When we were kids, I was jealous because Janet Butler’s birthday came three weeks before mine. It was a big deal back then, growing older, growing closer to what we called “grown up.”
Janet, who was born on Jan. 29, lorded it over me when she was 9 and I was still 8, when she was 10 and I was still 9, when she turned 13 and I was still 12. “Baby,” she’d say, but not in a mean way. She was never mean. She was a tease. She was funny. She’d sing-song the word “baby” and then laugh.
Janet’s timing was spot on and her laugh was contagious. She would laugh and then I would laugh, as we walked every morning to the school bus stop in Randolph, or on Saturday afternoons home from confession. As we played marbles in her driveway, as we sat in the back seat of my father’s car on a long ride to somewhere, Chicopee once, “Chick oh PEE,” Janet chimed, the two of us giggling until my mother begged us to stop.
Sometimes that’s all it was, two little girls laughing until someone told us to stop.
But a few times, Janet’s laugh got us in trouble.
We should never have been allowed to go to church together. We told ourselves on our way to Mass: We can laugh now and we can laugh on our way home. But we cannot laugh in church. We swore we’d be serious as we skip-walked down Chestnut Street, up North Main, singing made-up songs all the way to the church door.
One time I worried that a song we sang was a venial sin. “Girdle is an article of clothing. It’s not a sin to say it,” Janet insisted. Plus it rhymed with purple. And so we sang about purple and girdle and laughed and laughed certain, as we always were, that by the time we entered the church and blessed ourselves with holy water, we would have no laughs left inside us.
But then there we’d be, side by side, on our knees, wispy hats on our heads, hands folded, the church silent, its stillness interrupted only by the words the priest whispered in Latin and by the gold bells the altar boys chimed. I tried hard not to look at Janet when we were in church. And she tried not to look at me. But I could feel her presence, feel the laughter simmering inside her, restrained, a lid on it, like the lid my mother used to boil green beans. Until the lid started wobbling, until Janet’s face turned pink, then red, her belly shaking and then her chest, until the giggles boiled up and over and then, in a rush, burst right out of her.
I got five punch holes in my conduct card in fifth grade because Janet made me laugh. It was in February during those interim weeks when she was 10 and I was still 9, and she’d been riffing on me all morning about a boy we both liked, George Falcone (pronounced FAL-CONE-EEE) saying that George Falcone (we always called him by his full name) would never like a baby 9-year-old.
We sat next to each other, our knees touching, because Miss Nagel, our teacher, had arranged the desks in her classroom into a square. Miss Nagel, this day, was handing out conduct cards, which she’d made by cutting pieces of pastel construction paper into thirds. Write your name on the tops, boys and girls, she said. Then she explained that the purpose of the conduct cards was to monitor our manners. If we talked while she was talking, or while anyone else was talking, she would punch a hole in the interrupter’s card. And that the number of holes in our conduct card would determine the grade we got in conduct. Understand, she asked?
Not five minutes later, Miss Nagel was speaking about our newly elected president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, when Janet slipped me a note. And here’s where my memory fails. I don’t recall what the note said. All I remember is laughing so hard that Miss Nagel marched over to me, grabbed my conduct card, and proceeded to punch out five perfect circles of shame.
What happened next? Did I cry? Did my parents find out? Janet would know.
George Falcone gave us both the same Valentine’s card that year and signed each, Love, George. I remember this. But what happened after Miss Nagel stopped punching my conduct card when I was still 9 and Janet was 10?
Janet was my memory keeper. I would call her and say, “What’s the name of the family who owned the land where we used to go sledding?” “Who lived in the house at the end of Althea Road?” I would call her today if I could. But sadly, she’s gone.
Jan. 29 is her birthday. I remember her crooked smile, the mischief in her eyes, the sound of her laugh. I remember her and me and us and then.
And when I remember, I don’t see us as adults. I see the children we were when Janet was 10 and I was still 9.
Beverly Beckham’s column appears every two weeks. She can be reached at email@example.com.