When I was seven, I joined Brownies. Not only was it a lot of fun, but for the first time in my life I met girls my age who did not attend my parochial school.
Kathy was one such new friend. When I met her, I had no idea what a huge impact she would have on my life. We were close friends for about eight years. I’d go to her house, only a few blocks from mine, whenever I could.
Kathy was a genius. No, I mean it. Literally. Not only was she an honor student, she was interested in everything: stamps, science, literature, art, music—and she pursued everything with a focus that was all-encompassing. I shared many of the same interests, but I didn’t have her discipline, or the resources she and her sister Freddie (for Fredricka) had: parents who liberally supported their interests by buying them stuff.
For example: stamps. I collected stamps. (Hey, it was a popular hobby in those days.) Half of my stamps came from the US. The other half were from Germany, because my aunts and uncles and cousins lived there. They purposely varied the stamps they used on letters to my family because they knew I’d be steaming them off the envelopes and mounting them in my album.
Kathy, however, ordered stamps from ads in the back of magazines. She would send a request to a stamp company, and they would send her small collections of stamps from different countries in little glassine envelopes. It was called “buying on approval.” She would decide which envelopes she wanted and return the rest with her payment for the stamps she kept.
I was forbidden from doing that.
Kathy and I would get together with our stamp albums and admire each other’s collections. Hers was truly awesome. But she found interesting specimens in mine to compliment. She generously shared some of her most exotic stamps with me. I gave her my “doubles.” She explained some of the finer points of collecting, like first day covers, and not separating blocks of stamps. (Before the days of self-stick stamps, postage came in perforated sheets. You separated the desired stamp and licked it, or moistened it with a damp sponge, to activate the glue and make it stick to the envelope. Multiples of the same stamp were more valuable if they were still joined together.)
As the years went on, I took piano lessons, and so did Kathy. Then she also took drum lessons. Her huge old house had an actual music room where the piano and the drum set lived. She also owned (and played) a guitar, a zither, and a recorder.
Kathy offered to teach me how to play drums. She even provided me with a notepad where she wrote down all the rudiments so I could practice them. (I, however, didn’t have drums, or parents who wanted me to play them, so I could only practice at Kathy’s house.)
We spent many afternoons sitting at the piano and singing. We worked our way through songbooks by Peter, Paul, and Mary, Bob Dylan, and Joan Baez. Even though I could play piano, Kathy was a much better sight-reader than me.
Both of us loved to read. I got most of my books from the library. Kathy used the library, too, but she and Freddie had multiple bookshelves packed with their own tomes. They had all the Nancy Drew books, all the Hardy Boys, and the Bobbsey Twins, and Cherry Ames—you name it, they had it. And they’d let me borrow anything I wanted to read.
Often, on a lazy summer day, we’d each choose a book and go to the backyard and climb a tree, where we’d perch and read. After a couple of hours, their mother might come out with a pitcher of lemonade and glasses, which she’d fill and hand up to us; or maybe some corn on the cob that she’d boiled and buttered for us. Good times.
Kathy’s family’s heritage was Norwegian, and she loved everything about Scandinavia. When her bedroom was due for an update, she painted it blue and asked for yellow curtains, so it would match the flag of Sweden. She loved Norse mythology, an interest I did not share. She pursued her love of Odin, Thor, and Freyja through comic books. I stuck to regular books.
After reading millions of comic books, Kathy began drawing her own. Her depictions of the human form were strikingly realistic, posed in heroic stances. Then she took her art one step further: she drew scenes from mythology on felt and colored them in with embroidery. Incredibly stunning.
In ninth grade we both entered the same public regional high school. Our circle of friends widened considerably. Kathy continued to be an academic superstar. I did well, but not as well as she. As high school went on, I discovered that Kathy was considered quirky. Tall and slender, with an unruly mane of kinky long hair, she attracted attention wherever she went, not always of the positive variety.
We shared some activites, but not others. For example, when our school got a computer lab (this was in the late sixties—the computer filled a room; students had access to two “terminals”), I dismissed it as a faddy gadget; Kathy signed up for as much computer time as possible.
Musically, I was strictly a chorus person (though I was also an accompanist). Kathy was in both chorus and band, her outlet for her percussion skills. She didn’t play drums in marching band, she played a lyre-shaped, handheld glockenspiel (this was back in the days before marching bands had a stationary percussion ensemble, or pit). But she earned the ire of her band mates by composing her own glockenspiel parts when the arrangements didn’t call for one.
Always a lover of science, Kathy made the high school chemistry room her second home. She’d hang out there before and after school and during her study periods. She organized the chemical storage room for the chem teachers. She even had her own lab coat, which she wore for her senior yearbook photo. (See why people thought she was quirky?)
Meanwhile, I discovered boys. I am ashamed to admit that I ditched Kathy in favor of one-on-one time with my Romeos. Little by little, we grew apart, mostly because I purposely ignored her.
I heard she had a rough time in college. She studied chemistry or physics at Cal Tech for a few years, but quit before getting a degree. She transferred to a different school to study early music (she was by that time a very good harpsichordist), but stopped just a few credits short of earning a degree. I don’t know if she ever did get her Bachelor’s.
I’ve only seen her once in my adult life. After Greg and I married, Kathy and another mutual childhood friend came to our apartment once for dinner.
Thanks to the magic of the internet, I have an idea where Kathy lives and what she’s up to. I know performance is still a part of her life–I’ve seen her on YouTube rocking out on organ with her band, a smile on her face and a familiar twinkle in her eye. But I’m uncomfortable about reconnecting with her. Too many decades have gone by, and I suspect there may be awkward feelings.
The reason I am sharing Kathy’s story is because she was an incredible influence on my life. She encouraged me creatively, especially musically. She was my early role model and a polymath (though I didn’t know that term until recently—it means a person whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas). She widened my concept of possibility.
Is there someone you grew up with who helped shape the person you are today? A childhood friend who shared your creative interests? Someone who dominates your memories in a positive way? Share his or her story in the comments below.