Janet and Me

I had the most wonderful new year’s celebration. My lifelong friend, Janet, and her family came to visit us from St. Petersburg. Janet and I recently reconnected, so while we had a lot of catching up to do (like she didn’t know that I waitressed at Howard Johnson’s in college and I was not aware that she lived in a haunted house and loved jewelry) the main stuff - the important stuff - is still fresh in our minds from the time we were little girls.

Janet’s family, the Balestrinos, were a big Italian family that lived two doors down from me. In between our houses was The Field, which was actually only a half-lot drainage area, but when you’re little, even a small patch of grass seems huge and with endless possibilities. Next to The Field were the Fuscos, an old Italian couple who kept forgetting when Halloween was. Then there was the Balestrinos’ big yellow house. Their family seemed huge. They only had one more kid than we had, but they had a dad, which was a rarity in our neighborhood, and their grandmother lived there with them. Grandma Balestrino ruled the house, owned and operated a nightclub in Youngstown, had boyfriends with names like Thirteen and Lucky, was a near professional fisherman, and was super intimidating to a skinny little redheaded Irish girl, who was me.

A typical non-school day when I was ages 6 through 12 was getting up, putting on my pedal-pushers and walking down to the Balestrinos’ house and waiting on their back porch for someone to come out so I could ask if Janet was allowed to come out and play. My mom forbade me to ring their doorbell or knock on their door, because little kids shouldn’t bother adults, so I had to wait until someone came out to take out the garbage or leave for work or go fishing.

Eventually Janet would come out and we would go to the playground or play Barbies or go down her basement to listen to Bill Cosby albums and laugh until a little bit (or a lot) of pee came out.

The Balestrinos had a cottage at Conneaut on Lake Erie and I regularly went with them for days at a time. Like their six kids weren’t enough, they happily took me along. While the Balestrino kids were notoriously brave and adventurous (for instance, they hung upside down from their knees on the monkey bars without batting an eye) I was afraid of everything. Across the street from their cottage was a big roller rink and I didn’t know how to roller skate, so when all the kids would go over to skate, I would lace up my skates and sit on a bench. I also didn’t know how to ride a bike without training wheels, and I didn’t know how to swim. (Now that I think of it, how I ever survived childhood is a mystery.)

Because their kids were who they are, Mr. Balestrino would take us all out on his boat and drop us off in the middle of Lake Erie. I’m not kidding about this, and I’m not exaggerating. There was a sandbar out there and you could walk around in water about up to a small child’s shoulders, far from shore. I can still hear Mr. Balestrino’s voice over the noise of the boat motor saying, “Watch out for drop offs!”

The dreaded drop-offs. You’d be walking around the middle of Lake Erie and suddenly the ground beneath you would disappear and you’d be doggie-paddling like there was no tomorrow, squeaking, “help! help!” until one of the younger, more capable Balestrino kids would come and lift you back onto the sand bar.

Despite the constant, almost rhythmic tragedies, scary moments and anxiety-filled events, most of my childhood experiences with Janet were spent laughing our rear ends off. Sometimes we didn’t even need anything to laugh at.

“What do you want to do?”

“I don’t know, what do you want to do?”

“Wanna get mouthfuls of milk and look at each other until one of us starts laughing and the milk comes out?”

“OK.”

Janet’s visit for New Year’s was so much fun. We got all caught up on all the things that have happened to us since high school. We looked at our old yearbook, walked on the beach (I even walked closer to the water than her. Nya, nya!) and ate her pepperoni roll, which Grandma Balestrino used to make. And laughed, without the milk this time.

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