When No One Wanted to Be My Friend

32 years later, looking back, I see things differently.
 At the age of 29, I married my husband Al, who was a widower.  His first wife, Jane, died of breast cancer. She left behind four children, a loving extended family and an entire town of friends. Helplessly, hopelessly in love with Al, the kids, and with only a slight tolerance for the dog, I jumped into the marriage with both feet. Believing it was the best move for the kids to not be uprooted after the trauma they had already endured, I sold my home and moved into a log house the small mountain community of Midway, Utah that Al and Jane had called home. I really believed that I could come into this charming village, give up my career, throw myself into a life of service, and be a stay-at-home-mom.  I also believed that, in turn, the community and friends of the family would open their arms up and accept me. I was hoping that, through them, I could learn about Jane: Jane the wife -- Jane the mother of my children -- Jane the girlfriend.  I decided I’d throw myself into this new adventure and learn to call it home.

Love can be so blind.

After a year of the most difficult time of my life, overwhelmed with kids, cooking, cleaning and all the thankless tasks that fall under the heading of motherhood, I was desperately lonely. I’m a girlfriend kind of girl. I love having friends in my life and I had always been blessed to have an abundance of them. But no matter how I tried, I couldn’t make friends. Determined to pull myself up by my bootstraps, I tried everything. Despite the fact that I was active in the community, church and civic activities, out of some misplaced sense of loyalty to Jane, no one wanted to be my friend. They were happy to let me work behind the scenes on projects, volunteer at the school lunch room and make bread for the bake sale, but no one would accept my lunch invitations, no one invited me to baby showers and no one thought to include Al and I in their social activities. No one heard my heartfelt pleas for friendship that I so desperately needed. I cried a lot.

I was beginning to think that all of Jane’s friends were the most horrible people God ever created. In my pain, I didn’t realize that almost everyone was still grieving the loss of their dear friend, Jane, and I was a constant reminder that she was gone.

Everyone, except one.

Judy and Jane had been friends for over 15 years in Texas. Their friendship bonded them together through some of the toughest times in their lives. Judy, a fiery redhead with a personality to match, had flown to Jane’s side during the last month of her life. They were very close.

One day, about a year in to my marriage, I got a phone call from Judy. At this point I had only met her and her husband Tim once, very, very briefly. When she called, she sounded weak; ill. “Suzy, I need you” was all she said.

Me? She needed me? Why would she want me when none Jane’s friend’s wanted anything to do with me? But before I could utter a sound, she turned the phone over to her husband who filled in the details.

Judy had just had cosmetic surgery, a face lift. All had gone well when she suddenly she took a turn for the worse and complications set in, the kind that only happen to one in a million patients. Judy developed a blood clot, an infection and a trip to the emergency room.  Now out of critical care, Judy was finally home.  Emotionally, physically and mentally spent, she needed a friend – but her best friend was dead.

“Look Suzy” Tim said, “Judy’s feeling pretty low. On top of all the medical issues, she’s feeling guilty over having had this elective surgery to begin with. She is home now, stable and on her way to recovery. But I have a business trip to Europe for the next 8 days. I don’t feel good about leaving her alone. All she’s been saying is she wants Jane.  Then last night she said, ‘Call Suzy’.  I know you don’t know her well, but will you come?”

Without missing a beat, I said “Yes.”

The next morning I was boarding a flight to Austin, Texas, hoping I’d recognize Tim at the airport.  It was easy as he greeted me with open arms.  When I finally walked into Judy’s bedroom, where she laid propped up with pillows and ice packs, she started to cry. As she poured out her heart to me about her predicament, how she missed Jane and needed a friend, I started to cry too.

Over the next eight days we laughed, we cried, and we talked endlessly about Jane. I read to her, and we joked about her swollen face.  In the last few days, I helped make her presentable enough to venture out into public again. As she said goodbye to me, she thanked me profusely, proclaiming she could never have done it without me.

