Monday, December 28, 2009

Here’s to You, June Williamson

The world is so empty if one thinks only of mountains, rivers and cities; but to know someone here and there who thinks and feels with us, and though distant, is close to us in spirit - this makes the earth for us an inhabited garden.


I've met her twice: June Williamson. Once standing in line at Einstein's Bagels, on the first Saturday in October, after my early morning soccer game. And the other, about a week ago, in front of the clearance racks at Old Navy. I never knew she existed before that October morning. I suppose I had driven by her house in the southern part of the valley. Our children might have played soccer or baseball against each other in the Summer and Fall Leagues. But, we don't live in the same town, and our children don't go to the same schools, and so we are destined never to meet . . . unless, by some twist of fate and luck, we both decide to head to Einstein's on Center Street to get a bucket full of bagels to help us make it through four hours of televised church on a Saturday.

There I was standing in line, behind the tiny figure of a woman dressed all in black. One of those ballerina figures. About 5 foot 3 inches, impossibly long neck, with thighs the size of large zucchinis, clad casual chic in black yoga pants, and black base layer turtleneck, and some kind of black jacket or vest, nipped in at the tiny waist. She wears semi-hiking boots, that look really good on her about size 6.5 feet. Her hair has lowlights. Her coffee-colored hands are long-fingered and I can see the sinews connecting wrist to knuckle.

There's me, 5 foot 8, in soccer shorts, from which protrude my very strong, Shetland pony legs, with soccer socks shoved down around my ankles, my size 9.5's shoved into my son's Adidas slides, the sweat imprint of the shinguard still visible on my calves. My hair's pulled back in the ponytail I've been wearing since grade school and which I still find the easiest hairstyle of all. And, just like grade school, the curls have escaped the elastic and are buzzing madly around my very red face.

She's trying to find enough bagels to fill two dozen but everybody has had the same idea this morning. All the blueberry, cranberry, chocolate, honey wheat, cinnamon sugar, asiago, and sunflower seed bagels have already found homes. She is left with only odd varieties, like one cinnamon raisin, two spinach, one rye, and several dozen sesame seed, chopped onion and pumpernickel. All I really want is a salmon lox—smoked salmon, cream cheese, red onions, tomatoes, and capers on a toasted plain bagel. (Ten points if you know what the salty little caper actually is).

As she tries to find the assortment of bagels that will satisfy her children, I pull into the spot next to her along the display case to place my order.She turns to look at me, with a look of apology on her high-cheek boned face. "So sorry . . . there's just nothing left and I promised them that I would bring bagels." She has topaz eyes, and a sprinkling of freckles across her cheekbones. The accent is pure Midwest American.

We both finish ordering and move to the side to wait. The conversation starts easily. I can't remember what started it. But, by the end of the ten minutes it took to get our orders, and the extra five minutes we took just standing around not wanting to leave, I found a fellow traveler.

She's from Thailand, adopted by an American service man who married her mother. She came to Utah to attend university. Her name's not really June, but June was the closest English name to her Thai name, and so her father called her that. She's married to somebody she met in college, and has five children. They live in the southern part of the valley, in a town that, I would guess, has maybe ten darker than white faces. She finds out I'm from South Africa, that I too moved to the United States, and that we have both married Americans.

The conversation skips to high schools, and to why I like sending my kids to the "ghetto" high school in our town. I tell her about growing up in South Africa and not knowing about the other in anything but a very superficial way. I share that I want my children to not be able to know what the majority looks like and by choosing this high school, they have hard time identifying the power structure by the color of a person's skin. She tells of her daughter's struggle to define herself when her peers ask her what she is. Not many know where Thailand is. We question why it is that they even have to ask the question.We laugh that we look like each other's names. My name, Hispanic at first glance, and hers, the name of a fifty-five-year old, white matron with whirligigs in her front yard and a root cellar with bottles of parsnips and apricot jam.

I walk out of Einstein's breathing deeply, my face in a grin. I feel better for knowing that June Williamson lives near me. I think I might never see her again, or, if I am brave, I will call her up and say, "I would like to be your friend." Either way, I've had one of those moments when I come face to face with a soul I recognize. C.S. Lewis describes the feeling as that moment when one person says to another, "What! You, too? Thought I was the only one." I'm filled with a sense that this person I have known before. When we meet, it's not a "Nice to meet you" moment. It's a "Well, there you are . . . where've you been?"

