash a tirade of verbal and possibly physical abuse.
Someone would get hurt. Someone usually did.
Rosemary was thinking of how she would kill herself that afternoon. She thought she would simply kill herself before her father discovered the glasses were missing. If she were dead, perhaps her step-father would leave her mother alone this time.
This is the moment when I suddenly showed up at her front door with her glasses in my hand. The moment I don’t really remember.
Lauren doesn’t really know if she would have killed herself that day. She actually doesn’t think she would have as she doesn’t remember thinking about any of the necessary details. She just knows that she was thinking about it at that particular moment and wondering if she should do it. She thought of suicide often in those days so this particular afternoon thought wasn’t actually all that unusual.
Apparently my brief and awkward visit was taken as some sort of sign by Lauren. In that moment she realized that her situation at home wasn’t going to last forever. It dawned on her that someday she would be free of her step-father, that someday she would have friends, and that if she could just hang on, one day she wouldn’t have to fear her own home. Or fear being hurt by her step-father.
She stopped thinking about killing herself that day.
It doesn’t really matter that I can’t specifically remember this day. Perhaps it wasn’t even me but some other boy from the neighborhood who brought Lauren her glasses that day. While she swears it was me Lauren’s memory may be playing tricks on her. What matters is somebody did an ordinary kindness for Lauren that day and it ended up playing a significant role in her young life by serving as some sort of talisman of hope. A kindness that would inspire her with strength to hang on and which she would remember for years.
So, for now on when I cook with rosemary (the herb) I will be reminded of the power of a simple human kindness. Whenever I make these Rosemary Parmesan Crackers I will try remember their potential to have positive, often unforeseen consequences in people’s lives. I will think about how it is the small, often effortless gestures, the kind that we will surely forget, that can have the greatest potential to impart real meaning — in ways we will probably never know.
Or, maybe, if you are as lucky as I was, you will sit down to coffee in a supermarket with a kind-of-friend and she will tell you.
Rosemary Parmesan Crackers