[Note: This is a true story, but I have changed "Josie's" first name, birth surname, married surname and current location.]
After hours of on-line research, I still had only a faint hope that the Josephine Jones, of Maryland, to whom I had sent a letter through the US Postal Service, would possibly turn out to be my childhood friend, Josie Marks, from Alaska. So when an email message arrived in my in-box, from jcjones, I opened it with little expectation of success. But there it was, not only an email letter from Josie, but an attached photograph of her with her grown children. She was 45 years older than the young girl I had last seen, but I saw in her mature face that same girl. She told me that she worked as a school social worker. I paused in reading the message, to think back on our young years together.
We had been an odd pair of friends, Josie and I. I was an only child. Josie, at the age of eleven, was the oldest of ten children. My parents owned a successful small business - Clark’s Bakery. Josie’s father drove a taxi cab in good times; he lived off the government in bad times. I never asked what Josie’s mother did for a living. I somehow knew I shouldn’t ask. I lived in a spacious apartment over my dad’s bakery, awakened every morning by the aroma of fresh baked bread and Danish pastries. Josie’s home was a three-room shack of an apartment, on the hillside, accessed by something like 60 wooden stairs. Children slept piled atop of one another like a litter of puppies. The littlest one had a cardboard box on the floor of the coat closet for her bed. The “aroma” of Josie’s house was nothing like the sweet smells that filtered up into my bedroom from Daddy’s bakery. Probably the most significant difference between Josie and me was that I was blue eyed and white as a pale lily, while Josie was a brown skinned, black-haired, full-blooded Tlinget Indian. She also wore a built-up shoe on one foot, since that leg was three inches shorter than the other one.
Despite our differences, Josie and I fell into a comfortable friendship that filled the emptiness caused by having no brothers or sisters. One thing we did have in common was the long hike, up-hill, from downtown Juneau, Alaska, to our school, Fifth Street Elementary. The three-story concrete schoolhouse sat on the hillside overlooking the old Capitol Building and the harbor below, where sea planes roared and fishing boats docked and unloaded their catch.
The walk up Seward Street, even in the bitterness of winter, with the Taku winds biting our cheeks and chapping our bare legs - for in those years, even in Alaska, girls weren’t allowed to wear pants to school - was made bearable by our constant chatter. Josie was quite a tease. Knowing how gullible I was, she sometimes strung me on for five minutes or more with some tall tale before laughing out loud and crowing, “Jokes!”, which was her quirky way of saying, “I’m just kidding.”
After school we played Seven-Up on the sidewalk, using a red rubber ball against the bakery wall. Josie was hard to beat! She could make it all the way from sevensies to onesies, even adding in two or three claps between each throw or bounce. She never seemed to consider her leg a disability, nor did I.
Downtown Juneau was built at the base of two mountains - Mt. Juneau and Mt. Roberts - with the Gastineau Channel licking at its feet. Until a fire claimed it, in 1965, the huge Alaska-Juneau Gold Mine Mill, built in stair-step fashion up the side of Mt. Roberts sat as a reminder of the glory of the gold rush days. Josie and I, along with a couple of her younger brothers, spent many a Saturday hacking our way through the thick hillside underbrush, in search of mining ruins and relics which had been eaten up by the voracious Southeast Alaska rainforest.
Josie and I drifted apart and went our separate ways in junior high and high school. I never really knew why. But, for some reason, locating her and rekindling that friendship had become important to me in recent years.
I sighed, returned to reading her email, and was startled at the next paragraph:
When we were in grade school, I remember, my Native friends were challenging me and questioning me about my friendships. Race was a big issue. My friends made me steal something from you to prove I was not turning white. What an experience! After that I vowed that friendships would not be based on race or the color of one's skin. I am sorry I had to put you through that experience. I also learned that I could advocate for myself and that I needed to be true to myself. A couple of my friends made wrong choices and their lives ended at such a young age. I was fortunate. Recently, I participated in an in-service concerning poverty, and it hit me . . . I once lived in poverty, and I have come a long way, but I could not have made it without wonderful people like you and your parents in my life. Thank you for that.
I halted there. Stunned. I re-read the paragraph through a blur of tears. From my childhood perspective, our friendship had been such an easy, carefree one. But now I was humbled, knowing that being a friend to me had required a measure of courage and strength from Josie that I had neither realized nor appreciated.