As her most cherished childhood friend, I witnessed this beloved woman during one of her most hidden, terrifying experiences, along with many heart-opening, joyous, hilarious ones. To say Samantha lived a complicated, multi-faceted life would be a fabulous mirror reflecting overwhelming, tantalizing sights, and scents from a Midnight Buffet on a cruise ship alongside the passengers who turned a bit green on stormy seas that rock a seven-story immense hotel boat. Complicated might be an understatement. Yet, to be in the presence of Sam felt like being in the energy field of a glorious garden of blooming flowers, lush plants complete with bees, birds, hummingbirds, rabbits, squirrels, and black bears. With awe and wonder, she left people mesmerized and inspired by their own radiant humanity. She touched the lives of many hearts and broke open countless hearts while being stubbornly unwilling to disappoint her own soul’s evolution, her ambitions, and her highest aspirations. No matter how many times life clawed at her, Samantha kept going, learning, and growing.
I met Sam when we were children. I lived a block away from her house. She’d come to my house after school to watch Gilligan’s Island and eat snacks in the upstairs apartment where my grandma stayed in my childhood home. I loved being with my grandma much like I knew Sam loved her grandma. My mother loathed me. Her mother loathed her. We didn’t discover this painful truth about each other until years later at a coffee shop.
When she described how her dad affirmed her suspicions about her status with her mother, I felt my heart ache in ways I didn’t know it could ache. Her dad said to Sam, “Yes, your mother hates you, but I love you.” For Sam that felt like little compensation since her dad rarely showed up in her parent’s house. He busied himself with more important work tasks and other activities, rather than being with his children. Most people in our town knew this about Sam’s dad, especially the women. My own parents gossiped about Sam’s dad’s philandering ways. And yet, to be with Sam when we were children felt magical.
We played imaginary games in the backyard with toy horses, dolls, and stuffed animals, often taking them on wonderful adventures to far-away exotic places. We roller-skated to our elementary school and then later to our middle school. We played seances while calling in magical spirits of fairies, gnomes, and sprites. She claimed she could see the fairies, and I believed she could. These sweet beings from fantastical places like a different, yet kind of Disney-like World spoke, sang, and cooed in all types of voices Sam could mimic. She sang gnome songs that made both of us laugh so hard we’d roll in the grass of my backyard. We pretended to be these magnificent creatures who could turn into animals, make their many sounds, then back into fairies who could fly far, far away. Running through the yard with our arms flowing, fluttering like fairy butterflies, felt like its own delicious freedom, slivers of light-hearted, joyous escape from buildings filled with hardened adult humans.
One time I remember washing her dog, Bugsy, in the bathtub of the full bathroom close to the back deck of her parent’s house. We both climbed into the tub with Bugsy, a swirl of soapy, black thick curly furry large dog, warm water, and plastic cups for rinsing. We laughed while getting soaking wet attempting to keep Bugsy from shaking himself before we finished. Of course, Bugsy leapt out of the tub still a bit soapy wet. We screamed, laughed, and chased after him as he ran through her house shaking himself, soaking everything close to his dog-shaking shower. Caught up in the moment, I didn’t even consider the price Sam might pay for our failings in dog bathing.
Now that I reflect on this memory, I realize we never ever got to bathe Bugsy ever again. Sam never shared what happened in the aftermath of Bugsy’s first bath. I don’t think I want to ever know. After this, I only got invited to Sam’s house for a couple of her birthday parties.
Maybe darkness remained hidden in many households during these times of external politeness and following the expected courtesies of the day, the honed manners Samantha and I knew to put on full display with adults. Being around adults felt terrifying for they showed up roaring with hot fire, then frozen like icicles, then syrupy fake sweet, disappearing, appearing, emotionally shape-shifting, scolding like scalding hot stoves claiming there wasn’t a hot stove that just burned your body. That’s why the time alone with Samantha felt like such a delightful escape, like breathing in joy.
