Emergency Contacts

We leave St Cloud via 9th Avenue, past our old house. The kids crane their necks, as if looking harder at it will enable them to see more, see through the walls, see the past. I slow the car down enough to note plastic shopping bags, several, snagged amongst the Dogwood hedge in the front. How can I help but sigh? It was a beautiful house. It was another life.

I moved to St Cloud six months pregnant, after I quit my job at the bookstore and threw my lot in with a stand-up guy named Dave. He bought us a neat little rambler on a cul de sac and I spent the remainder of my pregnancy painting the house, sewing curtains and swimming. I burned up minutes on a long distance card with my old friends in the cities. I knew no one, and with no job, had no means of meeting anyone new.

Veronica was born in spring, and I walked her in the stroller all over our deserted neighborhood. Every other house I passed had a swing-set in back, and every one was eerily empty. As were the parks. As were the streets. I returned to our empty house and fretted over baby. We made daily errands of dubious necessity. My house was very clean. I baked bread for goddsakes. When Dave came home I lunged at him and talked without stopping until he invented some yardwork or errand to escape my cloying presence.

I am not a joiner, but I arrived at the Le Leche League meeting early and sat, sweating, with Veronica in my lap. I checked out every new mom and baby couple with the wide-eyed wonder of a tourist. I participated enthusiastically and quite possibly cried more than once. In gratitude. I sensed a slight evangelical undertone in the attitudes towards breastfeeding, but didn’t really care. I had found women, and at least a few seemed like they might be friendly. They told me about a play group at a local park next week. I couldn’t wait.

The play group was utter chaos. Toddlers and infants all knocking around while seven mothers with too much to say fought for the conversation. I sat at the picnic table across from Peggy while she nursed Wren. She too had moved from the cities, when her son Tennessee was born, three years ago. I didn’t track many details, but I knew two things: she knew who Lifter Puller was, and she had hung out on the West Bank. She was literally probably the only person in Saint Cloud who could claim this. Over the course of the next months, we lingered late after play-group, and talked until we were hoarse and our kids were screaming.

I picked up Artemis a bit later. She would bring over Wyatt, who was four months younger than Veronica. He began chasing her at birth and will, I predict, until she either marries him or someone else. Artemis confided she wasn’t married to Wyatt’s father, and I confessed that Dave and I weren’t married. We admitted we smoked. We admitted to many things. We met in the afternoons at parks, or in our living rooms, or walking around the mall where people mistook the babies for twins, and we assumed that meant they took us for lesbian partners.

Dave and I moved out of the cul de sac and across the street from Artemis and Jeff. Peggy bought a house near the hospital. I got a job. We met other moms. We formed and broke circles of friends. I had another baby, my father died. We fought with our husbands. Artemis and Peggy finished school. We drank too much. Our kids went to the same Montessorri School together, where we volunteered cleaning the classroom and gossiping about the teachers and fellow students. They were my emergency contacts on all my paperwork. We watched each other’s kids. We watched them grow. We grew.

The night I told David I was leaving him, I left the kids with Peggy. After that dread talk, I walked across the street to Artemis’ house. Peggy left the kids with Steve and drove over. We sat on the back patio, mostly quiet, with me uncharacteristically dry-eyed and shell shocked. I had a duffel-bag of toiletries inside, and I would be staying up-stairs in the extra apartment for the time being. From there I would move three more times before leaving town for good. Artemis was in Brooklyn Park within the year. Peggy was teaching full-time and pregnant when I left.

We keep in touch. Peggy’s voice is like a balm to me, she validates my feelings and behavior with such skill I will believe anything she tells me about myself. Once I called her, hung over and groaning, “Ohhh, I had too much to drink last night… ” She interrupted me before I could go any further to say, “You didn’t do anything wrong. You were fine. you were fun. You were just drunk.” A friend that can sense and dispel self-loathing that fast is truly indispensable.

Artemis and I talk often. She has a way of distracting me away from my narcissism, where in I will talk on and on about some imaginary crisis at length and after a long pause she says, “I need a good cheese cake recipe. What have you got?” It’s really quite effective.

As for why they keep in touch with me, I can only assume they like to feel needed.

Now, our St Cloud visits make me melancholy. As soon as we get there, the kids evaporate. They fall in with the gaggle of kids they know like cousins. The adults take their place around the familiar kitchen at Peg and Steve’s. There will be soup, Peg will do the dishes every fifteen minutes or so. We circulate, we catch up, we pass the baby Cedar around. We used to drink wine, but now it’s coffee. We fall into conversation easily, we are still friends, but it all makes me homesick for the time when we were inseparable.

Later, alone at the glass patio table in back, I will remember a summer of Friday nights spent in that very chair. The kids ran wild until twilight while we drank wine. Neighbors and husbands would come and go, but we moms held court until long after the kids went down. We spilled our guts those nights. We ranted about politics, we confessed our regrets, we compared our marriages. Shit went down. It was the summer before everything changed. Like the summer between high-school and college, we were in limbo. Setting the stage for the next chapter, only we didn’t know it then. We just let it pass in the manner of teenagers, high on the ease of friendship and smell of the garden at night.


9 thoughts on “Emergency Contacts”

  1. There are two houses in St. Cloud at which I have often peered, trying to imagine just what life, or lack there of, exists inside. I remember when we moved to our house on the south side of town, my little brother had this overwhelming need to see the old house. He was three. It was so strong that mother had to stop and ask the people who bought the house that sat across from Cathedral High School’s big granite wall from us for the opportunity to let Michael walk though. It is still a wild concept, that totally different lives could exist in the belly of what once was our life.

