In the Fall of 1996, after a five week whirlwind summer tour of South Africa with the Chicago Children’s Choir, I found myself amidst the cornfields and animal dung that comprise the sights and smells of the University of Illinois campus at Urbana/Champaign. A concrete jungle girl through and through, and a self-described seasoned traveler, I was instantly dismayed by my new surroundings, so close to my hometown of Chicago (2.5 hours driving time) yet so far removed in the way of stimuli and heterogeneity.
The depression I felt upon unpacking my last box in the closet of a dorm room I had been assigned at the Florida Avenue Residence Hall (abbreviated, “FAR” which also ironically matched the domicile’s lengthy distance from campus) had little to do with missing my family and high school friends. It’s like I sensed that the public transportation taking, museum exploring, library wandering, sensory overloaded childhood I had enjoyed was about to come to a four-year screeching halt and I was helpless to do anything about it. A girl who refused to adhere to the U. of I. motto of “Go Greek or Go Home!” had little choice but to keep her head down, get a job and study hard. Graduating and moving back to Chicago swiftly became my raison d’etre.
Completely unable to tolerate living with my mother for longer than necessary, I arrived on campus a few days earlier than the bulk of my fellow incoming freshman. The benefit to this domestic twitchiness is that I had a head start on securing one of the better paying off campus jobs. My work experience comprised to that point of volunteerism and the occasional Sunday selling newspapers, I knew I would need the advantage of time to convince local managers to take a chance on me.
I walked my way along the Campustown thoroughfare of Green Street one determined morning, hitting up every fast food joint I passed. Food service seemed like a noble and poetic start to my career. Surely Jane Austen had worked in a kitchen at some point. She did after all, have seven brothers and sisters in an era without microwaves. After a lengthy and measured debate between McDonald’s and Wendy’s, I accepted a job at the latter for the King’s Ransom of $4.75 an hour.
During my second week of employment, as I entered the back door and assumed my usual place at the fry station, I noticed a new girl working the grill. The way she handled a spatula told me this wasn’t her first time flipping hammies. I was instantly impressed, but simultaneously intimated by her short but solid stature, black lipstick and natural white blonde hair. Unsure how to introduce myself, this dynamic person beat me to the punch. Within a few minutes I learned that Theresa was a fellow freshman and resident of the same dorm. She was from a town about 45 minutes south of Champaign called Mattoon and had the most beguiling hint of a southern twang. When Theresa went on to inform me that she was a Wiccan, I nodded my head in befuddled agreement, realizing that there was an awful lot this supposedly worldly urbanite had to learn.
Over the course of the next four years, a lot of things would be taught to me by the woman I grew to know as “T.” She in turn affectionately labeled me “Becca Jo,” a tongue in cheek nod to my transplant from the nation’s third largest city to a town of 60,000. I would say that T and I became the yin to each other’s yang, but she always seemed a few steps ahead of me. T taught me how to smoke pot in a dorm room without eliciting notice (her trick involved an elaborate setup of dryer sheets and empty Mountain Dew bottles). I went on my first drunken hayride with Theresa and her family (and right afterward, stole my first golf cart), flashed truckers on the Interstate, went skinny dipping, hosted an epic Halloween party that remains the stuff of Chambana legend, and learned the meaning of the local “country run” pastime. I never knew living in the middle of nowhere could be so much fun until Theresa showed me how to survive.
Shortly after graduation, Theresa married her college sweetheart, a wonderful man named Jake, and they settled in Shelbyville, slightly father south than Mattoon. I returned to Chicago to start my career in corporate communications, and the City proceeded to beat me up a little harder than my idyllic childhood memories would have predicated. Adult life turned out to be every bit as difficult a transition as the one from high school to college. In the Fall of 2000, we had the benefit of email, and as the years passed, FaceBook, but T and I have always stuck to our pattern on keeping tabs on each other with old fashioned U.S. Postal Service delivered letters, a la the Bette Midler and Barbara Hershey characters from Beaches. There is no comparable feeling in life to that of getting an unexpected missive, tearing open the envelope, unfolding the pages and greedily consuming the private thoughts of a loved one.
Though we are separated by more than four hours driving time, and T has an all-consuming life that includes two young sons, a demanding job and a large extended family, we still find opportunities, stolen moments to reunite and reminisce. This week was one such occasion.
Anyone who has read my recent work knows that this is a particularly trying time. I am unemployed, at a crossroads in several personal relationships, and ready to be honest with myself about the fact that I may never be ready for motherhood. While that sits ok with me, there are a lot of implications in my world: disappointed in-laws, well-meaning friends and family who believe I have made a hasty, childhood-scarred decision, and a husband who wants me to leave the door open to adoption when I am not sure that I can. I can never express what a welcome refreshment it is to be able to sit across the table from a woman who knows me better at times than I know myself. Someone who has seen me at me worst, has watched me fail over and over again, yet still assiduously leaves a sense of the pride and affection she carries with my name on it.
Well known, long-term friendships are the ultimate gift – the present of unconditional love.
See you soon T. It’s about time for me to make my way through the corn again.