My family moved from Iowa to Tallahassee in 1967, when I was almost 13. That was a tumultuous time to move to the South, and as a liberal-raised Yankee, I never could really fit in. There were still “White Only” and “Colored” signs on some restrooms and drinking fountains. Ku Klux Klan meeting times were announced on the noon-time news.
My older brother and I enrolled in the opening year of the first integrated junior/senior high school in the area. But “integrated” is a relative term. The blacks still sat in the back of the classrooms and kept to one side of the cafeteria. There was almost no interaction between the groups. When I conversed with a black girl in my English class, white girls eyed me suspiciously and shunned me. One gang of girls bullied me all year. My brother’s first and best friend was black, and that set them both apart as pariahs.
There was one friend I made that first year, though. Joni lived near me, so we walked home from school together, and our sisters became best friends, too. Joni wasn’t a Yank, but we were like-minded, and we spent much of our free time together. By our junior year, we had drifted apart. She found religion and I found pot. (Well, not really that black-and-white, but you get the drift.)
I left Tallahassee at 18 and never looked back. But Joni was the one friend who kept in touch. In fact, with my nomadic childhood, she is the only friend from my youth I’ve ever kept in touch with. Just Christmas cards every year, but enough that when we were headed to Tallahassee, I gave her a heads up. She directed us to a Walmart for parking Bessie and invited us over to her house for lunch.
We had not seen each other since we were 16. Forty-five years. I wasn’t sure I’d even recognize her. She had an advantage. She’d been following my blog (so religiously she could have passed a final exam on our recent history), and she’d seen recent photos of me. But I was momentarily thrown when she opened her front door, looking exactly like I remembered her mother. With a little effort, though, I could see that 16-year-old I used to know. And when she started talking, recalling stories from our youth, I reclaimed her as my old best friend.
After we’d had lunch and caught up a little, Joni drove us around town. There isn’t much of Tallahassee that I recognize anymore, but we went by our old Junior/Senior High School, my family’s old house and hers. The old horse pasture we used to walk through to get home from school is now a wildlife refuge park with an alligator in the fishing pond. Driving around gave us a chance to dredge up some old stories and memories, which Kate listened patiently to.
This trip has given me a chance to reconnect with quite a few old friends, and I was so happy for this afternoon spent with Joni. To see her in her element, after all these years, hear about her life and recall times we spent together. Joni is a talented painter. I remember her first oil painting in middle school, and how excited she was to start painting. I’m glad she kept it up, and I’m glad she was persistent and loyal about keeping up communication with me all these years.