The day we landed on the moon (July 20th, 1969), my parents took the family to a picnic/fishing spot at the Des Moines reservoir. I was going into high school in the fall, so it was a dorky thing to do on a Sunday, but hey? I couldn’t drive yet, and the food was always good on a picnic.
I’ll never forget my mother in her Capri pants (she called them pedal pushers) and checked cotton shirt. She’d brought the transistor radio, so when Neil Armstrong and his crew landed on the moon’s surface, my mother couldn’t contain herself. She got up on top of a picnic table (how embarrassing, Mom, get down!) and shouted to all the fishermen, and I quote, “We have landed on the MOON!”
Now, if you were a fisherman that day at the Des Moines reservoir near the picnic table with my mom’s footprints on top, I think it is safe to say that you were more interested in catching a fish than in hearing my mother’s proclamation. We kids felt several sets of angry eyes turn in her direction.
Get down, Mom! You’ve just scared away all the fish!
We ate our fried chicken and deviled eggs or whatever our grandmother had brought that day (Grandpa loved to fish). We ate at the same table our mother had just stood on in her white socks and white sneakers. I was in my going-to-high-school brown flats with no socks. Yes, my feet were sweaty, but I looked cool.
When I got home that evening, my friend Joan called. One of our ninth grade classmates was on her death bed. She had Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, and her dad had died from it two years before. She had been in my Home Ec class. We had shared a sewing machine. She had been a cheerleader. Everybody loved her.
I could see her freckled face and rosy cheeks as I held the heavy receiver against my ear. I said a little prayer for Debbie H. I couldn’t believe a fifteen year old was about to die.
Two days later, Joan called again. Debbie had passed away. The memorial and viewing were set for Thursday night, July 24th. Joan said I should go with her and her family. I had never been to a funeral or seen a dead body. I didn’t want to go.
“Come on!” Joan said. “We need to pay our respects.”
Joan was from a big Catholic family. She’d already been to lots of funerals. I reluctantly agreed to go see Debbie H. I didn’t know what to do and said so to Joan.
“Just do what I do,” Joan said.
But Joan was big and bubbly, and I was shyer and more reserved. We were one of the first ones to arrive. While we were standing there looking at our dead classmate, the mother came in with another relative and grabbed Debbie’s hands.
“Oh, look at her!” the mother said. “They did such a good job covering up her bruises!”
“She looks beautiful!” the other woman said.
As the mother and her sister (?) continued to cry and comment on how good Debbie looked in the casket, Joan wisely led me away. It was a private moment we weren’t supposed to witness. The mother was oblivious to us, at least.
Later, we came back in and told the same two women how sorry we were. Actually, Joan did all the talking. I just followed and nodded my head.
The whole thing took my breath away. Debbie H had looked as healthy as I had just a few months earlier. Of course my OCD kicked in, and I was sure I was dying, too.
By the fall, I had gotten over my hypochondriac phase and was ready for high school. But that week in July — when two amazing things happened one good, one horrible — will forever be linked together in my brain.