In fifth grade, Mary Beth and I walked in each other’s shoes for a day. It was 1978 and I had just gotten some tan knee-high boots with chunky heels, and Mary Beth loved them. She asked me if she could wear them for the day. I was flattered that my cool classmate, Mary Beth, liked anything that I had, so I said, “Sure, but what will I wear?” She laughed and said I would wear her shoes, of course. It hadn’t occurred to me, until Mary Beth suggested it, that I could spend a day in someone else’s shoes. I can’t remember exactly what Mary Beth’s shoes were like that I wore that day, other than that they were the ready for action kind of shoes. But I do clearly remember that as I wore them I hoped that some of her coolness would rub off on me. It didn’t. However, I enjoyed spending the day imagining that I could be like Mary Beth, who was charming and had energy that effortlessly drew people to her.
After fifth grade, Mary Beth and I didn’t have a chance to reconnect again until ninth grade study hall. She said she liked my jeans. I said I liked hers. And then we laughed because we were wearing the same Lee Rivet Rider jeans. We picked up where we left off in fifth grade.
By the time we were in high school, it was clear that Mary Beth and I were very different people. She was a beautiful blonde who was into boys, and I was a brunette who was into books. But Mary Beth still had the magical ability to present ideas to me that I never could have come up with on my own like: Life is a party. If you’re not having fun, just make something fun happen. If you don’t like your situation, look for a different one.
Mary Beth made it her mission to make each day fun. After she got her driver’s license in 1983, I had the special honor of riding along on her mission. Our time together was fueled by laughter — the kind of laughter where our stomachs hurt and tears were streaming down our faces. The high school counselor slipping on a pickle in the lunchroom almost made us choke with laughter. The inside jokes with Mary Beth were plentiful and helped me survive high school. I called her Buckwheat and she called me Angela and nobody besides us understood why that was so hilarious. We didn’t care that other people didn’t understand us when we were together. Laughter and fun—instead of approval from our peers—was what we wanted from our high school experience. Mary Beth showed me that I should be measuring my success not only by my grades but by the amount of joy in my heart. She taught me it was not my job to be the best student, but to have as much fun as possible while I had the chance. Back then, Mary Beth grabbed life by the steering wheel and decided she would arrive at a fun day.
Mary Beth was always ready to go somewhere and stir up something new. With her, Friday and Saturday night weren’t just part of the weekend to look forward to, they were adventures that were guaranteed to unfold. Almost weekly, Mary Beth introduced me to doing something new that hadn’t even occurred to me. We would do things like crash wedding dances, where we would hang out at a side table at the reception acting like we belonged there until the band played a polka. We then grabbed our purses, ran out to the dance floor, did a manic polka together for all the wedding guests to see, then ran out to the parking lot, and drove away while laughing deliriously.
Something as potentially monotonous as cruising up and down Main Street in our town was always fun with Mary Beth. As we connected with other people cruising Main, we would be told where all the parties were going on that night. Mary Beth would sort through the options and discern where the real party was.
Mary Beth caused me to discover how fun writing could be as we spent the beginning of each week at school writing notes to each other so we could record and relive the great times we had on the weekend. By Thursday and Friday, we were writing to each other about all the great times we were going to have on the weekend. We folded our notes up into a little origami triangle that we called a football and delivered them to each other in class or in the hallway. Those bags of footballs we collected from each other were the documented proof that life was indeed a party.
As adults we were taken different directions and saw each other less frequently. But whenever given the opportunity to get together, I would step back into my “Mary Beth” shoes and prepare for a new adventure to unfold. We were in each other’s weddings, and I wore shiny sateen blue heels for her and she wore black pumps for me. At my bachelorette party in a St. Paul hotel, Mary Beth convinced all of us to leave the room, and her fun-seeking radar led us to the bachelor party for the son of Minnesota’s polish sausage king—where the real party was going on.
Shortly after we both had children, Mary Beth was diagnosed with MS. She immediately started treating her disease with medication and remained optimistic. She stayed focused on having fun. As her vision and mobility rapidly deteriorated, the physical ability to pursue fun was taken away from Mary Beth. But I believe that in her quiet moments in the nursing home she relived the fun she had with everyone in her life. When she was no longer able to write, I imagined that she was creating paper footballs in her mind, so she could focus on the good times.
Mary Beth recently passed away. Lately, the tears streaming down my face have been about losing her. But memories of her laughter have been finding their way to front of my mind. I want to believe that she has gone off to pursue something more fun and that she’s found where the real party is. I picture her doing the polka and laughing. Every time I feel sadness about her departure, I step into Mary Beth’s shoes and remind myself that life really is a party, and it’s my job to go out and enjoy it while I can.
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© 2018 by Julie Ryan. All rights reserved
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