Third grade was a very good year. I can still remember her project to this day…which is odd since I can’t remember my own at all. The “her” I am referring to is one of my earliest childhood friends, Mary. There were no Logans, Cadens, Emmas, Sophias, Masons or Hunters back in our day. We were simple-named kids, born in the later 1960’s, with plain Jane names like Mary, Danny, Kathleen, Chris, Steve, Tammy, Mike, Sheryl and Joe and we stepped onto Canalino’s kindergarten playground for the first time in 1972. In 1975, when we first walked into Mr. Spittle’s third grade classroom, we plain named kiddos of the 70’s were sporting some eye popping polyester, waffle stompers, vibrant florals paired with stripes, bell bottoms and a whole lot of hand sewn and hand-me-down clothes. I still remember the yellow, button-up, Raggedy Ann shirt my mom made me. We were, without apology, a myriad of fashion don’ts.
There were two third grade classrooms at Canalino and they sat right next door to one another with a moveable, accordion style, wall separating the two. Thirty-eight years ago, there were roughly forty of us third graders in those two classrooms and we’d been friends since kindergarten. Small town, small school and that forty or so member alumni third grade group (combining Mrs. Kerr’s and Mr. Spittle’s students) would also go on to create 1/3 of our 120-kiddo high school graduating Class in 1985. Small towns are like that. The kids you meet in kindergarten stay with you throughout your school career and go on to shadow you into the rest of your life. Few in number but as solid and enduring as they come and, consequently, the loss of even one is a heavy blow. I can still remember when Lee and Denny moved to Sweetwater, Texas and, to this day, it feels like we lost one of our own.
The project I remember, hers and not mine, was titled: MJB: Good to the Last Drop.
We were expected to use our initials or full name to make a product and then design or sketch a prototype. I think, if my cloudy memory serves me at all, we had to write a letter to a company or celebrity as well. I wrote a letter to Dusty Baker and that is the entire extent of what I remember about my project. Mary’s project, on the other hand, is etched into my memory because she was just downright brilliant.
I won’t give you her whole name. I love her family too much to compromise any level of privacy but, for the sake of explaining her project, I will confess her initials are indeed MJB. Very much the same as the brand of coffee from the 70’s. For our third grade project, Mary made her own brand of coffee, named it MJB (replacing her last name with the word “BEAN”) and thus was born her product. She then brilliantly allowed two powerhouse coffee companies to collaborate on her product as the motto for her MJB coffee became Maxwell House’s slogan, “Good to the last drop.”
These flashes are what hit me on Friday. The Friday last week when I fell head first into a puddle of tears. They are the same flashes that fill me, today, the 364th day since her untimely death. They are flashes from a childhood and an adulthood that we shared and traipsed in and out of during out last forty years. Moments mostly. I am left with a handful of these nearly still shots that spread out to include her smile, her laugh, sarcastic comments whispered under her breath immediately followed by a giggle, both of us dressed in our red polyester pantsuits for the Pixie (the precursor to Daisy Scouts back in the day) meeting after school in first grade, a monumental, pee-your-pants kind of belly laugh on a stair case while on a double date in college as we tried and failed to mix the flavors of two bottled drinks with a turkey baster, and the very overwhelming moment when I was homesick for Cali and friends after just moving to Cleveland and while on the phone with another Canalino friend who asked, “Doesn’t Mary live in Cincinnati now?” I still can’t figure out how two Cali girls, raised a few streets away from one another, wound up living in the Midwest just three hours apart but God was good to us.
These moments are like a lifeline, filling up the spaces, as I approach tomorrow…a year to the date that I lost this Canalino friend who is as much like family as anyone I know. Friends from small towns are like that and become family with as much ease as a tributary embeds itself into a river. There weren’t that many of us growing up so you hold on tight. Friends in small towns become second nature to you and when you lose them, it’s like losing a witness to your life. There were things about my life ONLY Mary knew. She walked the still shots with me and, with the witness gone, it was as though those moments no longer exist.
I have been ultra aware that tomorrow is approaching. I have struggled with her absence in every single one of the 363 days that have passed before today. What I wasn’t aware of is how deeply her absence would swell inside of me as the 365th day approached.
Friday morning, Day 358, is when the tears began to well up with such force that they would not be still and stop falling. Thankfully, shortly after the water works turned on (even tho I am NOT a crier), I got a surprise text from a Canalino friend. He sent me a good morning text from where he lives a few hours away. I immediately gave him a kind head’s up that I was having a bad morning and that he might want to high tail it out of range of me ASAP. The very endearing thing about those Canalino friends… is they don’t run.
Canalino friends step in closer during the rough spots.
He texted back, “You know I won’t run from you. EVER. Give me five and I’ll call.” That is what a good friend, a childhood friend, a Canalino friend does. He stepped in to hold me up while I was crumbling and I cried my eyes out for two hours while we talked. I gave him all sorts of excuses of why I was a red hot mess until it hit me and I whispered to him, “Mary”, and it all made sense. And I told him, “I need to do more because she can’t.” And, my friend, the tattooed, roughed up, tough guy that might just scare you if you didn’t know him, the boy who is simply my sweet childhood friend despite the rough exterior he’s gained as an adult, set me straight. He reminded me that, just like he and I are connected no matter how different we are and no matter where we live or who else is in our lives, she will always be connected to us too. She’s still here, she’s a Canalino friend and Canalino friends step in. She is part of who we are and though I can’t text or call her any longer, her vivacious nature is present. She is embedded in each of us.
In the beginning as I stepped up to meet death head on, I had thought it would simply mean I would grieve, lose her and move on. I have struggled all year with why I cannot let her go but now I know, I was ALL wrong. Big time wrong-ness. Talking with Danny reminded me of MJB. Talking with him, hearing his voice, it took me back to third grade and Mr. Spittle and the Dusty Baker/ MJB project. That’s when it hit me HARD. That’s when I finally understood that MJB is indeed… good to the last drop and there is absolutely NOTHING to let go of. It’s wicked funny how Mary’s project from thirty eight years ago is still imparting wisdom and comfort. It’s crazy how brilliant the woman was and currently is. It’s amazing how she is still at work in my life.
Childhood friends, friends like my Mary and my Danny, leave droplets in your heart, they leave flashes in your memory and they imprint themselves so deeply into your soul that they never really leave you. Even in death, they simply step in closer. When you have navigated life with a friend for so many years they leave a layer of themselves under your skin and in your heart and you are never far from who they are or from the laughter they shared. Every single drop she left behind…her humor, her audacity, her laughter, her skill, her brilliance …every piece of her remains solid and present. And the anniversary of her passing, the day when her body lost a fierce battle, is the day I vow to welcome her back into my life because I know that no amount of emptiness will ever be fierce enough to take her place.
Strong her whole life, she was a uniformed customs agent for 21 years, an expert marksman, a K-9 handler, a mother and a friend but she was never delicate. She never gave up, she never walked away from family, she never backed down. She was vast and brilliant every day and I realize now that what I am left with, a year after she passed, is a thousand tiny drops of MJB laced within my life. Moments, laughter, and brilliance that were bathed in her light that are embedded in each of us that loved her. And, somehow, I am able to see life and death differently because of Danny and Mary and I am thankful for every single day I knew this fabulous woman that lived so fiercely because, I know now, the beauty of a life well lived…is that it lives on… in every single drop and the drops never end.