In 1940 and for the next several years, Eleanor was my best friend. She was outgoing, self-confident, blond and pretty, and she wore a heavy leg brace which caused her to walk with a peculiar little hop and a metallic clank. She and her father had both had polio which had delayed her entrance to school by a year. I wasn’t particularly aware of the leg brace — there was a whole lot more to Eleanor than her physical condition. One could hardly have called her handicapped, for she climbed on the Jungle-Gym like a monkey and was just as formidable as anyone else in a game of Tag or Drop-the-Handkerchief.
Her home was about three blocks from the elementary school, and about halfway to my house. She and I both had younger sisters named Betty, and that seemed to be some sort of sign that we were destined to be friends. It didn’t take us long to establish a routine of my stopping to play at her house on the way home from school. Around five o’clock, the phone would ring and we knew it would be my mother calling to have me sent on my way home so I wouldn’t be late for supper.
In nice weather we played in her back yard or in the sandbox under a huge box-elder tree by the garage. There were thousands of box-elder bugs crawling on the tree and flying into our hair and, one spring, we began catching and putting them into a jar. We had heard the term “flea circus” and thought that, just maybe, we’d be able to train our fine collection of bugs to do tricks. We hid the jar in the kitchen cabinet behind cans of soup and boxes of cereal and crackers, then forgot about it. Months later I wondered if her mother ever discovered them but I was afraid to ask.
Eleanor’s mother was very different from mine — in fact, both her parents were nothing like mine. Both our mothers had red hair, and both were patient and kind, but the resemblance stopped there. Her mother played the piano and took French lessons; she was nearly always sitting in her peaceful living room reading a thick book when we arrived after school. My mother was more likely to be working in her flower garden, making pickles, hanging wallpaper, or mending a torn window screen. Eleanor’s father was an attorney and I thought it very odd that he should be shorter than his wife. He wore a suit and tie and smelled of shaving lotion and soap. My dad was a mechanic and the local Chevy dealer. He wore greasy work clothes and smelled like motor oil, sweat and tobacco.
It sometimes took the two of us over a half hour to walk the three blocks from school, talking about everything we could think of — often getting so absorbed in our conversation that we would stop walking and just stand and talk. Eleanor received a little terrier puppy for her birthday one year and she named him Chummy. Chummy was allowed to live in the house — something that was foreign to my experience. Chummy liked to investigate wastebaskets and scatter their contents about the house. Gathering up the (sometimes disgusting) mess was Eleanor’s first duty upon arriving home from school — of course I helped her.
You are reading about Eleanor because I recently received a letter from her daughter telling me that Eleanor died last winter. The daughter would not normally have written to me, never knowing I was Eleanor’s childhood friend, if it weren’t for the newsletter I publish for my high school classmates every spring. She knew I would pass that news on to other friends in our hometown.
Eleanor has been on my mind a lot since I got that letter. I remember so many things about her and some of the silly things we did as children (going home at recess time one spring day tops the list.) The last time I saw her was at a class reunion 20 years ago, but I heard from her every year because of the newsletter. Those memories are priceless. No one knows you like the people you grew up with — they help you remember who you were, understand who you have become — and why. My advice to this year’s graduates: Keep in touch with your classmates — in time you’ll be very glad you did.