Do you remember this little video from Sesame Street?

It reminds me of me and one of my first best friends, Mary Jo, whom I met when we were about that age–six, to be exact–as first graders at St. Joseph School.  We hit it off immediately and from then until she left after 4th grade we were inseparable.

I am the first one in the second row. Mary Jo is the tall girl in the back.

I remember my first visit to her house, for her 7th birthday party.  Her family lived in a place I had never heard of before–Halls Crossroads, far away from my suburban Cumberland Estates neighborhood and pretty much in the middle of nowhere (note for non-Knoxvillians–this is amusing because Halls is now extremely built up with every kind of store you can imagine lining what used to be the empty highway that led there!).  She got a Sweet 16 Barbie for her birthday and I wanted one too (got one the next birthday and still have it–its torso, anyway).
Our friendship benefited when her family moved to the big stone house at the edge of our neighborhood.  Her parents were charismatic Catholics who used part of the house for services.  It had an enormous yard with a circle of bushes we liked to hide out in and a sweet little magnolia tree in front that we liked to sit under (it’s gigantic now, and the house has since become a Mennonite church.).
It’s been so long that I don’t recall a lot of what Mary Jo and I did together.  We both had terrific imaginations and together invented a playground game that those of us who remained at SJS continued to play until the 7th grade, when we regretfully decided we were too old.  I remember climbing trees, Christmas caroling, and playing Barbies at her house and mine, which were in walking distance of each other.   I remember annoying everyone on our bus with rousing choruses of “100 Bottles of Beer.”  I remember getting into an argument about the Civil War when I “insulted” her by calling her a Yankee (she was a transplant from Gary, Indiana).
I know that we were both devastated when her family (they had seven kids, also fascinating to me) decided to move back North to South Bend.  We pledged to keep in touch and that was when my letter writing hobby began.  Every now and then Mary Jo would return to Knoxville for a short visit, because her married sister had remained behind, and we would get a chance to see each other.  For the past 34 years since she left, she has called me on almost every birthday.  She came down for my wedding and I went up to Philadelphia for hers.  When William was a baby we spent a few nights in the home she shares with her husband, Jack, and three daughters (although she had only one at the time).
I’m pretty sure that was the last time we actually saw each other.  But last year Mary Jo came up with a wild idea–that she and I would take a vacation together–sans husbands and kids.  So we are taking off next week for FOUR NIGHTS to a cabin in the Smokies (picked–and paid for!!–by this fabulous friend of my youth).  I have never been away from John or the kids longer than two nights before and I am nervous about what will happen while I am gone, but I am incredibly excited and grateful to Mary Jo, and impressed that our friendship has endured over so much time and distance.
Note: We had a fabulous four days together, and just a few short weeks ago got to spend an evening together when we both happened to be visiting South Bend at the same time.  We have now kept in touch for 40 years!


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