How had she known, this was just what I needed? How was she able, in her time of need, to reach out to me, someone even more needy than herself. My days in Judy’s service were eight of the most fulfilling days of my life. As I filled her cup and helped nurse this previous stranger back to health, my cup was filled too. Spending those eight sacred days with Judy gave me the time and distance to remember who I was and what I was capable of.  I gained the courage to face my situation at home again. As I got off the airplane and headed back to my mountain home, I realized then and there that life was too short to be anywhere I wasn’t wanted. Al and I sold our home and moved to Coeur d’Alene Idaho. We bought a beautiful place on Hayden Lake and started over again. It was wonderful. Our kids blossomed and so did I.

Over the next several years Judy and I took a few girly trips together and had a lot of fun. We lavished ourselves in mud baths in Seattle, tried to experience death-by-chocolate in Victoria, BC and walked the beaches of the Oregon coast. Each time we left each other with our spirits renewed and our hearts uplifted. Through Judy, I came to love Jane.

Our lives eventually drifted off in different directions and we eventually lost touch. Then a few years ago I tried to contact her and learned from her children that she had passed away. She had a very rapidly progressing form of ALS and died shortly after diagnoses. My heart is saddened when I think about her being gone.

But every once in a while I get an email from her youngest son, proudly showing off a picture of their little boy, Judy’s grandson. In the eyes of that feisty little redhead, I see the same fun, joy and compassion I remember in Judy. And it makes me smile.

Thanks Judy, for being the kind of friend that made Jane proud.  

My $10.63 Miracle Dress

This is the $10.63 dress she bought me.

I sure do miss my mama. She died a little over two years ago but she is with me every day of my life. I feel so incredibly blessed that she passed on to me so many talents and skills and was such a great example to me. A skilled artist herself, her gift flows through my hands each time I pic of my paintbrush. But if you asked her what her greatest talent was, she’d say, “Making something out of nothing and finding bargains.” She was not only great at shopping sales but did wonders on thrift store find and re-purposing things.

Luckily, she’s not one of those out-of-control souls who spends her life savings and hoards tons of stuff. She’s actually quite picky -- very selective about what she’s willing to dedicate both money and space in her home or closet to. And for her it was never about acquiring a lot of things -- rather she is into the whole shopping experience. For her, it’s all about “the Hunt.”

Shopping with her was an event not to be missed -- I never gave up the chance to tag along.  However, preparation for a day with her did take some training.  Building up enough stamina to keep up with Mama took some effort. The day would start off with Mama walking into the first store, and in ten minutes, she’d have the whole place cased-out -- top to bottom. She could tell you in great detail if there was anything of value or just plain cute in the store.  Not only that, but in that same ten minutes, she’d know the names and personal life story of three saleswomen and the medical history of at least two more. Nothing gets past her.  At this point, if Mama decided the store was worthy of a second look, the fun began. She’d systematically start to look through racks of clothes, shelves of shoes and mountains of gee-gaws, sorting and sifting to find the treasure buried deep in the bottom of the pile. Once unearthed, she’d ceremoniously presents the items to me and shove me into a dressing room.

I hate this part. With my mother having been the perfect size 4 and my sister having size-2 jeans look baggie on her, walking into a dressing room with armfuls of size 14 clothes is a cruel reminder that I did not get the skinny gene in the family.  Instead, I got a love for all things Chocolate. Nevertheless, with a big party, a gallery debut, or a personal appearance looming in the future, I forge ahead into the dreaded dressing room with 360 degree mirrors.

Now if you had ever needed an honest critic or a loyal cheer leader to support you in your journey to the dreaded dressing room, my mama would’ve been the girl for you. Before I can even get myself shimmied into an outfit, Mama has already put the nix on it and it taking the next item off the hanger. Trusting her eye is always the right thing to do. Once in a while I’d think I knew better and buy something without her nod of approval. Later when I saw a photo of myself wearing the item, I’d be mortified that I even thought I looked cute in the contraption.  Mama surely missed her calling as a personal stylist! Well, this one particular day I had settled on a darling outfit that Mama guaranteed me that I looked three sizes smaller and 10 years younger. This, as Martha Stewart would say, is a good thing. The dress just happens to be on sale. Originally $136 and is marked down to $89 -- a price I was more than willing to pay for such a miracle!

