Friday, October 31, 2008

"Friends & Lovers"

Friendships. Friendships are what keep me here in Toledo. I’ve lived here longer than I’ve lived anywhere continuously m y whole life. I went to live with my grandmother the year I turned seven when my grandfather died and stayed with her on the family ranch in Texas until I graduated from high school and went to college. That was eleven years. I lived in Wichita, Kansas, where I attended graduate school and taught in the public schools for seven years. That was nine years. I’ve lived in Toledo twenty years. I can’t believe I’ve been here that long! I was a kind of nomad during my adult years until I moved here. I moved to Ohio from Kansas because I became disillusioned with teaching gifted students who were lazy and uninterested in learning. I had been volunteering as fulltime staff at a local theatre and decided to ‘retire’ from teaching and become a fulltime writer. Then I got writer’s block and, although I did a lot of writing, nothing really significant came out of it until I wrote some plays about AIDS that my brother James took on tour with a grant for the National Conference of Mayors. By that time, I’d left Columbus, a city I don’t like because it’s too big and crowded, to come to work for Charlotte Zeigler in Columbus.

I think moving to Toledo was the best decision I made regarding my geographic location, career, and relationships. Not that I haven’t had friendships in the past. My best friend as a pre-teen and teen was the youngest daughter of the “other family,” the Johnsons, who attended the country Baptist church started by my great-grandfather, Rev. David Houston Parish, Sr., in the early 1900s. My grandmother, brother John and I made up one family and Charlie and Beulah Johnson and their five children made up the other family. When I hear people like Barack Obama talk about black men not being responsible, I of course think of my own father, Rev. John Henry Chapman, Sr.; grandfather, Calvin Benjamin Jefferson; and great-grandfather who were all great providers and remarkable men, each in his own way; but I mostly think of Charlie Johnson. “Mr. Charlie,” as we called him, was a farmer, school bus driver, and all around handy man that put four daughters and a son through college while his wife stayed home and cooked, cleaned, raised chickens and gathered eggs, sewed clothing for her daughters, and generally took care of the family. Mr. Charlie lived well into his nineties and “Ms. Beulah” is still alive, living on their farm by herself, and she is also in her nineties. I saw her a couple of years ago when I went to Texas to attend my mother’s youngest brother’s funeral. Except for using a cane and having some wrinkles, she hadn’t changed. She and Mr. Charlie had smiles on their faces at all times and always laughed when they talked. Those laugh lines are permanently etched in her face.

Their youngest child was their daughter, Minnie, who I considered my best friend growing up; she was three years older than me and talked to me about boys she liked, things she did at school, and things she hoped to do some day. I knew everything about Minnie and looked up to her. However, she knew little about me because I never got to tell her anything about myself. I was the passive listener in our relationship. She never even knew I had a huge crush on her only brother, who was seven years older than me. Had he been a bit younger, I’m sure my grandmother would have decided we were a match, but since he was “too old,” she picked out another young man for me that I happen to meet when our country church visited his country church and, according to him, he fell in love with me “at first sight.” Although the feeling wasn’t mutual, I consented to writing him letters since we lived in different rural communities and our romance began. He was two years older than me and because my strict grandmother didn’t allow me to “date” (I found out why a few years later!), he occasionally came to visit me at her house during holidays. Minnie’s brother also came to visit on holidays, saying he wanted to ride our horses. The Johnsons didn’t own any horses and only had a few cattle while my well-to-do grandmother had two hundred head of cattle (that belonged collectively to our family) and three or four horses.

My mother pointed out to me when I was in college and young Mr. Johnson was still coming around on holidays that young men usually spend time around girls they are interested in during holiday seasons. I hoped she was right, but left Texas before I could find out whether or not a romance was possible with this guy I’d had a crush on since I was twelve. Anyway, my grandmother’s choice for my mate went to college on an athletic scholarship and was a sophomore when I graduated from high school. He came to my graduation and my classmates, who didn’t believe for a minute that I had a college-age boyfriend who was a football star, given my grandmother’s reputation for being strict and overprotective. Imagine their surprise when the six foot three, handsome college athlete showed up that night. We got engaged and our relationship continued until I was honest and told him I was going out “platonically” with a senior at Prairie View, where I went to college on my Valedictorian scholarship from the State of Texas, against my better judgment (I wanted to go to Texas A&M). However, everyone in my family went to Prairie View (that’s where my grandparents met!), so I didn’t have a choice. Anyway, my fiancé became enraged and at the end of my first year came to my college to confront the senior I’d been seeing as a friend only (from my point of view – the senior actually asked me to leave school and marry him and move to South America where he got a job working in soil conservation or something!). The fool had a sawed-off shotgun in the trunk of his car and I became so upset, I threw away the ring he gave me and ended our engagement.

The next year when I was expelled for my ‘militant’ activities and moved to Oklahoma to live with my parents, my former beau didn’t know I’d left Texas. Ironically, he ended up going to college at Oklahoma State, but neither of us knew the other one was in Oklahoma. Then I moved to Kansas after graduation when my father went there to pastor a church and my former beau was drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs. Again, neither of us knew the other one was in the state. Eleven years after we broke up, I was in Texas visiting my parents who’d moved out to the ranch to ‘take care of’ my ailing grandmother and my former beau called my grandmother to inquire about me. She gladly gave him my parents’ number and he called. We went out to dinner and ended up getting engaged again. He’d been married and divorce and was not the sweet young man I’d first met, so a few months later I broke it off and he told me he’d never ask me to marry him again. I was relieved because the only reason I wanted marry him is because he lives in Austin, Texas, the ONLY place to live in Texas! My grandmother was upset and accused me of thinking I was “too good” for the country boy turned professional athlete turned engineer (a knee engineer ended his professional football career). I told her I was too good for him and that maybe she should marry him! That ended that conversation. Anyway, my “best friend’s” brother married someone else and things worked out because he had three children and is very happy. Since I can’t have children, I think it’s best that he ended up with someone who could. He needed to be a father having had the role model of the perfect role model to pattern himself after (so did my two uncles, but neither of them followed my grandfather’s example for some reason!)Besides, our families were so close, it would have almost been like marrying my brother if we had gotten together. Anyway, I’m not the marrying kind – everybody knows that!

Years after Minnie and I were “best friends,” I spent a few hours with her and all we did was talk about her life, picking up where we left off years earlier, and I realized that she established my idea of “friendship” years ago: one friend is the passive listener and the other is the one who gets to do all the talking. For years I fought to make sure I didn’t assume the passive listener role in friendships, but often found myself falling into that role. I also took on the other role on occasion and found it equally unsatisfying. Then I came to Toledo and found friends who taught me what friendship really is: an exchange of ideas, feelings, support, and concern. I love my friends in Toledo who number far many than I’ve ever had anywhere else. I still have friends in Kansas, but don’t communicate with them much – it’s hard to keep friendships in tact when you don’t actually see people face to face. However, friends I’ve made in Toledo remain friends even when they move away. Thanks to all of you for your friendship which means much more to me than you could ever know. I also appreciate you bearing with my denigration of the candidate of choice this year, Barack Obama, whom I’m sure all of my liberal friends support. Your disagreement with me has been strong, but civil. I appreciate that. Only friends can disagree and remain friends. I hope we remain friends for many years to come. Your friendship, more than anything else, has made Toledo my true home.

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