Every winter, South African girls in primary school play either netball or hockey. I first saw Julia Elizabeth when I lined up next to her on the line that demarcated our defensive third from the center third. She was Micklefield's Girls wing attack; I was Oakhurst's Girls wing defense. We were ten, and playing netball in Cape Town in the mid-seventies. Julia, no doubt, wore her pink pleated skirt and white polo shirt; I must have been in my green pleated skirt and white polo shirt with my "takkies" recently whitened with a stick of shoe whitener to make sure they were sparkling clean and thus suitable shoes in which to play netball.

Our schools were both girl-only elementary schools, with about 200 pupils. I know Oakhurst had only one class per standard, about 25 students per class and 7 standards in the school. I think Micklefield was even smaller, housed as it was in an old mansion off Sandown Road. It was a private school. Our two worlds were completely disconnected, except for those 40 minutes twice a winter season when Oakhurst played Micklefield in netball.We met every winter on the line, and played against each other, Julia trying to pass the ball into her team's shooting circle, me trying to prevent their team's attack. On looking back, it seems strange that we played the same position for three years running, and thus always played against each other.

During the last game of our last year in primary school, we lined up again, big grins on our faces at seeing each other again. "So, where are you going to high school?" we must have asked each other, there not being a given area high school one attended, at least not in the white Southern Suburbs anyway. There was the girls-only Rustenburg Girl's High School for the academic, attended by my older sisters, or San Souci, for the not-so-bright; the religious St. Cyprians for the Anglican girls, and Herzlia, for the Jews; and then there was an upstart, a new school, only twenty years old, which was co-educational and English-speaking, called Westerford. "Westerford," we must have both replied. And then I remember grinning, knowing that Westerford with Julia wouldn't be half as strange as I imagined it might have been.

The first day of school, we were assigned to the same class, 6C with Miss Jones, who wore semi-sheer blouses through which you could see her slippiest of slippy bras. Five years with Julia Elizabeth, or Jules, or Raynham, both of us in plaid, collared dresses. Five years of every day, copying each other's homework because our handwriting was identical, watching Mr. Bisset's beautiful hands from our front row in History, visiting each other's churches and youth groups, growing older, growing apart, moving back together again.

I saw her for the first time in twenty years last year when I visited South Africa, for the first time since I left for college in 1984. We're older. She's a traditional doctor, practicing healing and medicine from a workshop in her garage, filled with bones, rattles, herbs and stones. She also choreographs for her modern dance troupe, which was flying out the next morning to Algeria to participate in a festival of French-African dance. Her fingers are just as impossibly long. When we hugged in the doorway of her urban farmhouse the width and feel of her narrow shoulders was as familiar to me as the curve of my own children's. I felt time collapse as I stood there in that hallway.

Here she was, Julia Elizabeth. We span thirty years, most with very little contact. Yet, she is one of the tallest flowers in Goethe's garden of souls. She is my hollyhock, I suppose. I have a picture of the two of us as teenagers pinned to my fridge. It's tattered and water-spotted. When I look at us twenty-five years ago, I am filled with warmth. To know that somewhere on this earth, she still breathes and laughs and pulls her hair back with those impossibly long fingers is just a wonderful thing. Just in case, to keep her close, I have named my only daughter after her. I have my own Julia, a Julia Rose.

So, this is my paean to the kindred and kind and beautiful spirits who have risen at unexpected moments and filled my life. I'm sitting here in America, thousands of miles from my childhood, from my teenage years, from my mission, probably thousands of miles of thoughts away from those I'm thinking of. Time though, seems, inconsequential. That I have been there, with you, at some point is all that matters. I don't even know whether you think of me like I think of you. It doesn't matter; I don't require it to be reciprocal. Like walking into the Gallerria dell'Accademia in Florence and seeing David, in all his marble beauty for the first time, when I walk into this particular garden, I am always breathless with wonder.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this. I have so many dearest of friends that live so far away from where my physical body dwells, and yet, even after years apart, we still fit!

    I truly think the best part of heaven will be FINALLY having enough time with the ones I love--enough time (possibly) to finish all the conversations we already started and got sidetracked out of!