I saw her last week. A lady customer over at the retail parts counter of the place where I work in Milwaukee, getting a cartridge for her home humidifier. She looked somehow familiar. A rather large woman, but not embarrassingly obese. Comfortable and confident, she had a strong clear voice and a melodic laugh I could hear back in my office. Exchanging humorous comments with the counter clerk, talking about her cats while her order was filled and rung up. She was laughing. I couldn't place her - but the face looked familiar.
She left. (I do not walk up to parts customers and harass them with 'Hey, sweetie, haven't I seen you somewhere before?') Later, when I processed the sales slip and payment, I saw that had been Lena White! (not her name - if classmates are reading this, please do not mention Lena's real name in comments). And I realized why it was that I hadn't recognized her. It was because it was the first time I had seen Lena happy.
Lena was in my Watertown WI grade-school class from the second grade through the end of high school. And she lived right down the street from my house. But I'm sure she wouldn't want to see me now, because I was part of another life she had transcended, gotten over, and left behind.
Lena was the one who was at the bottom of the pecking order in grade school. She was very nervous and self-conscious, partly because her parents kept her so insulated from social contact. She had no close friends, and if invited to participate in playground games, would usually turn down the offer. Lena was a bit clumsy from lack of practice, and would usually invite ridicule in playground sports. Lena's style of dress was of another era - possibly hand-me-downs from her mother. Her mother was very domineering and sheltered Lena from everything. When she wasn't at school, her mother never allowed Lena to leave her yard, and the house always had all the drape drawn and windows closed, even in summer. Her father was a high-profile eccentric, and once ran for mayor of Watertown, getting six votes. Lena had reason to be embarrassed about her parents, but never spoke against them. Because she hardly spoke to any of us.
And we were mean to Lena. Grade-school kids are the cruelest of them all. Nobody, I include myself, stuck up for Lena when the students would pass her "germs" around. No physical abuse, Lena was simply ignored and excluded most of the time. Personally I don't remember going out of my way to be mean to her, but neither did I defend her, and that's just as bad.
In high school, thankfully, things didn't get worse for Lena. High school was a much larger social community, because all the various parochial and public grade schools consolidated into one high school class. And, all the Lena Whites from Watertown's other schools all found one another. And they had a little group from which they drew strength - safety in numbers.
In the ensuing years, Lena's parents died, her house in Watertown was settled and sold. Free of the no doubt detrimental parental influence, Lena made another beginning. And now she owns a home in West Allis, a blue-collar Milwaukee suburb. She has a job, she has cats, and she was laughing. God Bless you, Lena White!
Thanks for listening and contributing. I'd love to hear from you.
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