My first mentor
It must have been because my mother had fallen out of love with my father that she fell for an enchantingly dilapidated house with a studio apartment in the basement. She persuaded herself that the rent would tame the mortgage, an almost unthinkable stretch on Daddy's bottom-level academic salary. And so I became the only kid in my class with a whole other home tucked away where everybody else had only out-of-season clothes and dusty trophies.
By grownup standards, the apartment wasn't much of a home. If you had options, you would have rented anywhere else. Descending through the so-called "separate entrance," a basement door that rattled on its hinges and had never known a lock, you dodged a maze of ancient pipes overhead (one sporting a tenant's Magic-Markered warning "Duck!") while inhaling the mingled odours of furnace grit and laundry must. You then got a good look at the bowels of the Maynard house: washer crusted with spilled detergent, naked bulb illuminating a cache of forgotten tinned food from a scratch-and-dent sale. Your own domain was too tiny for a proper closet, so you hung your coat--and everything else--in a cubby just outside, where you risked being accosted in your towel by my mother with a load of whites. While you were out, she'd feel free to open your lockless door and give the place a quick once-over. She let my sister Joyce and me claim the same secret privilege, provided we didn't touch the tenant's possessions or leave any sign of our bouncing bottoms on the Indian cotton bedspread.
To me the apartment seemed a place of wonders, with the first claw-foot tub I'd ever seen and a table just the right size for a dolls' tea party. The round-shouldered fridge resembled the ones in old movies starring Claudette Colbert. I even loved that pokey closet, which instead of a door had a faded chintz curtain suggesting a fortune-teller's den or an actress's dressing room. I seethed at my mother for renting out my ideal playroom--until the Coburns moved in. Joyce and I called them "the Cobies."
Both students on the campus where my father taught, Linda and Bruce Coburn were my favourite sort of grownups--old enough to be married but not to ask patronizing questions like "How's school?" I couldn't imagine them debating C.P. Snow over sherry and canap?s, the way my parents did. The Cobies knew how to have fun. They invited Joyce and me to play Monopoly. They took us bowling. (My parents in a bowling alley? Never!) One December afternoon, they took us to see White Christmas, a movie my parents would have scorned. Emerging with the Cobies into a picture-book snowfall, I felt touched by the glow of belonging.
I took to hanging out around the apartment door until the Cobies invited me in. "You shouldn't bother them so much," my mother used to say. But if I was being such a bother, why did I always feel so welcome? While Linda cooked dinner, I would pour out my hopes and disappointments. Compared to my parents, she didn't talk much. But from Linda "Mm-hmm" meant "Tell me more while I think about that." Upstairs it had always meant "I'm too busy for this." The more Linda listened, the more I trusted her with the truth. One day I told her how lonely I felt at school. "I don't fit in," I said. "My mother says it's because I'm different."
I'd never seen Linda angry, but that's how she looked just then. She stopped cooking dinner and let her indignation rip. I don't recall exactly what she said but her message flared like a banner on a battlefield. Different? What kind of nonsense was that? If I wanted friends, I should be reaching out to other kids. But I wasn't doing that, was I? No, I was doing just the opposite--setting myself above them. The biggest, dumbest error a lonely person could make. Because if I got to know my schoolmates instead of judging them from the edge of the playground, I'd realize we were more alike than different.
Early on in this tirade, I feared Linda was casting me out. That stung; I craved her approval. But what I really needed was the stand she took against my mother's way of thinking. She cared enough to speak up, and I sensed even then that she was right.
When the Coburns moved away, I thought they had vanished for good. Then last winter Linda turned up on Facebook, still married to Bruce. She'd forgotten her long-ago challenge to me, but I was able to tell her that it changed my life. And now here I am, telling you.
Posted by Rona June 27, 2011 @ 11:02 AM. File in Defining moments