By Carlton H. Colby & Amanda Cleary Eastep
I met J and his younger brother in a crab apple fight. I lost.
Of course, it wasn’t fair, me against the two of them along with another brother who couldn’t throw far because he was still a little guy, but he tried anyway.
J lived across the street from me in Chicago’s Roseland neighborhood.
In the late 1940s, my stepdad moved my mom and me out of the Trumball Park projects and into a small house in Roseland.
That’s how I met the two guys that would become my best friends.
J was about a year older than me, and his brother was about a year younger. They came from a family of 12 kids that became a second family to me, too.
J was always the one inventing new ways to get into trouble. There was an old barn behind his house. At one time, most of the Roseland area, at least the outskirts, had been farmland. This barn became our submarine, with sliding doors, secret compartments, and our own torture chamber. Anyone who wanted to join the crew had to be tortured.
We would lock the initiate in an old trunk that had a 5” diameter hole in one end, then we’d blow smoke through the hole from burning paper. After he begged for mercy, we would release our new crew member to the fresh air–eyes burning, coughing, gagging–but now a good standing member of the club.
The three of us had great adventures. Accidentally blowing out the bottom of J’s mom’s concrete washtub with a silver bomb, delivering the daily Chicago Herald American on our bikes, and joining a Boy Scout troop that met in the big hall at International Harvester west of Halsted Street.
That troop was one rag-tag outfit. Not one of us had a uniform or even cared. Poor Mr. B, the Scoutmaster. Why he ever wanted to be our leader is beyond me.
We went camping at Camp Wasipee [Owasippe]. I don’t know if that’s the right spelling; we called it Camp Watch Me Pee. That’s where we smoked Mr. B out of the cabin by plugging up the chimney when he locked us out to sleep off a hangover.
We camped at Camp Kiwanis, too. That time, we were not the usual scourge of the campground but the heroes. Yes, the heroes. Our assistant Scoutmaster was showing us underlings the proper way to make a campfire when the woods went up in smoke. We tried, to no avail, to fight the fire ourselves, then ran for help. We had every troop in the camp fighting the fire. We didn’t get blamed for it, instead we were going to be rewarded with a commendation from the Kiwanis Club of America.
The next day, Mr. B begged us to be on our best behavior because the big shots and their wives were touring the camp that day. He told us to just sit around the fire and stay out of trouble. As the tour began, we decided to cook some beans and spaghetti, still sealed in the cans. All you had to do was throw the cans into the fire and walk away. When they were ready to serve, you would know. So would any unsuspecting Kiwanis Club member who happened by when the cans exploded. Beans and noodles were flying everywhere.
Along with our commendation, we also received a severe reprimand.
Heroes one day, bums the next. Isn’t that just like life?
Boy, did we have fun.
65 years later…
J lives across the street from my dad again.
On nice days, Dad will put on one of his golf shirts, good jeans, and gym shoes and walk across the four-lane suburban street packed with commuters and shoppers to the memory care facility.
J’s body is withered like he has gone backwards, smaller but not younger. His thick black hair has unraveled to gray wisps. Dad may feed him lunch and give him sips of juice through a bend-y straw. He will talk about the family or tell a (no doubt) politically incorrect joke. Sometimes J smiles, not at the deftly delivered punchline, but because of my father’s laugh. He is known for his laugh.
It’s how I used to find him in the crowded narthex of the Lutheran church after I got out of Sunday school. I could follow the sound and volume as I weaved my way through a forest of suited and panty-hosed legs.
His laughter comes from some deep place…like a well that both scares you with its echoing darkness but provides you with needed water.
I wonder when that laughter first burst forth. I don’t see how it could have in the projects he lived in with his mother and birth father. That house was filled with poverty and pain. Moving away, with a new father, and especially meeting the boys across the street must have helped shine a light there.
I imagine these friendships are where he started finding his joy.
My father likes to reminisce about his childhood. We’ve heard his stories 100 times over. They are almost always funny, and so much a part of him that they almost feel like part of us.
Dad’s memories are who J is, too.
When you no longer remember yourself, those who love you must do it for you.
— Leonard Pitts
The question has been posed, who are we without our memories?
What happens when we go to draw water from that deep well of memory and there are only ghosts? Does that make us one, too?
In the article “Aging Together in Grace,” by Joan Huyser-Honig and posted at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, Huyser-Honig notes the work of Susan McFadden, gerontology expert, and her husband John McFadden, a memory care chaplain.
“People often say of a person with a dementia, ‘He’s just an empty shell now. It’s too sad to visit, because he doesn’t remember me anyway.’ This view flows from the idea that someone’s identity is based on what they remember.”
Huyser-Honig shares an excerpt from the McFaddens co-written paper “Aging, Dementia, and the Faith Community: Continuing the Journey of Friendship” that beautifully summarizes how untrue, how delusory even, this view is in light of who we are in the eyes of our family, our friends, and above all, our Creator.
“‘Christians have a different story to tell about what gives our lives worth, value and meaning. Personhood is not defined solely by our corporal bodies or our cognitive abilities, but rather by our relationships with others. And we are creatures created in the divine image not because we physically or intellectually resemble the Almighty One, but because God remains in faithful relationship with us in all circumstances and conditions.’”
I don’t know what conclusion medical researchers have come to about the connection between memory and identify, but I can guarantee they leave out this most important aspect about who we are as people:
We are made in the image of a God who loves us, who has the hairs on our head numbered, and who can tell us “every single thing we ever did,” as the astounded woman at the well proclaimed to others after her encounter with Jesus.
He can tell us because he is our God and our best friend.
My dad will walk across the street at some point next week to visit J, his childhood best friend.
J will stare at him and mumble unintelligible words, but it won’t really matter.
Dad will just talk about everything they ever did as friends.
He will probably say something like, “Remember when we were kids…
…and we had that dart fight in the yard until your brother launched one high in the air and stuck right in the top of your head…and we made friends with Doug in a fist fight on the corner of 117th and Princeton Ave…and the junkyard man wouldn’t take your first car because you didn’t have the title, and then his forklift driver accidentally jammed the forks right through the side of it and drove it off to the junk pile and you said, ‘It’s yours now’?
He may tell him again that Jesus loves him and wonder if the tears in J’s eyes are because he finally grasps it or because he doesn’t or just because.
And then Dad will tell him the guys from the old neighborhood say ‘hi.’
Carl Colby is the father of Amanda Cleary Eastep, co-founder of The Perennial Gen. He is a veteran of the U.S. Navy and a natural-born storyteller. He has been an artist, a carpenter, and a quarry foreman. He is a husband of over 50 years, father of two, and grandfather of five. He loves the Lord above all things.