Mr. E., the father of Lilly's BFF Danielle, is like a character in a movie to Lilly. He even has a tagline--whenever she calls he sings into the phone, "Lilly Ludwig--Lilly Ludwig--Lilly Lilly Lilly" before he goes to get Danielle. And ever since big sister Grace gave a speech at the eighth grade graduation last spring he brings it up whenever Lilly visits. "That sister of yours--she's going places. She can give a great speech. Wonderful skill. Alexander," here he pauses to look at his own offspring, same age as Grace, "You should be able to give a speech like Grace. That girl is going places." And as if that were not enough fodder to entertain Lilly for hours (she is a great mimic) Lilly went sailing with the family this fall and every time Mr. E. found a piece of litter in Lake Michigan he would head the boat toward it, fish it out of the water and hold it aloft shouting to the world at large, "This is nature's playground people! Is this how you treat it?"
When Lilly tells me all of this I am reminded of that wonderful, mythical creature of my own childhood--my friends' parents. I remember them all so clearly and with great fondness and amusement.
There was Mr. K. who was the nutty community college professor who seemed to have disdain for anyone less intelligent than him (or is it he? this would make him crazy) and his equally brilliant wife Mrs. K. who loved to do jigsaw puzzles then shellac them and hang them on the walls. The K. family thrived on order and predictability and actually had the same meal schedule every week. Monday was chicken, Tuesday meatloaf and so on. I loved that I could always get my favorite meal--a BLT on any given Friday of my entire junior and high school career.
I grew up next door to my best friend Jenny S. Her dad was a huge man with a perverse sense of humor. He told his kids outrageous lies like "Eat the burned toast, it will clear up your acne." Once, returning from an excursion to see the fireworks they shoot over the Detroit river (we had been on the Canadian side) we got stuck for hours on the Ambassador Bridge. Both Jack (his son) and I desperately had to use the bathroom. Instead of trying to find a place for us to relieve ourselves or reassuring us he kept saying, "Think of running water, kids!" "Try to focus on sprinkling fountains!"
Equally intriguing were those people we saw less frequently but were no less mythic: the friends of our parents. Mr. and Mrs. W. who did not have children but had a poodle named FiFi who had her own bedroom with a pink princess phone! They were impossibly glamorous: they only drove Cadillacs and smoked cigarettes and Mrs. W. always left a smear of lipstick on her cocktail glass. And Mr. D. the three (plus) martini lunch man who occasionally called late at night, waking my parents to invite my father to join him at the bar. He was one of the original Mad Men.
In college I met a whole new cast of friends' parents, widening my circle. I was especially fond of Mr. and Mrs. D. Both were fabulously brilliant people of wit and words. A sort of Nick and Nora of Southfield Michigan. He was an editor for the AP and she was a Smith grad, something I'd barely heard of until I met her. They both smoked and could do the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle in ink and drank whiskey sours. I adored them both as they were the kind of couple who made you feel like they were just sitting by the fire waiting for you to drop in on them at any time.
As I go over all the parents of my friends in my mind I realize many of them stood just in front of a shadow I only glimpsed from time to time. As a guest in a friends' house, a child sees just a bit more than an adult would and I was aware even as a kid that sometimes something else was going on in a home. As an adult I now know there were in many households struggles with alcohol, marital problems, eating disorders, and abuse. But as a kid I never thought to ask about it or judge it--it was just there.
It is hard for me to believe that we are now the friends' parents and the parents' friends of many. What do they see when we are around or are being talked about? I know Jeff has gone a long way toward being an eccentric memory for our children's friends: between the fact that he never puts his guitar down and that he sings with great gusto as he plays and that he insists on greeting every child who enters our home with a conversation stopping, "So, tell me a story!" (he thinks this is a conversation starter) he is well on his way to being frozen as a childhood memory for some.
I do not really know how I am viewed by my children's friends. I just hope I am memorable enough to some day be immortalized as one of these great and mythical creatures--a friend's parent.