We walked the playground together at recess. Judy was tall, plain-faced, a dirty blonde with freckles. Julie was petite like me, very blonde and fair skinned. She seemed smart when she spoke and she had a face so pretty, I wondered why she hung out with two Plain Janes like us. Judy was the talker in our group. I commented occasionally and Julie mostly smiled and nodded.
Back in the 60s most farm owners had phones but their hired help like our dads could not afford them. The only contact the three of us had was during our walks around the playground. One day someone suggested a sleepover, and I got chosen to visit first. A few days later Judy and Julie boarded my bus and rode home with me.
I was nervous being the first to have my friends visit. I’d never seen either of their homes and I knew mine was less than desireable. We lived near the highway in a little old two bedroom house that was too small for the seven of us. When we got off the bus I watched their faces for signs of disapproval, but thankfully didn’t see any. Having passed their initial impressions, I relaxed and we had fun playing ball in the backyard with my brothers and sisters.
When supper was ready, Mom called us all inside. She had opened some jars of her vegetable soup and baked a pan of cornbread to soak up the juice. It wasn’t our usual supper of beans and fried potatoes, so I knew Mom had tried to make something that would stretch a little further. I kept silent and tried to hide my disappointment. Plain vegetable soup with no meat and no crackers didn’t seem like the kind of meal I wanted to serve my guests, but to my relief, my friends showed no signs of hesitation or displeasure. They ate the soup and told my mom how good it was. Julie especially ate heartily, and I was pleasantly surprised when she smiled big dimples and nodded, holding out her bowl when Mom offered a third helping.
After supper Judy, Julie, my sisters and I sat around on our bed and shared stories. When it was bedtime Mom made pallets on the floor for my sisters so I could share our bed with my guests.
A few days later it was my turn to visit. I followed Judy and July onto the bus that they both rode to school each day. I had thought that Julie would be going home with Judy too, so I was surprised when she got off the bus with several other kids. Judy pointed to a house that sat back on the other side of the road. “That’s my house,” she said. (Neither friend had ever mentioned that the two of them were neighbors.) The bus inched up the gravel road and stopped at a dirt lane. Judy’s little brother got off first and hurried up the lane in front of us. Judy had talked about listening to Elvis Presley on her record player in her own room. I had imagined that Judy had a nicer home than mine.
Judy’s little brother ignored us as he walked ahead and, once inside the house, he disappeared completely. Judy took me straight to her bedroom which was next to the kitchen. She pulled out the only record I saw and placed it on the record player that was sitting on the floor. While we listened to Elvis she showed me the mirror where she did her hair, then we looked through some old celebrity magazines from a box near the record player.
No one called us for supper, but at some point Judy decided to lead me to the kitchen. There was no table, just one old chair and beside it a hot plate sitting on the floor. When we entered the kitchen Judy’s dad was standing at the counter eating his supper. Judy briefly introduced me. He smiled and nodded then went back to eating. By the sink Judy found two bowls and carried them to the hot plate on the floor. She picked up a ladle from the nearby chair and dipped beans out of a pot that sat on one of the burners. On the other burner was a skillet where someone had fried cornbread batter into pancake patties. We each took a piece of bread and carried our bowls back to Judy’s room. We sat on Judy’s bed which was a mattress on the floor, and we ate our fried bread and beans while Elvis sang to us.
When Judy decided it was time to sleep, we stretched out on the mattress that had no sheet and laid our head on a pillow that had no pillowcase. We shared an old quilt that had seen better days and slept in the moonlight shining through a window that had no curtains.
I never saw Judy’s mom although Judy said she was at home. It was a house with several rooms, but I only saw the kitchen and Judy’s bedroom. The next morning while we watched for the bus, I finally got up the nerve to ask Judy why Julie hadn’t come and if we’d be going to visit her sometime. Judy just pointed to the little old house across the field and said, “They have 15 people living in there.” Julie never mentioned me coming to her house to visit, but it wasn’t long before I lost contact with both of them. Our families didn’t own land and we moved often always looking for a farmer who paid a better wage.
Judy and Julie left my life decades ago but I still think about the two of them especially around Thanksgiving. They were parties to an important lesson I learned back then. I never got the bike or the Barbie doll I’d wanted, but in 5th grade I learned to be thankful for things I’d taken for granted.
I learned that having a mattress held up by a bed (even if I had to share it with my sisters) was far better than a mattress of my own laid out on the floor. Though faded and worn, I fell in love with the sheets and pillowcases that my mother washed regularly. Our chairs were mismatched and the tabletop was rough, but I had a place to sit, a table for my plate, and a family that sat around the table and shared a meal together. I had a mother who canned vegetable soup and made cornbread baked in an oven. I had a father who worked hard and spent what money he earned providing the best he could for his family.
Life eventually got better for me financially, but like many families in this current day recession, hard times have come again. It’s easy to become angry and fearful, but I don’t like living those feelings. I calm my nerves and soothe my mind reviewing childhood lessons. I bow my head and count my blessings. Giving thanks is a daily event, not something that comes once a year.