In May 1980, Mt. St. Helens erupted and brought a premature end to my freshman year of high school. Volcanic ash rained down all day like fine, grey snow. For days, our family farm looked like a faded black and white photo. Down south, along the Toutle River, Uncle Charlie’s cabin was hit by a giant wall of mud and debris when the side of the mountain blew out. The cabin on the Toutle had been a gathering place for generations of the Peterson, Hawley, and Forsyth families. It was hard to believe we’d never see it again.
The air was toxic, so our parents insisted we stay inside most of the day. Out of boredom, and forced to roller skate in the basement, because the second floor was carpeted and Mom would have killed us had we whipped through the kitchen, I started calling my younger sister “George,” after a character in a Looney Toons cartoon. For weeks, we couldn’t venture outdoors without a protective mask, and only to do necessary chores, like gathering eggs, milking cows, feeding pigs, or bringing in firewood. When it rained, the thicker layers of ash turned hard like concrete. Cutting, bailing, and hauling hay that summer stirred up dust clouds that lingered for hours.
It wasn’t our first natural disaster on Michigan Hill. Growing up, it seemed we were isolated and/or without power at least once a year. The Chehalis River encircles the hill like a moat. When it floods, you’re stuck. Bad ice and snow make the steep, narrow, country roads slick and dangerous. Windstorms can topple trees, knock out power lines, and make passage impossible. And then, there’s always the chance of an earthquake. Bet you thought life on a hill at the end of a dead-end, dirt road was quiet and dull.
True, we had only one television, and it had no cable, only ABC, NBC, CBS, PBS, and whatever that static-filled UHF channel was, and ONLY if the antennae was turned just the right direction…and Mom wasn’t watching soaps. We had no video games, no iPods, no cell phones, no ATVs, and no computer. We DID, however, have books, board games, and each other, plus a back yard stocked with cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys, apple, plum, and cherry trees, a barn typically full of hay, hundreds of acres of creeks, canyons, and forests, bicycles, backpacks, canteens, and a handful of kids who were in the same boat. Our lives would have been intolerably lonesome without Melinda, Gretchen, Cindy, Wendy, Curt, L.J., Lee, Nick, and “Little Hugh,” the kid who lived across the hay field. We were particularly grateful for the Hamiltons, Diane, “Little Ray,” and Kim, who were conveniently the same ages as the four of us and lived only three, short, winding bicycle miles away.
Maybe because our mothers were friends, Kim and I were especially close, had been since 3rd grade. She was my BFF, my confidant, conscience, and other half. My childhood memories are full of things we did together. Storms and other powerful acts of nature have been hitting Michigan Hill for years. St. Helens was likely the most widespread and inconvenient. As a child, however, few things are more devastating than losing your best friend. We were in 7th grade, struggling through that awkward transitional period – no pun intended – between child and adult. She didn’t die or move out of town, and we didn’t have a fight or a falling out, she was essentially whisked away by hormones and the natural disaster that occurs when peer pressure meets puberty. Of all the acts of nature that peppered my formative years, that was probably the worst.
I was twelve and enjoying recess on the grounds of Grand Mound Middle School when a group of “older” girls (i.e., 8th graders) approached me. Among their ranks were a few “popular” girls from our class and – surprisingly – my friend Kim. Their “spokesperson,” a blonde whose name and face thankfully escape me, brandished a can opener (yeah, you read that right) and instructed me to leave Kim alone or they’d beat me up. They told me I wasn’t pretty enough to be her friend, anymore. I remember waiting for Kim to stand up for me. When she didn’t, I walked away and vowed to never speak to her again.
We don’t tend to do a lot of self-reflection in our 20s and 30s, so I was well into my 40s before I started attributing my arms-length approach to girls (maybe even my hands-continuously-on approach to boys) to that day on the playground. At the time, I was merely angry and hurt. As the years rolled on, I grew bitter. Until recently, I viewed most women as self-righteous, two-faced, back-stabbing bitches who’d rather gossip and wallow in Jerry Springer-like drama than take responsibility for their own shit. My mother was a perfect example. When Mom died in 2007, leaving Dad with a mountain of debt and a bench warrant, my distrust of women hit an all-time high. The bitterness got heavy. For five years, I felt weighed down by hatred – an ugly, senseless emotion I’ve long despised. Then, earlier this year, on a full moon night, I pulled out my camera, and saw a little, blue dot. I haven’t looked at life the same since.
I learned as a child, in the aftermath of natural disaster and human tragedy, survivors band together, lift one another up, re-build, and move on. As an adult rapidly approaching 50, I’m ashamed to admit it took me this long to realize all that’s a lot easier said than done. On the outside, we might look like we’re coping. On the inside, something always sticks with us; I still call my sister “George,” driving over the Toutle River still makes me cry, seeing the empty spot on the bathroom wall where the mirror used to be will always remind me of the unpredictability of nature, and I might never completely allow myself the security and comfort of another, true BFF. Thankfully, we humans have the ability to choose what we carry with us – via free will. The sooner we learn to use it well, the better off we’ll be.
My mom did the best she could, given the resources she had. I couldn’t see that clearly until I forgave her, and I couldn’t forgive her until I accepted the action as a choice. No one was holding a gun (or can opener) to my head, making me hold on to all that negativity. The instant I saw that blue dot through my camera lens, and let myself calmly feel Mom’s presence, I recognized my burden for what it really was: my own stubbornness and refusal to let go. Rather than cry, I felt relieved. I can’t change the past, but I know now to make better choices when packing emotional baggage into the future. What’s that saying? Life is 10% what happens to us and 90% how we react. Or something like that. Turns out, it’s not only true, embracing it can change your life.
A few months ago, I posted something on Facebook and noticed Kim “Liked” it. Though we hadn’t spoken more than a handful of words to each other since 1977, social networking brought us together as online “friends” several years ago. On a whim, I clicked on her name, browsed through some of her posts and pictures, and forced myself to think beyond the bad stuff and remember the good: piano recitals, horseback riding, camping, hiking, sleepovers at Grandma’s, swimming in the Chehalis, biking all over Michigan Hill. I left a short note on her timeline saying I missed her, and I apologized for not “stopping by” more often. That led to longer notes and, eventually, phone calls and confessions. She was shocked to hear how much of the incident stuck with me. I was shocked to learn she had, in fact, been duped into friendship by a pack of mean-spirited girls who, when they were finished prettying-her-up and making her popular, dumped her at the end of the school year … and went on to another victim the following year. Had I not been a self-centered, hormonally-charged, pre-teen bitch who was too absorbed in her own, little world to think of someone else’s pain, we might have resolved this decades ago. Then again, maybe everything happened the way it was supposed to. Maybe we had to grow up a little first, before we started over.
You can’t change the past. You can’t control the weather or make sense of the actions of the typical, American, teenage girl. You CAN, however, prepare yourself for reality and learn to accept things as they are, as flawed and unfair as those things might be. When you’re thrown a curve, you CAN choose to stand up, re-build, and move on – on the inside as well as the outside. The alternative is a life unnecessarily burdened by your own, failed expectations. Learn to recognize them. Then, let them go. You’ll feel lighter. Better. And, who knows, you might even get your best friend back.