Rosie and Me

Posted on October 15, 2007 in Other writing

 Parts of this story appeared several years ago in Country Home magazine.
Rosie and Me

“Ready or not, here I come!”

I can hear Rosemary calling out as clearly as though it were yesterday, though it’s been over 40 years.
For most of the day for most of our early childhood, she and I were inseparable. It was a magical time of great freedom, of daily adventures that would form who we would become as adults. We never knew locked doors, we didn’t watch television, we played outdoors, and we rode our bikes with wild abandon wherever we wanted to go. We rode them to school, to the river, to the movies, to the club. The only thing I can remember wanting for was sunshine on a rainy day.
At first, we lived just two doors apart; later, she moved a few blocks away, to the other side of the creek at the foot of the hill. I could ride my bike down the “smooth road” – it was newly paved, with no gravel fill — without pedaling. In the coastal plain where we grew up, a hill was a big deal. We lived about an hour inland, but the ocean had once covered the area. The soil there had once been ocean floor; the hills, former dunes, were usually sandy, but under the footbridge that connected her new neighborhood to mine, we found some turquoise-colored clay. We made our mothers cups and saucers out of it, and baked them on the hot bricks that led up to her front door.
The creek led to the black and sinuous Edisto River, not a quarter mile away, its waters stained like tea by the huge virgin cypress trees of the surrounding swamps. We were never afraid of the moccasins or gators or bears that lived there.
“Cottonmouth!” I would yell, as one approached us on the surface of the water.
We would get out of the water and let it pass.
“Last one in’s a rotten egg,” we would scream, jumping into the river at the swampy bluff by Mrs. Crutchfield’s house. The city said we weren’t supposed to swim there, but it was a much better swimming hole than the crowded public beach a few bends down the river. We were great swimmers and knew no fear. We swam there nearly every day. We also swam at the “country club” on teams with other tow-headed kids, but I don’t think that either Rosemary or I paid much attention to the others. We lived for time outdoors together.
Occasionally we would stop exploring for a glass of her mother’s iced tea or her father’s purchase of mud pies. We would make the pies on their front walkway, garnishing them with tiny leaves stripped from a mimosa that straddled the line between her house and the Johnstones’. When her father returned from work, he would give us nickels for the pies, then “gobble” them down with the hose. We squealed with delight and ran around back to swing to the treetops in the swing he had made her, to this day the swing with the longest chains I’ve ever seen.
We raced each other constantly, running through the woods and all the way down the street to Riverside. There wasn’t a fence in the entire neighborhood, and other than dodging an occasional doggie pile – dried powdery and white in the sun – it was a straight shot for four full blocks through back yards. I was the faster sprinter, but she was the real athlete, with endurance and style. Her running broad jump record remained unsurpassed for decades.
Rosie has three children of her own now. Her husband’s work took them to California right about the same time that I decided to come back home. They live up in the canyons, high above the madness, where her kids knew most of the same freedoms that we did growing up. She reared them with rules not much different from the ones we knew: play outside unless it’s raining; close – but don’t slam! — the door; be home – on time! – for supper. Those rules applied throughout our teenage years, too, but Rosemary moved away when we were just starting high school. I made new friends, other boys who liked to play guitar and dance and tell jokes. I had had to find new interests: My play had been so defined by my years with Rosie that swimming and running made no sense to me without her. My new friends were mostly jocks, which I wasn’t. Without Rosie, I didn’t even want to be outside.
Years went by without our seeing each other, but when I moved back to South Carolina, she started coming once a year to her brother’s beach house. We would rent canoes and go down the river – the same river that ran just a few blocks from our homes, seventy miles upstream. When we’d come to a rope dangling from an overhanging tree, we’d stop and let the kids swing from it as we keep an eye out for gators. We’d wallow in the muddy shallows where the river meets the ocean shore, catching crabs and laughing and screaming at the top of our lungs with the kids. We would try to make iced tea like her mother’s, but it was never quite as sweet. We never had to tell the children to enjoy their youth because they could see how our wonderful childhood shaped who we are.
“Weren’t y’all ever in trouble?” the youngest once asked.
They had all heard the story a dozen times, but we told it anyway. We explained that we couldn’t think of a single time that our mothers were really mad at us, but there was that one time when our adventurous spirit got us in a little hot water. It was fall, we know, because it was still warm enough for us to be playing in the creek, but too cool to swim. The creek was still covered with viney growth, kudzu and trumpet creeper, and probably some poison ivy, too. We started following it upstream, away from the river, and under the highway that we weren’t supposed to cross without letting our folks know.
“We didn’t cross it; we went under it!” I’m sure we claimed in our own defense.
On and on we followed the little creek, past the Evanses’ really modern house that that part of the creek slipped under. It was an amazing house for a little southern town like ours. We had no idea that it was mimicking a famous Frank Lloyd Wright house — just that it was unlike anything else in town, a big ship hovering over that little stream.
We followed the water on through another neighborhood we knew fairly well, but the vine cover became impenetrably lush. At one point we were all the way down on our bellies with the crawdads, crawling like the soldiers we saw occasionally in the newsreels at the picture show. It started to get dark and we knew we were going to be late for supper, but the banks had become so steep and hooded with vines and overhanging sweet gums and myrtles that we couldn’t scale its sides.
“We’re gonna be in trouble,” I said.
“Yeah, but nobody else has ever done this, I bet,” Rosemary said. She has always known her priorities.
When we finally did come to a concrete culvert in a clearing under a road, we were able to climb out to find ourselves in the high school practice field, a good mile or so across town. The creek’s meandering path that we had followed surely was much longer.
Rosemary scrambled out of the ditch, brushed herself off, and walked right across the road to a stranger’s house and called her father to come pick us up.
I think our parents were so impressed by our escapade that they couldn’t punish us. We had, after all, gone under the highway.
My peripatetic career took me to the Caribbean, France, Italy, and New York, among other locales, before I moved back home. With Rosie, I had developed the personality and sense of self that would shape the remainder of my life. I know that I was at my best when I was with her, and that our happy childhood together has served us both well. My sense of adventure has always informed what I’ve done for a living, as Rosie’s has on her journey as both an artist and a mother.
We may have made new friends and lived apart for forty years, but if someone ever asked me to define friendship, I would have to say, simply, “Rosie and me.”
P.S. Her kids have all finished high school. Lily, the oldest, is married with two kids. Her husband, Drew, is in the military and has recently been transferred to a base in Columbus, Georgia. Drew has been in training in the DC area lately, so Rosie and Lily came to visit with the grandkids, and Rosie and I got to spend a day alone together, something we haven’t had in almost fifty years. Both amateur painters, we spent the day ogling the works of Edward Hopper and J M W Turner currently in special exhibitions at the National Gallery of Art.

