I had never met her, but I knew her. Loud, annoying, obnoxious – the last person in the world I wanted to be around. I’d seen her at Robinson Junior High, and I social distanced from her in the halls whenever I heard her coming.
Mary Morelock. Round-eyed, high-cheeked, brown bob bouncing as she tromped down the halls jabbering .Me quiet, invisible, squint-eyed, mousy straight blond hair that refused to hold a curl even after sleeping in brush rollers. I loathed her. She never noticed me.
Then, the summer after eighth grade at the Legion Pool where free-range kids lived from one in the afternoon until we had to leave for supper, Mary and I started hanging out because we still wanted to swim after our friends left early. I figured she wouldn’t make noise if she was under water half the time.
The outdoors improved the acoustics of her voice, and she liked to play in the water, not just lie in the sun. She and I became friends, and in high school, when we were in the same gang of girls with the same lunch period, we became best friends.
By then I was Suz to her and she was Mer to me. I spent at least one night at her house every weekend. When we were sixteen, and I had my brother’s Chevy convertible one Friday night, we decided to buy our first beer. We waited until some country boys pulled up in front of the 7-11. The driver took my money and came out with a string of Pabst Blue Ribbon’s.
“Want us to help you drink these?” he said, grinning a piano-keyboard grin with the black keys missing. “No, but thank you so much!”
Mary popped the top of my first personal can of beer. Remember this is 1968 and we were stupid, and the law didn’t do much to drinkers in East Tennessee, possibly the moonshine capital of the world.
We drove on a dirt back road swigging Pabst and feeling quite mature – the late 60’s version of Thelma and Louise – until I dozed off and ran up on a gravel pile. The crunching jolted me awake. My headlights shone out into black nothingness. We were on the edge of a little cliff. I tried to back up but the wheels spun, throwing up gravel and dust.
I looked over – Mary’s chin was on her chest. “Wake up! We’re stuck.”
She slowly turned her head in my direction, her eyes staring past me in a half-open gaze. She opened her door and leaned out, her whole body hanging down like a limp doll. Thank goodness I’d made us put on seat belts or she would have rolled out like a barrel of beer.
“Where are we?” she said when she got a grip on her door and hoisted herself back up. “It’s dark down there.”
Not for long. Two bright headlights beamed into the windshield, blue lights flashing. “Oh no, it’s the law,” I said. That sobered us both up in a hurry.
It was no use lying to him. Empty beer cans told the story. “You girls out joy-riding, drinking Blue Ribbon?”
“We’ve never done it before,” I said.
“Well, you better not do it again. That gravel pile most likely saved your lives.”
A man from a nearby house had come out, and the two of them pushed the car backwards so it was no longer high-centered. “You got a busted radiator. Doesn’t look like there’s much more damage other than a scratch here and there. You girls get on home and don’t let me catch you out here again.”
Slowly driving home, hands at 10 and 2 on the steering wheel, as awake and alert as I’ve ever been, I said, “Can you believe it, Mer? We could have died.”
“I know,” she said. “We could have gotten a ticket too.” Which was even scarier.
We lived to have many more adventures. A couple years later I totaled that car one night after a bunch of us had gone skinny dipping at the Moose pool where she was a lifeguard. At a T-intersection out in the country, someone had stolen the stop sign and I didn’t realize it until too late. I turned too sharp, the right wheel went into the ditch and left the road, rolling several times. Because we weren’t wearing seat belts, all three of us got thrown from the car. Convertibles back then had no roll bars. It landed belly-up in a field, squashed flat, and we would have been too.
Mary was my wild and crazy soul sister. My real, sweet little sister died when I was eight and she was five. I have missed her all these years. I envy those women who have sisters, even those with irritating ones who cause them a lot of grief. They don’t know how lucky they are.
But I realize how lucky I am to have Mary, a sister in my heart. We’ve lived together in Florida and Georgia, and had viscous fights – especially the time in Atlanta when I ate the hamburger she’d saved for after work. Oo-weeee. Talk about red-faced screaming mad!
Decades later, even though we stand on the other side of an awfully tall political fence (what is she thinking????), we are still close. A couple thousand miles separate us, and we only see each other in person every other year or so but it’s like we’ve never been apart. We relive memories, marveling that the good Lord brought us through so many dangerous adventures, happy to spend time with each other, talk about our kids and wonder at how well things turned out.
Joan Carol was my only sister, and I love and miss her, but Mary helped me journey through my insecure teens and rudderless twenties and all the ups and downs of my life, with understanding, sympathy and laughter. Just like little Joanie, Mer will always be my sister.