I don't know if every 17-year old would enjoy socializing almost exclusively with the country club set of a rather small Midwestern town but most don't ever get the chance. I gamely tagged along on trips to the shop that carried Pendleton where I could not be convinced to turn in my shredded jeans for beautifully tailored wool blazers with coordinating trousers. The ladies, brightly festooned in their tartans and hosiery and tasteful pink Estée Lauder lipstick, would cluck and sigh about my military garb, dyed black hair, Kabuki white face powder and gash of red lipstick and refusal to wear even socks, even in winter. But I was fairly quiet and I listened to their stories. All of them. I couldn't hear enough of them enough times. And, so, they let me stay. A scraggly common crow among the magpies.
While other kids were out cruising, I did things like wait up for my grandparents to come home from the country club formals to hear about the food and the dances and the dresses. I fretted with them and their interior designer over how to reupholster the Henredon armchair in the family room. We went with the navy blue which was my first choice as well as that of the designer, Bill (who had been a belly gunner during WWII), or so he told me privately. I learned the importance of a weekly blow-dry and set. Went to ceramics class. Enjoyed Beef Wellington and Cherries Jubilee at dinner parties that started with what seemed to me an impossibly civilized ritual of cocktails. In glasses. Glass glasses.
I was horrified when my grandmother told me, some months later, that it was time for me to go live on campus at the university I was attending. "You shouldn't be hanging out with your grandparents and their friends," she said, "You need friends your own age."
Most people don't live with their grandparents if things are going well for them. I was no exception. I really needed to be with these genteel, learned, worldly people who had already raised families and had (nearly) limitless tolerance for the foibles of youth. Even better that they were snobs of the small town variety and so their brand of elitism was wholesome in some way that I've never quite identified. I became civilized. I had it imprinted on my impressionable mind that life could be mannerly, orderly, respectable and enjoyable rather than a state of constant turmoil whether real or imagined.
But, I went to the dorms because I was told to and I wasn't nearly as rebellious as the clothes and chain-smoking suggested. On the way there I complained bitterly (because neither was I as compliant as I could have been) that I would likely end up with a roommate that had huge blonde hair and even huger breasts and who would want to decorate the room in pink. My grandmother scoffed. We arrived at the building (just a few miles from home) and walked into the room where I met Jennie. My grandmother blanched and I smirked as the busty, blonde perched on a cloud of pink comforter hollered her, "HI!", in a voice that said, "Oh my gah, I'm rooming with flat-chested Elvira!"
There were still parties. Mostly of the red plastic cup variety. Gone were the glasses, the Harvey Wallbangers, the Baked Alaskas, the Swedish Meatballs. Gone were the stories of serving in the war or waiting for boyfriends and brothers to come home. Gone were the recollections of what happened after they did. And what happened after they didn't. None of these new friends had buried children. In my old group, one couple had buried two. No one wore Pendleton. No one got a weekly set. I hated it.
I missed my friends like Bea who had taken me under her wing when I first got to Muncie. She and her husband, John, were usually the ones who took me to lunch. Then we'd shop. Usually at the bookstore. They would pick out a book for me to read and let me pick one. She bought me my first (and only) bottle of Emeraude. It had been her first grown-up fragrance. She frequently defended me in arguments with my grandfather regarding his profligate use of racially incendiary language (this was our only real point of contention although he would probably argue that my tendency to strew my belongings throughout the house was a far more contentious issue).
I would shop with her for her granddaughters at stores that she called, "Jacques Peigné" and "Tarzhay", because it was absurd to refer to J.C. Penney's and Target that way.
And it is absurd to read in the paper today that Bea has died as part of a murder-suicide enacted by her beloved husband and constant companion of over 70 years. Absurd. Preposterous. Ridiculous. And completely, impossibly true.
I have spent the entire day reliving those months, those dinner parties, those shopping trips, those lunches. In the coming days I know that I will manage to sort and compartmentalize and make sense. But today I just want to remember with gratitude a time and a group of friends that changed, and possibly saved, my life.