Remembering a childhood friend

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red autumn leaves

Memories made in the magic of childhood etch lovely, deep designs that we carry for a lifetime. I will never forget the joy we shared when Dad and Mom sat us four girls down to tell us the happy news that our Smalley cousins would be moving from Illinois to the house on our dairy farm.

There was whispering late that night with my sisters about all the fun times we had already shared with Kim, Connie and Kris. Now they would be right next door! We were all bursting with excitement and happiness. Connie and I were born the same year, and she would be starting third grade with me. Kim was closer in age to my older sisters, and Krissy was the baby.

Joyful

This began one of the most joyful times of my childhood. That summer, Connie and I were inseparable. We played silly games that we often made up on the fly, putting on singing shows while we made little Kris hold the spotlight, an orange desk lamp that we wrapped in a towel. Kim had the most beautiful singing voice, and we would beg her to play “spotlight show” with us.

We constantly had a long string in our pockets, and if we got stuck somewhere waiting for her mom or mine, we would play string games that Kim had taught us. We swam like little fish, and roasted marshmallows around the fire for everyone whether they wanted one or not.

Connie was beautiful and so different from me, her olive complexion and dark hair setting her apart from everyone else in our family. Her blue-green eyes sparkled when she smiled, and it seemed we smiled endlessly that summer.

Autumn

When school started that September, I proudly introduced Connie as my cousin and best friend. I surely held my head higher than I ever had, knowing Connie was the crown jewel holding my hand as we walked through the door to our classroom that day.

October was Connie’s month, not only because she loved autumn, mums and fall colors, but also because it was the month she was born. We celebrated at our house in a big way that first school year we got to spend together, and every single year since, when Oct. 9 rolled around, I thought of Connie all day long.

Grief

Yesterday, in disbelief, I spoke at Connie’s funeral. My sisters and our mother noted the beautiful autumn colors all around us as we drove to the church service for Connie, who died unexpectedly in her home just four days shy of her 61st birthday.

One summer night, sharing stories in the top bunk bed at the summer cottage of her Aunt Clara and Uncle Dale Bodager, Connie told me when she held her breath and swam underwater at Pleasant Hill Lake she thought that must be what Heaven is like. From that night on, when we swam, we played the angel game, loving the feeling of weightless joy.

We carried one another’s secrets and silly boy crushes, passing notes and sharing knowing glances. When we weren’t together, we talked on the phone, planning our next day. We were junior high cheerleaders together, we lived through deep, forgettable drama, we fought and we made up. Our common dream of one day having a son and a daughter eventually came true for both of us.

There was no other friendship to come that etched my heart so deeply. I simply adored her.

Swimming

Grief comes in an enormous wave when we are not prepared for loss, bringing us to tears for what once was and what will never be again.

Vicki Harrison once wrote, “Grief is like the ocean, it comes in waves, ebbing and flowing. Sometimes the water is calm, and sometimes it is overwhelming. All we can do is learn to swim.”

Connie taught me to experience swimming as a magical gift, and I dream of her now swimming, joyfully flying free, surrounded by angels.

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Judith Sutherland, born and raised on an Ohio family dairy farm, now lives on a 70-acre farm not far from the area where her father’s family settled in the 1850s. Appreciating the tranquility of rural life, Sutherland enjoys sharing a view of her world through writing. Other interests include teaching, reading, training dogs and raising puppies. She and her husband have two children, a son and a daughter, in college.

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