A Belabored Friendship

, , , , , , | Related | September 29, 2018

Decades ago, when I was in first grade, I met a girl who lived on the same county road, not too far away. We became best friends, and I often visited and played with her at her house. She, her mother and father, and even her young siblings — she was the oldest child — all spoke quite loudly with each other, almost shouting. She very seldom was allowed to visit me at my house which, even at that young age, I thought was odd. One day while playing she asked if I would like to spend the night. I said I’d have to ask my parents and she said she’d first ask her mom if it was okay. As we were walking toward the garden where her mother was working, the mother looked up just as I said something to my friend. I was, and still am, pretty soft-spoken, and she apparently didn’t hear what I said to her daughter. She jerked upright, raised the shovel she was using in the air, and ran at me, swinging it in front of her and shouting, “We don’t whisper at this house! Get out of my yard; get out of my yard now!” I turned and ran all the way home, hysterically crying, but wouldn’t tell anyone what had happened, as I thought I’d done something horrendously wrong! Ironically, what I’d said was that my friend’s mother was very pretty!

I didn’t go back to that house, although we still played together at school, and shortly after that incident her family moved further away from town to what I was told was a larger farm. My friend changed schools and I no longer saw her. Years later we met at high school orientation — there was only one in town, fed by several elementary and two junior high schools — and talked a bit. She invited me to visit and spend the night. Remembering what had happened the last time I’d been to her house, I was very hesitant but she insisted, saying her mother was sorry, it was all a misunderstanding, and that she didn’t have many friends and would really like to reconnect. I finally, reluctantly, agreed to go.

I arrived in time for dinner, remembered to raise my voice when I was speaking, and the evening was pretty uneventful. Then morning happened. With no discussion or warning that this was the norm, the alarm went off at 4:00 am, and the house came to life. Everyone quickly dressed and headed to a large barn so I accompanied them.

I was raised on a small farm with daily chores, but this seemed ridiculously early. We had a few cows, and I’d learned to milk them by hand into a bucket but, unbeknownst to me until that very moment, this was a large commercial type operation with more than 200 cows, several milking machines, and a huge holding tank. I had no idea how to help, so I stayed in a corner out of the way and watched. My friend would wash and inspect each cow’s udder, hook up and unhook the machine, check the milk for discoloration or impurities, then throw the valve to empty the milk collected into the larger tank. I was beginning to think that I could do that part, so I started to move forward to offer to help. Her father suddenly started screeching and berating her; she was working too slowly, and he believed she had missed the signs that one of the cows had an infection in one of her teats and she’d allowed that cow’s milk to flow into the main tank causing contamination — it was scratched but not infected, and she’d treated it with salve as she’d been taught. Then he turned on me because I wasn’t helping, should have been aware of the potential problem from across the room and hadn’t said anything, and was totally useless and should never have been invited to stay the night if I wasn’t willing to jump in and get down and dirty with the family.

I don’t remember if I even stayed to eat breakfast before I left, and I never had any desire whatsoever to go back, I didn’t have any classes with my former friend and we didn’t have much opportunity to speak. She left the school a few months later, and I don’t know if the family moved again, if she transferred to a different school district, or if she dropped out, although I suspect the latter. I felt bad for the children in that family, as it seemed to me the only reason they were allowed to have any “friends” at all is so they could act as additional free labor. Thinking back on it in later years, I realized that those children were in an abusive household, both physical and mental, and I hope that they were able to move on as adults to live more “normal” lives.

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