Fourteen year old Brenda had just finished helping her mother with the supper dishes when the phone rang.
It was Janet, the girl next door, and she wanted to know whether Brenda wanted to go sled riding.
There was little that could have made Brenda leave the house that bitter cold and dark evening on a weekday in January 1965, but such an invitation was too much not to accept.
Janet had been her next door neighbor since she was seven. Janet was two years older than Brenda, and, like her, the oldest child of a large band of siblings.
Brenda’s father had always thought highly of Janet. And why not? She was pretty, personable, intelligent, slender, and athletic. And the kind of daughter he wished he had, Brenda thought.
Brenda didn’t blame Janet for being all those things. When they were younger and the girls and boys of the neighborhood played together, Janet was not only the leader, but Brenda’s best friend. It was inevitable that time would change things, especially since Janet was older than she.
The last time Brenda had spent time with Janet, their usual game of paper dolls had taken a decidedly adult turn. Brenda had been 12, and Janet, 14. Janet’s provocative plot involving her two teenaged paper dolls was attention-getting, and Brenda watched in fascination as Janet led the storyline further down the road to degradation. Sadly, it was proof enough that Janet had outgrown paper dolls.
And, sadly, it was also proof that Janet had outgrown Brenda.
That was why it was so surprising to hear from her.
Maybe, out of the blue, Janet was inspired by a stab of nostalgia, Brenda thought. And there was no doubt that the backyard at Brenda’s house had the steepest and most terrifying sled-riding hill in the neighborhood. Year after year, the old neighborhood gang had spent hours sledding that steep hill in the backyard that afforded the thrill of soaring around trees down an icy slope, only to stop hopefully at the sheer white edge of the escarpment that tumbled precariously into the creek below. At night, dappled and glistening in the moonlight, that slope offered even more danger, although that was when it also was the most beautiful.
On the other hand, Brenda thought cynically, maybe Janet called her because she wouldn’t feel comfortable sledding alone in someone else’s backyard.
Janet must have left her house almost immediately after Brenda hung up the phone because Brenda could see her shadow moving from the front door of her house and across the yard, a ghostly figure against the bright snow. Quickly Brenda pulled on her boots and coat, wrapped her scarf around her head and neck, and pulled on her mittens. She didn’t want to keep Janet waiting in the cold.
Janet was the same. She was the same girl who walked with Brenda down to the bus stop every school day, but their circle of friends had changed. They could no longer talk about the friends they had in common, so instead they talked about broader school issues that might involve both freshmen and juniors. One of Janet’s friends was going steady, and another was dating a boy from another school. Janet was not interested in anyone in particular right now, but every Saturday night, she and her crowd drove down to the dance at the American Legion. That was what the cool kids did, stopping at Jerry’s Drive-In or Hank’s Custard Stand afterwards for something to eat. Brenda didn’t do any of those things, and she and her friends couldn’t drive. She was imprisoned at home because she had no wheels. Brenda felt the burden and frustration of her limitations.
The two sleds propped up against the house in the backyard were now mostly used by Brenda’s younger brothers. At one time, there hadn’t been enough sleds for her and her friends, but two of them were quite enough now.
For two teenaged girls on a school night, a couple of good slides were all that was needed to return to those snowy evenings not so long ago. Yet it was quite enough, without a crowd of laughing young people joining them and with the specter of undone homework still awaiting them at home.
Two slides down that twisting hill, and that could have been the end of the evening, but Janet surprised Brenda again by inviting her over to her house for hot cocoa.
It was strange to stand in the kitchen at Janet’s house making cocoa at that old stove. Years ago, Brenda had spent hours in that kitchen and in this house, and there had been a well-worn path between both houses. Now the months between their childhood and their youth made this less familiar ground.
There are only two years between 14 and 16, but they are important ones.
For the next hour, Brenda and Janet sat on the floor in the living room listening to music. Despite a houseful of people, they had the room to themselves. They browsed Janet’s record collection: Jan and Dean, Ricky Nelson, the Dave Clark Five, and, best of all, Porky Chedwick, the legendary local disc jockey. The music sounded good, and this was another thing that Brenda and Janet could share.
Outside Janet’s house, nothing had changed to disturb the eerie calm of a dark winter evening in the country. Brenda returned to her home, to homework and to the anticipation of another school day the next morning.
She was glad she had spent some time with Janet, and she knew a repetition of tonight was unlikely. Janet at 16 was on the verge of adult decisions, while Brenda at 14 was still struggling with self-consciousness and self-doubt. Brenda realized that life would roll ahead and take them further apart and in different directions.
And that was really kind of sad.