    Tons of transitions. Thanks for this artful recollection–helping me think about my escape from St. Cloud (I had no friends who would have known Lifter Puller–or would have known how much I was suffering in my Black skin, even if they were okay with my racial oddness–or oddness otherwise.)

    Your arrival in St. Cloud reminds me of the story my mother tells. She came to St. Cloud from New Orleans, a new, just turning 21 bride. It was her first time away from home. Everyone, EVERYONE AND EVERYTHING was white. She had my dad and was expecting me just months after they came.

    One day, visibly pregnant, she and dad were driving down St. Germain Street, when it was still the main street of town, where the store fronts were still inviting enough to draw people into them and people where, as is still the case in many respects, not expecting to see anyone like my mother. As they drove, mother spotted the most elegant and dignified Black woman walking down the street. She cried to my father to stop the car. He was confused, maybe thinking that her need to stop had something to do with the pregnancy.

    Mother jumped out of the car, tears in her eyes and ran to embrace this woman, a woman who, at the time lived in Minneapolis but who, along with her chemist husband, had a lake cabin not far from St. Cloud. Another black face. She cried and held on. The woman, who was named Jean Covington and who would become one of my parents’ best friends, as would her husband Robert, was more than ready to comfort her junior. She knew, poor honey, what the tears were about. Anyone would have sympathy for this very young black woman who came to St. Cloud in 1962. I wonder if we still can muster those sympathies for people who find themselves in America’s St. Clouds, or even today’s Granite City.

    1. Clarence,
      While I came to St Cloud in a similar situation, I cannot imagine the difficulties your mother faced. And consequently, you.

      Peggy and Artemis were and are wonderful friends, but it does not diminish the fact that I did, in fact, have MANY great friends, and find several wonderful communities in St Cloud to be a part of. I worked in advertising, and the small but vibrant ad club was a definite highlight of creativity and (mostly) progressive thought. Our small circle of mom friends revolved, for a time, around a new age store/yoga studio that was great. The Unitarian Church is one of the truly most welcoming places in town, or anywhere I’ve ever been. The St Cloud Symphony Orchestra, which I served on the board of, was a wonderful organization, as were many of the performing, theatre and arts groups. The Good Earth Co-Op, the Meeting Grounds, the Community Garden, SCSU. They were small enclaves, and some contained difficult personalities, but they were all there. I am sure it was quite different in 1962. Perhaps there is some comfort in knowing that in 50 years, some things have improved!

      There are still a lot of assholes. My friend who adopted an Indian daughter, has been accosted by strangers on the street while walking with her – deplorable, unthinkable! And you know from the news there is still hate speech and crimes. Read the comments, or even editorial section, of the St Cloud Times and you will see that there is a very verbal minority of wing-nuts who hold on to bigotry and hate.

      But I would be remiss to let you go on believing it is unchanged. There are many, many sane people who live there, and who work for change in the community on a daily basis. I know you will never feel any love for that town, and believe me, I do not blame you. But, please know, while it is still imperfect, it is not the same place you grew up in.

      By the way, that house across form the wall at Cathedral… was it a big cream colored brick one, or the gothic red brick with the turret? my friend lived in the cream colored one.

      1. It was the one across 7th Avenue at the far north of the big wall, which I believe they took down, sadly.

        I also have to say that there were some good people there, like anywhere. My mom still has some dear friends who are pretty cool folks, maybe an earlier iteration of what you got into, sans the cigarettes and drinking ;-). My parents still have a sort of “ministry” there, and my dad said, tongue-in-cheek, I don’t want to move anywhere that would require me to change my phone number, referring to their move from the south side of town to their place in a development in Sartell.

        Still, I know things are still tough there, especially for kids and in ways that are better but in other ways that are worse. Maybe it is because those kids don’t know how to avoid or don’t know they need to avoid some of the crap and just get shocked out of their mind to find that they have been subtly segregated out of whatever social, academic or vocational opportunity.

        It wasn’t that long ago that my dad was the President of the local chapter of the NAACP. There were stories that would make me cry–maybe just to cry so I would forget my own tears, but sad, nonetheless.

        St. Cloud used to be a place that was afraid of me because of what they did not know or because of what little they know. Now, it has proven to be a breeding ground for hating me for what they think they know, are sure of and for the complacency around them that is the product of certainty that they are more like Garrison Keillor than the people about whom he writes and that the sense of superiority is warranted.

  2. Jen,
    I pine for the kind of connections you made here. I know lots of folks at the university, but I’ve never found that beautiful bond with other women. I had a group of women in Lexington I felt very close to and miss the kinds of times you’ve described so beautifully here. I feel very lonely a lot of the time in St. Cloud. What I find is people are born here, grow up here, have friends from a lifetime here, and while many are very warm and welcoming, they don’t need new folks… They don’t need me. So they’re great fun at work, but they go home to their lifetime of friends.
    I suppose it’s partly my fault for commuting the first two years I was here — long distance commute, away from home days at a time — and then I found myself living and working here with little connection or bond with the place because I had so little connection or bond with people. And I’ve just never quite figured out how to overcome it. I think I missed my la leche league window!

    1. I was discussing this with someone else, and concluded that oddly, one of the things that made the bond possible was that our first and most important connection was having children of the same age. Beyond that, it was chemistry I guess. But, as opposed to other friend groups, it wasn’t based on jobs, musical tastes, politics or anything else. We happen to align on many of these things, but mostly we were moms. We all really needed each other, too. I think.
      St Cloud is hard though, and that makes me feel all the more fortunate to have made these friends. I’m sorry I couldn’t be more of a friend to you while I lived there, but we were both in the midst of pretty serious changes when we re-united. I am guessing that volunteering would be a great opportunity, or perhaps when Ceris (spelling? am I even close?) starts pre-school, you can meet a few fellow moms.

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