Our favorite time of year happened to be autumn. Several of our favorite experiences took place as the air turned crisp enough for wearing sweatshirts. Skies turned a brilliant blue, a nurturing backdrop for the leaves of golds, bright yellows, deep reds, dark greens, and evergreens showing themselves on nature’s wondrous stage. Soon after the first day of school, wearing our favorite back-to-school outfits even if the sun blazed like a summer’s day, we’d have a day off from school for the county fair. This led to the trifecta of fun that also included Sam’s birthday and Halloween, which came complete with the school parade, the school party, and Trick or Treat night, our favorite celebration of all because this one strayed from the traditional family-oriented holidays.
Because we walked home from school together every day, we’d share our excitement about the upcoming special happenings. Safe with each other’s secrets by now, we happily discussed our dreams of what imaginative characters we’d like to dress up as for Halloween, what candy we hoped to receive, which animals we most wanted to see at the fair, and whether Sam’s mother would allow her to have a party that year for her birthday and, if not, then ways the two of us could still celebrate.
On Race Day, the Kentucky Derby of Harness Racing, the day we had off from school, our parents never wanted us to go to the fair.
As an adult, I learned why our parents did not allow us to go to the fair on Race Day.
Many adults got incredibly inebriated in broad daylight well before nighttime. Seeing so many different types of full-grown adults in a stupor, acting stupid, barely able to walk, drunk happens to be a sight you cannot erase from your mind. The smell of liquor permeated the air along with the pungent smell of manure mixed with hay, cotton candy, popcorn, deep-fried dough, and greasy, hot-string French fries.
On other days of county fair week, our parents would let Sam and me go together to ride the rides, to visit the animal barns, to watch the earlier, preliminary races of low riding jockeys in their sulkies behind horses, whipping the horse’s flanks from behind them, the sparse spectators watching from the wooden stands. Sam and I stood behind the fencing around the large dirt track.
Sam loved and feared horses. Wild and free, they reminded her of how much she wanted to be free, live free, and run free. During the summer before we roller skated to middle school, a horse that Sam rode one afternoon for the very first time ended up crushing and killing an eight-year-old girl the very next week. That terrified Sam into a distant appreciation and respectful awe for these large, gorgeous, sleek-bodied, strong creatures. Even when people explained to Sam that the little girl had mishandled the horse, that in her bossy arrogance, she had caused the accident, Sam chose to never ride a horse again.
In our adulthoods, Sam and I seemed to free ourselves in certain ways from the hurt and pain of the primitive wound of being despised and abused by our own mothers.
When you really think about this, neither of us had mothering in the nurturing, unconditionally loving sense that the world’s mythology wants all of us to believe. Claiming there’s only one way that mothers show up for their children creates too pretty a picture, a storybook line that doesn’t match many people’s lived experiences. The “all mothers love their children” myth masks all the other expressions of, I guess, non-mothering mothering, humanly flawed mothering. The reality is some mothers show up as terrifying and horrifying bullies of their children or one chosen child, a reality still difficult for some people to digest.
Somehow Samantha, and I discovered ways to nurture each other in carefree ways, in our free moments outside with Bugsy. Sam loved her dog. She loved all kinds of animals. When we played in the creek, Sam especially loved trying to catch the crawdads. She squealed and laughed at the skating bugs. She stared with wonder at the dragonflies. We pretended to be frogs hopping around in the shallow creek on a hot summer’s day. Frolicking in the creek after our Saturday dance classes felt like one of our simple joys together in nature. We both risked the persistent punishment from our mothers. Yet, the joy of getting soaking wet in the very shallow, sometimes swift-flowing water while stepping carefully on slippery flat rocks on the bottom — nothing like that sensation, that visceral body-tingling joy. Holding Sam’s hand made everything feel safe, warm. Any time we held hands I knew love. If handholding communicates love, then I had touched it because I got to hold her warm hand as we rollicked in the creek.
Though I don’t have many memories of being at Sam’s childhood home, I do remember the elaborate birthday celebration when she turned 10 years old. There must’ve been twelve or even fifteen girls gathered. We brought our wrapped gifts in the door. Sam greeted us all with hugs and tears in her eyes like she couldn’t believe we’d bring her gifts. Did she not think friends would show up? We played fun games, ate cake and ice cream, and received the most beautiful handmade small dolls as a party favor. The doll was made of wood, glued-on yarn hair, and a colorful cotton dress. I still display that doll on my dresser, a reminder of how much I loved Sam, still love Sam, and will always love Sam.