Finally, with the decision made, and having previously spent a substantial amount of my retirement fund buying a bunch of Under Armour and Spanx to hold everything in so nothing giggled, I headed to the cash registers.

At this point I had several things in my favor. The only reason we were in this specific store on this particular day, was that Mama had already scoped out the newspapers and saw the 25%-off-everything-storewide ad. Also, it’s senior citizen day, so that’s another 10% off. Then she’d start to dig in her purse. Out comes her customer-appreciation coupon for 20% off and the store credit she had been carrying around for 4 months. When the sales-clerk announces the balanced owed is only $10.63 my mother stifled the grin that was ready to burst across her face.  As she pays the woman, she leans over to me and says, “Happy Birthday Baby Girl”. We head to the car, victorious with our treasure -- “the hunt” a complete success. 

As I got mama settled into the car for the drive home, the look of contentment on her face was second-to-none. She has turned two hours at Stein Mart into a peak life experience and is quite proud of herself.  Mission Accomplished.

Now, I have always professed that “things’ are not important, and that we are not the accumulation of all our stuff. I’ve always tried to remind myself that it’s what’s on the inside that matters the most. However, when I am getting ready to go some place special, and I’m feeling frumpy, I know I can always put on my little $10.63 dress that Mama bought and be assured that I look like a million bucks. And as every woman knows, that feeling is priceless.

Thanks Mama… for all the wisdom you gave me… for the life-skills you taught me… and for the unconditional love you continually pour out to me.  But most of all, thanks for passing on the light-hearted, fun loving, joyful wacky gene…truly, my greatest asset. ( I sure do miss you, Mama.)

The Real Reason My Characters Have Bare Feet

I love shoes.

Now you must think this is crazy, coming from woman who is barefoot most if the time, and who has built her art around that fact. But I have to admit, I am addicted to shoes. My dear friend Candy, who died from Ovarian Cancer back in 2003, was a shoe nut too. Although she was not so much into quantity, she did have a bunch of cute ones.  If the saying is true, that “She who dies with the cutest shoes, wins” I have bad news. The game’s over. Candy won. I’ve never have seen so many cute shoes as she had in her closet after the funeral.  I only wish I wore her size. But my obsession with shoes doesn’t come from the fact that there are just so many cute ones out there to collect.  It stems from a slightly sad, lack of self esteem story from my childhood.

I was one of those kids who got her growth spurt in one spontaneous explosion that left me at my full height and bone structure by my 11th birthday. At five-foot-nine and 110 pounds, my large bone structure was even more exaggerated.  I stood out among all my friends. I was taller than my 16 year old sister by an inch and had large size 10-1/2 wide feet to match. I was a stick with duck feet!!!  My long, blonde, almost white hair and bright blue eyes just added to the oddity that I felt growing up in Hawaii in the late 60s.  Hawaii is a multicultural melting pot of mostly small, petite Asian and Polynesian girls with jet black hair and dark exotic features. I can remember coming home from school one day and begging my mom to dye my hair black so I’d fit in better. Thank goodness she didn’t!  Can you imagine how my platinum blond eye brows and eyelashes would have looked, framed by a head of dyed black hair? (Thanks Mom for saying, “No.”) 

But back to shoes…Fortunately shoes were totally optional at most places on the island. Bare feet were the norm, at school anyway. But if I did need to wear something on my feet, I could get my size 10-1/2 wide feet into a pair of men’s rubber flip flops.  I was always on the lookout for a non-gender-specific color (men didn't wear pink back then) and style that wasn't too manly. But there were a few situations that called for shoes…real “girl” shoes. 

