The first day we moved into our house on a tree-lined street in the sun-kissed town of Pasadena, California, a young girl appeared at our door. She had round, apple cheeks and a gap between her front teeth that matched her wide open smile.
“Hi! I’m Anita. I heard you guys might have a girl my age to play with.”
I peeked out the door and eyed her curiously. I immediately sensed that she was just a little older than me, probably a second grader.
“I have six brothers and four sisters,” she proclaimed. “How many do you have?”
“I only have two sisters and one brother,” I replied, feeling rather insignificant. Immediately, I wanted to meet her family. I didn’t have long to wait.
“Would you like to come over for dinner Friday night?” she asked. “”We’re having fish—cause it’s Friday and we’re Catholic. But if you don’t mind, you can come.
I accepted the invitation and walked down the block, past four houses to get to Anita’s home that Friday evening. Her house was a large bungalow with two towering pine trees stretching out a canopy of branches over the front lawn. The grass was thick bermuda and tickled my bare feet. A tall boy with apple cheeks and a gap between his front teeth—just like Anita’s–answered the door.
“You must be the new girl on the block, Carla, right? Come on in!”
I entered the house. The living room was dark and cool. I could see the dining room through the door. It had a huge table surrounded by tall, boisterous boys and teen age girls, all milling about, making an inordinate amount of noise. Timidly, I approached the room.
Suddenly I was grabbed around my neck. “Pig! Pig!” cried a loud voice from behind me. I struggled to release the arms throttling my throat.
“Melinda! Let Carla go!” cried Anita. Boy, was I relieved to hear her voice. Immediately the arms loosened around my neck and I turned to see my attacker. It was a stocky girl with almond shaped eyes and a kind of squashed nose. I had never seen a face like hers up close in person before. I knew what her face signified, but couldn’t quite place it.
“Don’t let Melinda scare you,” consoled Anita. “She calls everyone she likes ‘Pig.’ She is just trying to be friendly.” Then Anita whispered in my ear, “Melinda’s developmentally disabled.”
I struggled with this bit of information. “Do you mean, she’s retarded?” I whispered back.
“Yeah—but don’t use that word. It’s mean,” admonished Anita.
Melinda gave me a big smile and turned away. She toddled over to an empty seat at the table. I rubbed my neck. She sure was strong! I was thankful our embrace had been short.
So that was my introduction to Anita’s sister, Melinda. I was somewhat afraid to go over to Anita’s house to play because Melinda might embrace me…and she was always there!
Anita confided to me that her parents had been told they should put Melinda away in an institution, but they decided to keep her at home, and made her a part of their everyday life. I soon grew to grudgingly appreciate her enthusiastic greeting of “Pig! Pig!” and bear hugs and learned not to be afraid of her. It was a great experience to see how Anita’s family loved and accepted Melinda. And Melinda had an enthusiasm for life that was contagious.
Anita and I talked about everything through the years. We progressed through arguing about who could skate down the steep block the fastest to pondering what color eyes in a boy did we like the best. One afternoon, Anita and I were sitting on the two twin beds she shared with Melinda in her bedroom. We were discussing the mysteries of make-up—something we both had started wearing. But both our mothers did not approve. So we put it on right before leaving the house for school, then wiped it off before entering the house in the afternoon. So far, we had not been caught.
“Do you use Noxema?” asked Anita.
“No, I use Revon’s “Moondrops” to get my mascara off,” I replied.
“Well, you should try Noxema. It really makes your skin smooth. Want to see?” suggested Anita.
“Uh, I guess so,” I said.
Anita grabbed the blue jar of cold cream from her dresser and applied the white concoction all over her cheeks and forehead and chin. She looked like Casper the Ghost.
“There! Now you leave it on for five minutes, then rinse it off with warm water. Want to try?”
I hesitated. I wasn’t sure this stuff would really work. But Anita seemed so confident.
“Well, OK,” I relented.
Anita expertly rubbed the cold cream over my face.
“Ugh! It’s so thick!” I groaned.
Then Melinda bounded in the room. She took one look at us and announced, “I want make-up too!”
Anita laughed. “Alright, Melinda, I can put some on you. Sit still.”
Melinda sat on the bed, and lifted her face up, looking at the ceiling, while Anita smeared on the cold cream. Then she turned to look in the mirror.
“I’m beauuuuutiful!” she cried, and started bouncing on the bed. Anita and I looked in the mirror, too, and saw three ghost-like face with sparkling eyes.
“We’re all beauuuuutiful, Melinda!” shouted Anita. Then we started jumping on the bed, too. What a sight we made—a trio of pubescent girls bounding up and down with the secret to smooth, supple skin anointing our faces. We giggled and bounced, our bodies flying up gloriously over and over.
That was a moment I will always remember. All of us rejoicing in our youth, budding womanhood, and strong friendship. Thank you, Anita, for sharing that time with me, and sharing Melinda with me, too.