It was 30 yrs ago.
Her name was Leslie.
I was turning 6 when we met. Leslie was this round-faced, freckled, blonde, smiling bundle of energy. She lived in this big white colonial down the street from my house. She was new to the area; adopted by these two fun, hippy parents. Her mom had those typical 80’s tinted glasses that were so big on her face you thought they’d fall off from the weight of the frames, and super long, straight brown hair. Her dad was a big older guy with a beard, but now that I think about it was probably much younger than I thought then. Leslie and I immediately made friends at school. We’d ride bikes after school on my street. She had that light blue, Huffy cloud banana-seated bike that was all the rage. We’d hang out at one another’s homes, where she got me to eat my first and only Twinkie. I’ll never forget the day either. We went to her house, straight to her kitchen, and she hopped up onto the counter. She jumped up onto her feet and went inside this giant, wooden cabinet and pulled out a box and grabbed two packs of Twinkies. One for her, and, one for me. We ran up the long, steep, green carpeted stairs to her room and ate every single bite while sitting inside her accordion closet. I secretly hated the Twinkie, but she shared something new and I thought she was so fascinating for it.
It was a great friendship for two young girls, and we made some real wonderful memories.
For instance, one chilly Fall day my Dad was trimming the giant tree in our yard. Leslie and I were bundled up in our coats playing around. My Dad must’ve seen that we needed something to do and asked if we wanted the branches to play with. We jumped at the answer with a booming YES! He took the ones he got down and made a makeshift twig fort for us shaped in a giant square. It was about three or four limbs deep. Some of the smaller branches that fell off were used as telephones and cigarettes. It was so cool. We played there, freezing, until it got dark out. There was the point of play that we were just exhausted and we laid back on the small row of branches staring up at the sky. I can still smell the air there, and the sound of my jacket. I had this cream puffy nylon jacket with a fur lined hood that would swoosh when I moved. It was so peaceful in the yard, and quiet.
Another memory is the first time we walked home together from school. We were skipping up Upland Rd. and reciting the rhyme How Much Wood Could A Woodchuck Chuck..etc. We were laughing so hard at our mistakes for obvious reasons; the mishmash of the rhymes and swears were so hilarious that we had tears streaming down our faces. We kept tripping and laughing from it. Just so much laughter. I can’t believe how long ago this was.
Not too far after this came December, the colder weather and the buzz of the holidays. My favorite Christmas song was Silent Night, still is, but I can’t bring myself to hear it much. Leslie and I were walking up Summer St.’s big hill towards my house. As a child I’d sing this song a million times a day, trying my best to sound pretty and even toned like on the radio. So, the song burst out of my mouth while we were walking, and she was so excited. She grabbed me and started singing. It was her favorite song, too. We were so cheery about it and started singing it over and over. We stopped on the steps of someone’s house atop Summer St.. I remember the smiles we had when we finally sang it well! The joy on our faces that afternoon was Rockwell painting quality. Sweet memory.
Well, with December you know this comes with my birthday. My Mom had put together a small birthday party for me. Leslie’s mom came early to pick her up. Before she showed up though the conversation I had with Leslie was about a sleepover, which would’ve been my first one, and she wanted to badly. But she said she probably couldn’t because her parents were having people over but she’d ask. So, when she showed up Leslie and I begged her for what felt like an eternity to stay, then I begged my Mom to have her stay, too. No one was budging; her parents were having company and Leslie had to go. There was no way around it. She was crying; I was too. She left and the party went on.
The next day, my last memory, was a Sunday. We were just finishing up Sunday dinner. My Mom would always have a big dinner. Our kitchen was the old way before they remodeled it; where the phone was at the entrance to the kitchen on the wall. The wallpaper was this yellow and avocado green print of pots and kitchen stuff. The phone was green, too. My parents always had someone calling them. Which is probably why I hate talking on the telephone. And. This day was not any different. We finished dinner. The green phone rang. My oldest sister answered the green phone, but it wasn’t for my Mother this time. It was her neighborhood bestie. My sister’s face grew long; she replied to her friend with tears and questions.. and she looked at my Mother. My Mother got up quickly and walked to my sister. Now the whole room was quiet and waiting to hear what my sister just heard. Even my Dad felt like he was holding his breath. She hung up the phone. And told us that her bestie saw the news and it sounded like Leslie’s house had a fire that night, and she didn’t know all the details. It was all so fast coming out of her mouth. She said that she was going to the house to look and see what happened. For some reason, I was allowed to go too. In retrospect, BAD IDEA.
We walked as quickly to her house as we could, thinking I’d see her or something. But when I got there, her big white house was charred all over. The white parts were small. Aluminum was exposed around the windows. The smell in the air was just atrocious. Burnt. Smokey. Dark. It was so cold that day, too. It was just a giant mess. I don’t think I understood how to digest what I saw either.
Leslie died in that fire.
A part of me also died that day.
The facts of how she died are still foggy for me. Their family had a Christmas tree that caught fire from the fake logs in the fireplace, within minutes the house was consumed. The parents made it out, her family friends too, but she was fearful then decided to run up into that accordion closet and never came out. Never. It was the worst news that I have ever heard and took her death so personally.
Because of my age, my parents thought best that I wasn’t involved in her wake or funeral. I never learned where her burial was. I asked when I got older, like 13yrs old or so. My Mother said she spoke to Leslie’s mom once, and she was open to talking to me and taking me. But I never was ready to. I learned about mortality way too early, and how I learned it was unfortunate, but it’s how it happened. Some kids learn this through grandparents naturally passing. Some learn from a family pet’s death. The progression is normal…you grow old and die, or, you get sick and die. No way is right or wrong, it’s actually a big part of life to just learn it. Through the efforts of my parents and sisters I was able to get through with few mental scars. But I kept feeling this heavy burden for this little girls’ death.
Life moved forward, but my mind was always on Leslie and what happened. I’d go to where her house once stood to leave either a note, a rose, or just to sit quietly for a few minutes. I went by there tonight, in fact. It’s a vacant lot still. But regardless, all those memories flood back to me. I smile. I cry. I remember that little girl, her laughter, our fun together, and think of my own children. They are so young. They were around my age when that all happened. And I can’t imagine them going through anything even close. How I shelter them from not learning about this side of life yet. Especially after this weekend with the horrific news from Newtown, CT’s shooting. Totally different situation, obviously. But the loss of life so young and unexpectedly is something I don’t think my children can quite grasp. That situation is so infuriating, and I can’t wrap my head around it still. Just makes me angry.
Not till recently could I talk about her death without bawling my eyes out and reliving those gut wrenching feelings. I mean, I am teary eyed somewhat now writing about it, but the feelings are different. My perspective has changed. It’s sorrow on a different level, and there is a tinge of being content. Hard to explain, but I’ve come to terms with it. Without much choice my life changed in an instant that day; that happy, naive girl grew up in an instant. I became all consumed with Leslie, her loss, the fire and what that meant to me. I struggled for a very long time with the idea that I could have saved her. ‘If she just slept over, she’d be here’. Really that was the part that kept it alive for me. I felt like if I pleaded enough to her mother or my Mom she’d be here. Alive. That was all I could think about until I finally came to terms with it. I just couldn’t ever have saved her. Her death was not my fault and I couldn’t of stopped it.
Though my friendship with Leslie was short-lived, she made 6 yr old me feel loved for being a friend. Just myself, my goofy self. That was pretty awesome. I never met another person like her, and, honestly I probably never will again.
This is the story of that little girl.
That little girl.
RIP Leslie. 🙂
*title of my post is from the song Sorrow by The Nationals. Great song by a great band.