edna and bess

Thursday, on the plane headed to my high school reunion in Seattle I sat next to an elderly couple, Edna and Bob, the both of whom were sporting thick bi-focal glasses, neat slacks and sensible shoes. Edna’s hands reminded me of my mothers, thin skinned and gentle with sculpted arthritic knuckles. Edna and I got to talking and she asked me about family. I told her about Calvin and his various challenges, the fact that he can’t talk, can’t walk by himself, and is still in diapers, even though he is seven. Then I underscored for her his ongoing battle with epilepsy.

She led into a story about a very close friend of hers who lived nearby in their Philadelphia suburb back in the 1950s. Her name was Bess. Bess was married to Bill and they had four boys and a girl all with names starting with the letter B.

Bess and Edna’s boys were in the same third grade class, which is how the two women met. They began frequenting a favorite diner called Robinhood, which served a couple of slices of bacon, two pieces of toast, a pair of eggs and a cup of coffee all for ninety-nine cents. Over their first breakfast Bess said to Edna in a serious tone, “I have something important to tell you that I’m not sure I should. Will you still be my friend if I tell you?” Edna replied, “I don’t know ... lay it on me.” “Well,” Bess whispered, “I have this disease and it’s bad.” Perplexed, Edna asked, “is it leprosy?” “No.” Bess answered. Edna continued, “then I can handle it.” Bess went on with a shrunken posture, “I have epilepsy.” Edna countered in her friendly way, “well, it’s not catching.”

As the conversation progressed Edna asked her friend whether she had grand mal or petit mal seizures, at which Bess’ jaw dropped open in complete astonishment, “you  know this?” Bess explained how usually when telling people, they’d physically back off—pitch a shoulder away—and the friendship would never blossom, leaving Bess mistrustful, ashamed and dejected. But with Edna it was different.

Seated next to me Edna, reaching deep into her memory, told me how they’d find themselves in stitches over some funny thing and they’d laugh until tears streamed down their faces and their jaws ached. “She was my running partner," and then qualifying the statement, "we didn't actually run, but whenever I wanted to go somewhere we’d go together." Then Edna described how at times, in the diner or the car, Bess would stop talking mid sentence, quiver for a minute or so, then pick up her sentence right where she had left off. “Did I just go off into twiggyland?” Edna confirmed and lectured, “did you take your meds?” Bess hadn’t and said she’d take them later. “No you won’t, Edna barked, “you’ll take them now.”

One night Bess’ husband called up. He asked to speak with Edna. He went on to tell her how much it meant to him that she looked after his wife when he was out of town all week long—every week—for work. It eased his mind, he said.

Although Bess moved away a couple of years later the two friends kept in touch over five decades. Bess died knowing that in Edna she had found the truest of friends.

photo by Michael Kolster

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