My First Chum

I was born shy, resisting for thirty-six hours my 1942 Chicago hospital debut, so the loneliness I knew in Pakistan, especially in later years, did not altogether result from circumstance. Indeed, my sister Julie, whom we now call Julia, although five years younger, thrived, charming our parents’ guests with sparkling eyes below blond, Dutch-boy bangs, while I shrank from the bright sari-ed ladies who reached out to pinch my cheeks. I’d watch my sister from behind the furniture, envying her easy charm.

Left to my family, I might have fallen into my navel, but when my mother agreed to teach Andy and Marty, the two oldest of John and Theresa  Vroon’s children, along with Dewey and myself, Marty leapt into my life like an exuberant puppy, becoming my first true chum. We had much in common: our hair was thick and brown; our fathers were Christian doctors building a new hospital; our ages were only two months apart and our names the same but for one letter. Each of us was the eldest of four and enjoyed a nearly two-year jump on our next-born brothers. We loved books, woods, mischief and fantasy.

But there similarities stopped. Our friendship carried the special appeal of one between different species: I was the cat, lithe and aloof; Marty was the terrier: stocky, fearless and friendly. I was sensitive and cautious; she charged in where felines fear to tread. I needed luring; she invited challenge. She took me over, bubbling with ideas, sharing books, singing boisterously all the words to all the verses of every song and hymn I’d ever heard. She taught me Greek mythology, knocking off polysyllabic gods and goddesses with Zeus-like zest. She never got bored, never ran out of things to do.

For our first two years, until her family moved up north and she was sent to a boarding school in India, Marty and I rode our bikes from my house at one end of the compound to her house at the other. At her house, we made up plays, dressed in her mother’s saris and salwar chemises, draped ourselves in gauzy, embroidered scarves. At mine we piloted oriental rugs, rubbed genies out of teapots, rode knick knack camels through the Arabian Nights. We competed fiercely in everything: school work, art and especially piano lessons, which we took from Mrs. Smithson, a tiny American married to a gentle giant. We raced through our glossy red Thompson piano books, Marty’s short fingers faithful to her phenomenal memory.

During the rainy season our families’ apartments adjoined at Strawberry Bank, and later, shared the sprawling old soldiers’ retreat. In Murree, lessons lightened. Marty and I headed for the woods, where we enacted fairy tales, chased monkeys (ignoring warnings that a herd might turn on us)  and, with homemade daggers and swords and dodging sharp, curved horns, we chased and “fought” the cattle that grazed the hillside woods. We dared each other up trees and down cliffs, laughing, screaming, then, escape accomplished, lolling on damp, earth-scented moss, or stringing daisy-chain crowns in the sunny meadow below our mothers’ windows.

Articulate, bright, brassy, ready to take on anyone, win any argument, beat up anyone of any age or sex who challenged her, Marty was the dominant one, and, she insisted, the oldest. But I embodied a lyric awareness Marty may have missed in her dash to put the world right. I looked for the cadence in things, fingered the pulse in a butterfly, found music in a stone. I seemed to be missing an invisible layer that appeared to protect other people, and often chose retreat. But when I felt safe, as I did with Marty, I could play with abandon, imagine wildly, and would miss her irrevocably when she was gone.

When Marty moved to Sialkot with her family, I could not follow, and the loss of her was more than I could bear. I began fading away. I lost interest in eating, seemed even to lose the will to grow. At eleven, my age was often guessed at eight. My father, fearing I was ill, took me to the hospital for the first of a series of a gamma globulin shots administered by a sturdy woman doctor. The five-inch needle that stabbed my small behind provoked an ear-piercing outrage worthy of a doused cat and my father spared himself—and me—another.

I knew I wasn’t sick; I was heartbroken, angry and lonely. Clearly, it wasn’t Marty’s fault that she had left, but I couldn’t forgive her for loving her new school, for her gleeful tales of dormitory life and wonderful new friends when we met during summers in Murree. I had been replaced, but she had not, an injustice of which I alone seemed to be aware. When our families moved back to Grand Rapids and Marty and I met again as teenagers, we had grown apart.

Not until we were in our fifties did we actively re-engage, and since then we have grown to know and value each other as women still very different, still very much alike. Soon it will have been seventy years since we met, making Marty my oldest enduring friend. During that time, the Reverend Marchiene Vroon Rienstra married a doctor, had four children, became the first woman to graduate from Calvin Seminary, the first woman to be ordained in the Reformed Church, survived breast cancer, became a grandmother, espoused Jungian feminism and continues to see the extraordinary in the world. In the nearly seventy years since we met, I’ve been gifted with two beloved chums. All three friendships have spanned decades and continue to lend meaning to my life.

MEMOIR WORKSHOP: I once lost over a year and $10,000 of savings to support myself living with, caring for, interviewing and writing, at her request, the “autobiography” of a medicine woman, who in the end refused to approve my manuscript despite an excellent contract with a New York publisher and I lost my agent over it. One of the best bits of advice I’d ever received as an author was this: Never write about living persons! But I was blinded by bliss—literally enchanted—and I chose to trust my heart. I can report this story only because about a decade ago she—the medicine woman, not my agent—was buried sitting up in her rocking chair on a remote Lake Michigan island. It’s almost impossible to write a memoir without writing about living people, especially as I am older than most of the persons it in—except for my mother who is now 97 and Marty who is, of course, two months older—unless I’ve outlived them. I try to be kind. (Perhaps it is time to dig my medicine woman bins out of my abandoned-work closet. Yes, I have a closetful of rejected and unfinished work. Where do think I found this memoir?)

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