We talked about the kids (Amelia is in school in Charleston and McClean, who just finished high school, is considering culinary school in Santa Barbara), and our lives as artists. Rosie is profoundly religious and I am an agnostic at best, but we both like ourselves and have no regrets. If we learned nothing else in childhood, it was to see the good in ourselves and others. In spite of the myriad changes in our lives, nothing – not one thing, that I can tell – has changed about our relationship.

I recently wrote a thank-you note to some friends who have hosted Mikel and me at their country home dozens of times. I noted that all one really needs in life, in order to appreciate how wonderful it can be, is a roof over one’s head, some comfortable clothes and shoes, a dog at one’s side, something good to eat, and one good friend. That I have had so many is truly humbling.

If you are wondering, Dear Reader, what any of this has to do with food, I will tell you that both Rosie and I cook dinner almost every night. Our occupations are as homemakers. And all of Rosie’s children, though reared in Malibu, home of The Beautiful People, are good cooks as well. I keep repeating the mantra that it takes a village, but without a warm home environment, Rosie assures me, kids would be lost in today’s maddening world.

She just called, ostensibly asking me about a recipe. We both know the real reason she called: I’m going to New York tomorrow for a few days and she will probably be gone when I get back. We have no idea when we’ll next see each other again. She knew more about the dish than I do. It’s something she cooks, not I. But we both needed that last phone hug that wasn’t from 3000 miles away. There is one thing that has changed in our relationship, after all, and that is the physical distance that often comes between us. As if that matters. Here she is in front of the National Gallery in October 2007. The photo at the top of the page is Rosemary serving up food at my first book party in the Hollywood Hills, at the home of Julia Hunter, in 1992. The kids in the river shot are Amelia (on the rope) and Lily, the oldest.