I can be a bit of a task to be around, I'm afraid. I have no talent for sitting still. I'm not capable of pretending something is fine and dandy, when in fact it's not. If something needs to be said, I'm compelled to say it, and I do it as diplomatically as I can. But let's face it, candor's less endearing than coquettishness on any playground. My gifts were sturdy construction, a stalwart sense of justice, and the ability to whistle, ride horses bareback, and skip stones over water as well as any boy. I was a natural bridge builder. Even as a little girl, I was the ambassador between my high- spirited sister and our rightly starched father. She was three years older, but when Suzy was grounded, I was the hostage negotiator. When Suzy exceeded her curfew, I was the peace envoy. When Suzy died, my life's work was born. Her meaning became my mission.
Born on Halloween, 1943, in Peoria, Illinois, a gentle and generous place that embodies the very soul of Americana, Suzy was three when I came along in December 1946. Mom says she peered at me over the edge of the bassinet and said, "Well! She's quite a character."
We were thick as thieves from that moment on. Suzy was always a queen bee in the neighborhood gang, and I was thrilled to be Suzy Goodman's little sister. I was her entourage, her liege, her cheerful sidekick, ambitiously pedaling my tricycle in the wake of her fleet- footed, inventive escapades. I can't remember a single instance of her telling me to buzz off or leave her alone or go play with the other kindergarten babies so she could hang out with the big girls who had more sophisticated things to do.
As our mother ages so gracefully, I can't help thinking what a couple of grand old ladies Suzy and I would have been together. That was our plan from the time we were little girls. My sister and I expected to age gracefully, set up housekeeping, cultivate a nice cutting garden, and sit in lawn chairs, watching our grandchildren play. We never discussed the fate of our beloved spouses; we just naturally assumed we'd outlive them in some "God's in his Heaven, all's right with the world" kind of way. It never crossed our minds that we'd be hip- broken or infirm. Not us. We'd be the spry old dames delivering Meals on Wheels, organizing holiday toy drives, knitting mittens for the underprivileged, quilting lap robes for all the tragic polio children.
The muggy summer of 1952 teemed with mosquitoes and clingy midwestern humidity. The school year ended (I was fresh out of first grade, Suzy liberated from fourth), but instead of that lazy, hazy wide- open summer feeling, we found ourselves in a world of closed doors and shuttered windows. It seemed to Suzy and me as if the city of Peoria had pulled into itself like a turtle, afraid to poke so much as a toe out to do anything. The ice cream parlor and candy store closed up shop. The streets and sidewalks felt muted and unfamiliar. Women hurried through the grocery store, holding the cart handle with a fresh hanky or dishcloth. We'd already been told there would be no movies, no carnivals, no concerts in the park. When Mother told us the municipal pool was closed, Suzy groaned.
"What about the lake?" she asked.
"They're letting a few people swim there," said Mother. "Invitation only."
I raised the possibility of the swimming pool at Uncle Bob and Aunt Helen's house or the wading pool at the park or even our little plastic pool in the backyard, but Mother shook her head.