Sometimes I yearn for my 10-year-old self, carefree and impetuous. A time untainted by experiences of life. I lived on Bellevue Avenue, most of my neighbors were elderly and my siblings were too young to be playmates. I longed for a close friend and as prayers are often answered, Dr. Esposito began construction in a vacant lot three doors down.
I watched as the basement was dug and the builder hammered away. Finally, the beautiful brick house was completed with landscaping and a driveway where I could see the doctor’s tricolor blue car complete with huge fins and hood ornament.
I gathered up my nerve, knocked on the front door and asked if Donna could come out to play. I knew Donna Esposito (later Ingram) vaguely from Sunday School at the Presbyterian Church, and hoped she’d be up for some adventures. Donna came shyly out, and we sat on the steps and talked. That day began a best friendship.
We were opposites. Donna, one year younger, was always sweet tempered, polite and polished. Even her play clothes looked new, and her shoes never had scuffs. She went to the beauty parlor to have her hair styled, wore frilly dresses with matching gloves to Sunday School. I on the other hand was a combination of Huck Finn and Little Orphan Annie with grass-stained jeans and long hair pulled into a frazzled ponytail. Donna was likely to have a pressed hanky in her pocket while I’d have odds and ends of junk in mine.
Yes, we were so different. Nonetheless we became inseparable for the next five years. During the school year we’d rush through dinner and sit on my swing set sharing our fears and dreams. On long summer days, we’d search for four leaf clovers, play in my sprinklers, catch lightning bugs and most of all we made plans.
Often, we’d recruit her little brother, Lee, and my sister, Sue, to help us. One summer we had a carnival in my backyard. We used sheets over the clothesline to make tents for the side shows, a haunted house and games of chance. Donna’s older sister, Vicky, drew stuffed animals on cardboard cutouts for us to use as prizes.
It was such a success with our neighbors that for the next two summers we had bigger and better carnivals. We spent months making prizes out of oatmeal boxes, yarn, fabric and glitter. We charged nickels and dimes and never kept the money for ourselves. The summer of 1964 we raised $27 and sent it to the John F. Kennedy Library. I still have the letter thanking us for our donation.
Once we scavenged the neighborhood for boards and other materials to be used for a tree house. It had three levels, a canopy for shade and a shelf for books. Another time we built a lean-to and pretended to be Robinson Crusoe and Friday. We also planned out an elaborate production of Mary Poppins, wrote scripts, gathered props and costumes, and began rehearsals. Donna would have been perfect as Mary Poppins, but unfortunately my younger siblings refused to learn their parts.
Sometimes we’d hide under her father’s pool table and spy on her older brother, Paul, and his friends. Other times we’d ride our bikes to Grants to buy Tootsie Pops. Once we started a Bug Club. We collected every type of insect we could find, put them in baby food jars and charged kids a nickel to view our Bug Zoo. Another time we raided my mother’s pantry for ingredients to make hundreds of chocolate chip cookies. We constructed boxes out of cardboard and came up with a logo for the lids. Then we peddled the cookies around the neighborhood to all the little old ladies with big hearts.
Donna and I spent endless days on my screen porch drawing paper dolls and sewing Barbie doll clothes. We also made outfits for Hoppy the toad and put leashes on gigantic grasshoppers and took them for a walk down Bellevue Avenue. Another time we used two sawhorses and a two-by-four to make a balance beam, and made-up routines to the song, “Wild Thing.”
I always thought everything would stay the same. Unfortunately, we were changing, growing up and our differences came between us. She liked the Beatles, I was obsessed. I was devoted to the high school band while Donna became a cheerleader. Gradually we grew apart. I can’t point to a day or time it happened, but we stopped getting together after school, then a summer came when our adventures together were officially over, yet they are memories I will always cherish.
Donna passed recently after a long illness. She leaves behind four daughters who were very fortunate to have Donna as a mother. Her family has my prayers and wishes for wonderful lives filled with love.
Donna Brown is a former Hammonton Middle School librarian and a columnist for The Gazette. To reach Donna Brown, send an email to email@example.com.