This is where my challenge came in. In the late 60s, on a little island in the middle of the Pacific where most petite women there never wore bigger than a size 6, choices were limited to say the least. Catalogs from the mainland offered my size, but only in matronly orthopedic varieties that looked like something worn in a soviet block countries by female shot-put champions. So instead, we’d travel almost an hour to shop the Ala Moana Mall, hoping to find something that would fit.  Shopping was horrible. We’d walk into a shoe store and my mom, who has a loud booming voice second only to mine, would ask the cute little Asian shoe man, who was half my size and height, if he had anything in a women's size 10-1/2 wide. The man, along with everyone in the store, would look down at my feet as if to catch a glimpse of an oddity only reserved for those with a paid ticket to Ripley’s Believe It or Not. The salesman would shake his head as I tried to slither out the door before any of the Japanese tourist got their cameras out.  This whole situation, experienced over and over again, did NOT help my self esteem. Many times I remember whining to my mom, asking her what we’d do if my feet kept growing. Instead of answering me, she hit me with one of her famous platitudes (she had thousands): “There was a girl who cried because she had no shoes until she met a girl who had no feet” Then she would try to boost my spirits.  Usually we’d sit together at the counter at Longs Drug Store, still shoeless, and share a piece of Coconut Cream Pie.

Once however, low and behold, we found a pair of X-large, slip-on mules with a bow across the toe. They were a bit too small, but they were backless.  They allowed my heels to hang out over the back edge, and they hurt my little toes like crazy, but at least they didn’t look like something a grandmother would wear. (Thinking back now I think they were actually some kind of glamorous Boudoir slipper to be worn with lingerie!) Nevertheless, I was able to endure them in short spurts. I owned them as my only pair of shoes for well over 3 years. They started out as white leather, got resoled yearly and then in an effort to suck as much life out them as possible Mom had them dyed different colors several times in an effort to hide the wear. I hated those shoes after three years, yet I lived in a panic of what I’d do if they ever got to the point where they were no longer repairable. 

By the time I moved to the mainland, it was only slightly easier to find stylish shoes in my size.  But somehow I survived my shoe trauma of young adulthood. Today, the options for a size 10-1/2 wide shoe do offer more choices …thank you Nordstoms and Zappos!  But every time I find a pair of shoes that do fit, I have this compulsion to buy them, cute or not, in every color they come in. And then, after they have served their purpose and lived out their life spam, I can’t bear to get rid of any of them.  I have shoes in my closet I haven’t worn in years that are so worn out that they are not fit to give the thrift store -- but I almost go into an anxiety attack if I have to throw them out.  So I hoard them.

I can still remember a few short years ago when I came home from the store with shoe boxes in tow, my mom, who was then living with me, would be just as excited as I was to put another pair in my closet. She still remembered this silly little trauma of my childhood and each time would tell me “It’s okay Suzy, you just buy all the shoes you want. You’re making up for lost time!” Today, when the same scenario repeats itself, my  husband, just rolls his eyes. He knows better than to say anything. I add them to my stash and remind him that shoes are a cheap fix and  my drug of choice for a traumatic childhood!

It is interesting that my life’s work, The Sacred Sisterhood of Wonderful Wacky Women, is noted for their wild haired, faceless heads and their bare feet. I am continually asked why they have these traits. As I finish telling them the “Why no Faces” story about my adopted son, wanting to know what his birth mother looked like and how I drew a little faceless woman so he could imagine her face himself.  I quickly add that their bare feet are most likely a result of my growing up in Hawaii and the fact that I never wear shoes.  Well now you’ll know the real story. The fact is, they all wear size 10-1/2 wide and just can’t find a pair of shoes that fit.

Regardless of the stash of shoes that now fill my closet, if I ever get the chance to meet you, look down… most likely you’ll see the cutest pair of 10-1/2 wide bare-feet you ever saw!