This is a photo of me and my friend Fern on my 16th birthday over 50 years ago. We met when we were 7, in second grade in Chicago. We were an unlikely pair. She was shy and awkward, I was outgoing and aggressive. We became best friends. Through elementary school, high school, as unsuccessful college roommates and beyond, we shared a deep, intimate relationship. We wrote 3 snotty novels together as teenagers, we saw the Beatles together and imagined being old ladies, rocking in our chairs, harmonizing to all their songs. We had the same crushes and didn’t mind sharing. We talked on the phone for hours, eventually graduating from gossip to big ideas and deep thoughts and feelings. After many years, we knew Fern had serious emotional issues. She struggled through them while becoming a court reporter, a pianist, a bowler and eventually, a PhD candidate in creative writing. I tried really hard to help her but I was no math for the depth of her pain. She killed herself in 1988, two weeks before our 20th high school reunion. I’ve never really gotten over it. I miss her all the time. A wrong and unnecessary death. But aside from the countless memories, I am left with one permanent gift from our life together, the perfect day.
One hot summer day in 1966, we were just a couple of kids with nothing to do but amuse ourselves. Our friend, Mary, who lived in a big building right on Lake Michigan invited us over to hang out. We walked there, sweaty, but not caring as we watched the sidewalks shimmer in the heat. When we got to Mary’s, other friends were gathered, girls and boys, sitting on the large concrete patio that overlooked the water. The air felt cooler there. My main crush was on site which made the day glow for me, and Fern’s was there as well. We were utterly innocent. A glancing accidental touch of a hand was a dream you could live on for weeks.
There was a neighborhood bakery called Burny Brothers. I remember the pink boxes so rarely seen in my house and to my delight, Mary’s mother had bought their cinnamon rolls which I’m sure were the most delicious ones I’ve ever tasted. We snarfed them down as we kidded and flirted and the hours flitted by. Eventually it was time to go home. As Fern and I lived only a block apart, we left together. On the way home, we decided we were hungry and decided to stop for a burger.
This is where we stopped, The Red Hen. For a buck, you could get a burger, fries and a Coke. For me, it was always special to eat out, even at fast food restaurant. Mustard on burgers? Unthinkable at my house.
We strolled outside and sat down on a hot bench to eat and talk over every minute detail of the day. As we ate and chatted, we watched an auto mechanic come out of his shop and get ready to slide underneath a car. He had a portable radio with him which he flipped on before he disappeared on his little rolling cart. And suddenly, Paul McCartney’s unmistakable voice wafted out as we heard Eleanor Rigby for the first time. What a great moment. As we sat there in bliss, full stomachs, dreamy dreams and the perfect musical accompaniment to what had been a perfect day, we had a simultaneous realization. We’d been talking about turning 16, which meant summer jobs and responsibilities. Before we knew it, we’d be thinking about college and adult life and all that is implied by those transitions. We were keenly aware that what was ahead would likely be harder, and that the landmark events like getting a driver’s license, college, work, maybe marriage and kids, would be frontloaded with expectations. And miraculously, we knew that those futures were full of land mines that could easily blow up in our faces. The day we’d just shared was a perfect day, a carefree day, when nothing bad happened, nothing hurt and every tiny sunny detail felt just right from start to finish. We promised each other that we wouldn’t ever forget it and that when all that adult load came down, we’d be able to go back and remember what was simple, carefree and ultimately the best time ever.
This year will mark the 34th anniversary of Fern’s death. I carry the memory of that day by myself. It still works for me. I’ll always be grateful for it.