This is the mother of my oldest friends. She lived an unremarkable life maybe in many people’s eyes, and had complicated and sometimes difficult relationships with those close to her. But she also gave so much to so many, and one of those many was me.
I am an only child. My mother died when I was six years old. At 8, I was lucky enough to become best friends with my similarly shrimpy and freckled doppelganger B. As my young and single father had to be away frequently for work or for pleasure, Penny became my babysitter. As complications developed with my own family, Penny–who at that time had 5 children living at home–graciously welcomed me into their home. A mom, a dad and 5 other kids ranging in ages from my own to high school–I was in heaven. I felt almost normal! Most of my memories of this time of my life are centered around their home, not my own. It was there that B and I suffered chicken pox, blistering sunburns, and a painful long distance love of Shaun Cassidy. But for the first time I experienced eating dinner at odd hours at a large dining room picnic table with 7 other noisy people, sleeping in bunk beds, taking turns playing Pong or Atari and running through the house, screaming, after being tortured by the creepy boys.
I spent summer mornings with everyone else, scrambling to make weird lunchmeat sandwiches on cheap wheat bread with mayo, getting our swimsuits, then piling into the family station wagon or the back of the purple truck and going to Grandma and Grandpa “Wag”‘s house to go swimming for the day. We wouldn’t dare to drip on the house floors so we stayed outside all day, listening to KZAP or KROY on the transistor and cannonballing off the diving board at appropriate measures of the song. When we stopped to eat our warm sandwiches, Penny would occasionally come out to swim–that particularly odd stroke that only older ladies know how to do that doesn’t get their hair wet.
Later, on my 14th birthday, my dad was again out of town, as were my friends. They always were because their father’s birthday is the day before mine. Penny felt so bad for me that I was all alone. She decided to cheer me up by teaching me how to drive her bright yellow Toyota Starlet. She drove to a newish tract that was barely inhabited and away we went, lurching and screeching with me trying my best to master the clutch-to-gas ratio. Unbeknownst to me, she had arranged a surprise party of sorts. We got back to the house to find Penny’s 3 friends and a cake, which we ate on the living room floor around the coffee table with champagne. It truly was a birthday I will never, ever forget.
My teenage years were difficult to say the least. I often called her from school and she always came to my rescue. I would go with her to clean houses, and she would listen to all my problems. She never said no, and she never asked too many questions–she just came and picked me up. I felt safe with her. Later, she took me in, converting the dining room into a bedroom for me. She never asked for anything from me in return.
Penny moved away for a little while to be near her grandchildren. When she came back I re-established my relationship with her as I had young children of my own. She was always so good to them. But by then the alcoholism had really begun to take it’s toll. She was a little more erratic and I stopped spending much time with her. I eventually moved downtown and we lost contact.
Penny died last week. I’m not family but she was so much a mother to me. I never thanked her.
Thank you Penny, I love you.