In 1959 I was six years old, missing a front tooth and playing dress-up with my neighbor, Clare, and my black cat, Sylvester. For some reason, we always had a black cat and always named each one Sylvester, whether they were male or female. Sylvester was not an original name, for sure, but convenient when one of the cats would run-off or meet with a tragic demise. We never had to wonder what to name the new cat.
Clare’s daddy was a doctor and they lived directly catty-corner behind us in a large two- story house. Our street was like a dividing line between upper and middle class houses. Our house, the house my mother died in, was at the lower end of middle, but Clare didn’t seem to mind. She had this large modern house, a little sister, a doctor daddy, and a beautiful, vibrant mother who drove a station wagon and baked cookies. All of these things I did not have, especially the part about having a mother.
My daddy, although usually not generous with my mother’s belongings, had obviously allowed use of a few of her things for this dressy occasion. My white doll blanket skirt was held up by a brooch belonging to Mama and as most elegant women I knew, I had a fake fox fur around my neck. Completing the ensemble was a smart white, plastic headband purchased from Woolworths downtown. It was the hallmark accessory for most of my early years.
Clare, one year my senior, went to a private Catholic school, while I attended the neighborhood elementary. She was taking violin lessons and had Brownies after school, while I was walked straight home after school by our live-in housekeeper or my older brother, Jimmy. I was always wishing she had more time to play or that I had after school things to do, too.
I don’t know why my daddy took a picture of us that day. I could speculate and say maybe he was celebrating my missing tooth, or my recovery from chickenpox, but he was not usually one to celebrate those types of things. Maybe it was because I had on a few of my mother’s things, which reminded him of her absence. I’ll never know the reason, but I’m glad he did. I’m also grateful for Clare. Her parents were aware of my mother’s passing and they generously included me in their picture-perfect family. They extended the hand of fellowship and normalcy to a little girl who was dauntingly unsure of her place in this world.
Because my mother had died in this house, my daddy could hardly wait for us to move. When our lease was up, we moved down the street into an old parsonage that had big floor furnaces and window unit water coolers. Our new, old house was bigger but too far for Clare and me to play as often as before. We eventually went our separate ways, but she was my childhood friend for a season of time, distracting me with warmth and laughter. Her friendship brightened my days and put this smile on my face, a face that was struggling to remember what happiness really meant.