catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 8, Num 16 :: 2009.07.31 — 2009.09.03


Four old nags from Moody

I was sitting in a worn red armchair, staring blankly at page 42 of a coffee-table book about mankind’s greatest mistakes, and trying to keep my laughter within my own body. The book itself was not the reason for my struggle (although I did pick the book up again the next day and found it quite entertaining) — it was the three middle-aged women crowded together on the couch across the room. My mother, Jane, and her two friends, Nancy and Carolyn, were listening intently to their fourth friend, Jill, who was on speakerphone from Phoenix. Jill had something to tell them, and they were hanging on her every word. 

To understand this scene fully, you have to know a bit more about each one of these women. They all met at Moody Bible Institute in the late 60s, where strict rules and conservative teachers collided with the loose, hippy-ish culture of downtown Chicago. They sang in choirs, ate cheap pizza and sneaked out of their dorms in dresses that fell above their knees. (Several of these dresses are still in the dress-up box in our attic, where their huge patterns and vivid colors are finally getting a little faded.) Their laughter was constant; they shared the ups and downs of life by joking about them. Each of these young Moody girls got a two-year college education and then graduated, heading out on her own.

Nancy was the first to fall into sorrow. She got her Masters in music and then went back to her hometown and married her high school sweetheart. They moved to South Africa, but after only nine years of marriage, they were in a motorcycle accident. Nancy broke her jaw and her hip and became a widow. She moved back home. It was a quite a few years before she married again, and this time to an ER doctor.  They built a beautiful lake house and travel all over the world. Nancy still walks with a limp from the plates in her hip.

Carolyn is also on her second marriage. Her first husband turned out to be psychologically disturbed, and years of depression, manipulation and general awfulness resulted in a divorce. Her current husband is a quiet, laid-back, dark-skinned man who owns apartment buildings in Chicago. She thinks he is the funniest thing since Bob Hope, and repeats all of his jokes loudly so that no one misses anything. She’s also a nurse in the GI unit, so her job isn’t something we talk about at the dinner table.

My mother’s life has been less dramatic, although she did meet my father on a blind date. They married and moved to Pennsylvania so he could go to seminary. They had my two siblings and me, and my father has been a bull-rider, a rodeo clown, a cabinet-maker, an art therapist, a carpenter, and, most recently, CEO of a construction company. Meanwhile, my mother has spent her days gardening, doing laundry, homeschooling us kids and shuttling us to every extra-curricular activity possible. My parents were busy and happy, but my father’s business has struggled and financial problems have left lines on their faces and gray in their hair.

Jill, on the other hand, is much more financially stable. She started out with a counseling degree, but then she decided to be a mortgage broker. Her two kids went to college on opposite coasts, so she and her photographer husband travel a lot. However, a few weeks ago she switched from being self-employed to working for a bank, so she wasn’t able to come to the annual weekend get-together that the four friends started having a few years ago.

That’s why Jane, Carolyn and Nancy were huddled around the phone, listening to Jill’s description of a recent trip she took to visit her 23-year-old son in Germany. After all these years — after all of the trials, tribulations, husbands, jobs, children and life that they have each been through — they were sitting on that couch, focused intently on Jill’s words. I was trying hard not to laugh as Jill shared her news with her eager audience.

“Oh, I have to tell you!” She said excitedly. “While I was in Germany, I smoked pot! Well, I didn’t really smoke it. We ate brownies? I don’t know. It was a little weird.”

Nancy leaned into the phone. “What was it like?”

“I just felt very laid back. Like I didn’t really care what was happening, I just wanted to chill out. You know?”

Carolyn sounded intrigued, “You were laid back? I haven’t seen you laid back in years. Did it have any physical effects?”

“Not that I noticed. We walked around the city for a while. I think if I was going to do it again, I would just want to sit and not really do anything. It wasn’t bad — it just wasn’t that great. The next night the boys went out to do it again, and I just decided to stay in the hotel and read a book.”

There were three sounds of assent from the couch.

“Wow, Jillie,” said Nancy.

“Yeah, I know. Crazy, huh?”

I couldn’t help it any more. I burst into laughter. It was just too much for me — these four, middle-aged women, huddled together, talking conspiratorially about what my generation calls “special brownies.” They had each been through so much; what did a marijuana-laced dessert from Germany have on a motorcycle crash or a psychologically disturbed husband?

They all looked up at me, puzzled. As I watched them sitting there together, I realized that their conversation really had nothing to do with whether or not special brownies are actually worth eating. They were just listening to Jill. They just wanted to be together, to talk, to share. It was about sharing life, sharing joy. I stopped laughing and listened as the three of them told Jill about their weekend together.

They burst into laughter themselves as they told her about trying to find a parking space at the beach and Nancy offering to limp so we could park in the handicap spot. Their joy at being together could make even a life-long scar something to joke about. I closed the book and my pretense of reading and watched, just soaking it in.

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