When a friendship begins, it's impossible to predict how it will play out. My mother, for example, met her second best friend when she was in her early thirties. No one would've put her and Betty together based on their backgrounds. Phyllis, my mother, grew up in a wealthy WASP household with live-in help, before settling in a suburban town with her husband and children.
On the other hand, Betty grew up Irish Catholic in West Philadelphia. Her family wasn't poor, but in contrast to my mother's upbringing, Aunt Betty's was very blue collar.
What brought these two women together? They shared two common denominators that broke all class barriers—they loved to drink and have fun, and they were two women alone with kids staying in Sea Isle City for the summer with their respective husbands only arriving on weekends and during two week vacations.
Aunt Betty had four children. The oldest girl, Doll, was 12, two years my senior, and the two middle children were boys close to my brother's age; the youngest girl fit in where she could. To a white bread kid like me, Doll was everything cool. She was also beautiful, with naturally curly blond hair, blue eyes and a turned-up little Irish nose. My mother loved her and sometimes asked her to babysit for my little brother, which made me feel even younger and more inadequate.
One time, my mother bought Doll a black sweatshirt with her name embossed in white letters as a thank-you for babysitting. These shirts were all the rage and I felt so left out, I thought my heart would break. Mom eventually bought me one, too.
Doll and I went to the Lifeguard's Ball together toward the end of the summer. I wore an aqua brocade dress that my grandmother had sewn for me. I loved that dress, but it still didn't make me feel good about myself in the blinding light of Doll's sparkly personality and beauty.
One evening, Aunt Betty and I sat on the front steps of our white rental cottage and she talked to me about my sadness and jealousy toward her daughter.
"Why would you want to have her frizzy hair, her chipped tooth, her thin lips or her freckles?" she asked. Then she added, "Have you noticed how skinny she is? Don't ever wish that you were someone else. You need to love yourself."
She talked to me for a long time that night and I've never forgotten her kindness.
Our two families remained close for several more years, but ironically the roles started to shift. When Doll was in 8th grade, she developed double-viral pneumonia. I'd never seen anyone that sick. She walked around with a brown grocery bag filled with dirty tissues and more mucus than I thought her skinny body could produce.
The next trauma that Doll endured was frequently collapsing with seizures. I was asked to live at their house for an entire summer so that I could look after her and pick her up every time she blacked out.
At the time, anyone with epilepsy was seen as being mentally deficient, so the shame involved with having to admit Doll's condition was horrific.
"No one can know that she has epilepsy," Aunt Betty would say while taking a long drag on her Pall Mall cigarette. "They will treat her differently and think less of her. We have to keep this secret."
I felt the weight of this responsibility for both mother and child. Not only did I have to scoop Doll up off the floor in movie theaters, stores and church, I had to support Aunt Betty in her hours of fear over whether her daughter would manage her illness without anyone finding out the truth.
Doll and I drifted apart in high school and then I moved far away, but Aunt Betty was never far away in my mind. Eventually, Betty and my mother stopped being friends, too.
When I called Aunt Betty in the early '90s, she talked to me like I was her long-lost best friend.
"I knew you could never forget me. I have been waiting for you to call all these years," she said. "I knew you loved me." We kept in touch by phone and letters even after I moved to New Hampshire.
She wrote to me when her husband was diagnosed with cancer and after he died, and then she went silent. I assumed that she had died, the last one in my mother's group to go.
On a whim, I sent Doll a Christmas card this year. She wrote back and told me that Aunt Betty is suffering from dementia and doesn't know how to eat, or walk, or talk any more. She sits and smiles in her pleasant, sweet way.
Now that I know I have lost her, I think about what I wouldn't give to hear her voice and laugh again, and to thank her for her graciousness when I needed it most, and for trusting me with her daughter's care all those years ago.