My Friend Katherine

Image result for toms river sand pitsWhen I was in 4th grade, we moved to Toms River, NJ. The summer between 4th and 5th grade, I was trying to find friends in the neighborhood since I hadn’t lived there very long, and none of the friends I had met in elementary school lived in my neighborhood.

Our neighborhood was a strange amalgam of ethnicities and religious beliefs with proximity being the only real glue that held us together. The French family across the street (fundamentalist-leaning Evangelicals) had daughters near my age. Their father was abusive, and the unmistakable yelling and crashing sounds were audible from the street. If they noticed a neighbor approaching while they were being beaten, everyone would lay on the ground and pretend nobody was home. On many occasions, I rang the bell repeatedly while listening to their mother’s hushed whispers to stay on the ground below sight of the window until I went away. Our next door neighbors were rowdy good-natured Italian Catholics who skinny-dipped in their above ground pool. Their 26-year old son had raped their daughter a few years earlier, and rather than press charges, they imprisoned him in their basement. He would sometimes order pizza to be delivered to his basement window. If I was really lonely, I could always talk to their son Carmine through his window. There was another girl a few years older than me who lived down the street, but she smoked pot and cigarettes and there were never any adults in the home, all of which made me nervous. Plus, she was post-puberty, and I was not; she mostly wanted to talk about boys. I wanted a friend who would ride bikes, go on adventures (but in the neighborhood), climb trees, or swing on the rope over the sandpits behind the school. The sandpits were a vast landscape of dunes, trees, discarded shopping carts, and other treasures. Later, when I read the Lovely Bones, I imagined the shifting sandpits as a great place to dump a body.

Image result for toms river abandoned houseAt the end of the street there was an abandoned house with gaping holes in the front steps and some floorboards inside missing. The windows were boarded up and scrawled with profane graffiti. The hedge was full of sweet wild green grapes that were ripening in the summer sun. It was a ten-year old girl’s dream! Once when I was eating grapes outside the house, I met a new friend, a girl my same age named Katherine. I had met her at school, but didn’t know she lived near me. We quickly became fast friends. We looked a lot alike, although I was taller than she was. We both had shoulder-length auburn hair; we were both skinny girls with scraped knees and elbows. She was adventurous like me, and we had fun running, biking, and playing on the playground. I had met her little sister, a tough-talking 8 year old who was an occasional tag along with us. Katherine was kind-hearted and curious.

One day, Katherine wanted to stop by her house. I hadn’t met her family, so I was intrigued but nervous. Some encounters with my friends’ parents had been embarrassing, like when my friend Lyle’s mother offered me kool-aid that turned out to be iced tea, and I had to tell her I couldn’t drink it. She was very irritated about throwing it out, and I felt stupid. Other friends’ parents drank alcohol, and I was worried that they would say or do things that made me uncomfortable if they were drinking. Some friends’ parents smoked which made me cough and my eyes tear up. I asked if her parents would be home, and she said no which made me feel more relaxed.

Her house was a large two-story home set back from the road. The yard was unkempt with nettles and poky weeds all around. I walked to the front door, but she said we’d enter through the back, the kitchen door. When we got there, she reached through a broken pane and unlocked the deadbolt. I was confused by this since I’d never seen someone enter their house this way before.

“I lost my key,” she explained.

“Why don’t your parents fix the glass?” I wondered.

“They haven’t gotten to it yet,” she said. Clicking the bolt, she shouldered the door open. The kitchen had autumn-toned appliances and linoleum (this was the late 1970s, after all). There were 5 or 6 sleeping bags on the kitchen floor.

“Do you sleep in the kitchen?” I asked, confused.

“My parents like us to all sleep together in the same room just in case,” she said. In case of what, I wondered. I didn’t understand why anyone would sleep on the kitchen floor of their own house. I had never met anyone whose life was so different from my own. “At our last house, we had to leave quickly,” she added.

Image result for walnut street toms river njThe next day, Katherine said she wanted to go visit a friend of hers, a woman who had just had a baby. I wanted to ride our bikes to the store to buy penny candy. She said we could do that after, but first she wanted to see the baby. I said I didn’t want to go because the woman was a stranger, but she said it would just take five minutes. I relented. The woman lived in a nearby apartment complex. She was very nice, a tall blond woman in a halter top and bell bottoms who chain smoked while Katherine looked at the sleeping baby. I wasn’t very interested in babies, so I stayed by the door the whole time. Katherine asked the woman if she could get a glass of water, then walked into the kitchen. She asked if I wanted to come into the kitchen, but I said no thank you. Soon after, we left.

The next day, Katherine’s little sister showed up at my house. My mother answered the door. Her sister said that I had stolen $27 from the woman with the baby, and that she knew I had it because she had seen it in my dresser drawer. This girl had never been in my house, and I didn’t understand why she would say something like that when it was such an obvious lie. To my increasing alarm, my mother listened to her, went and got her purse, took out $27 out and handed it to the girl. When she closed the door I could tell she was quite angry.

“I didn’t steal from anyone!” I protested, beginning to bawl. I was very upset at the girl’s accusation. “I don’t even know that woman with the baby. I didn’t want to go, and I stood in the doorway the whole time.” If my mother didn’t believe me, who would? Was I going to go to jail? “Why did you give her that money?” I asked.

She sighed. “I know you didn’t steal it,” she explained. Her anger was fading, and she looked tired. “Look, I don’t want you to play with Katherine anymore.”

“But Katherine’s my friend,” I wailed, meaning Katherine’s my only friend.

“I’m sorry, but you’ll just have to find some new friends,” she insisted, then went upstairs.

Image result for walnut street toms river njDespite my mother’s warning, I confronted Katherine the next time I saw her. “Why did your sister say I stole money? I didn’t steal from that woman.”

“I know you didn’t,” Katherine said.

“I’m not allowed to play with you anymore,” I said. Didn’t she see the consequences of her sister’s accusation?

“I know,” she said evenly. Katherine never approached me again after that, although she seemed sad when she saw me. She understood the rules as well as anyone. Things had been spoiled and couldn’t go back to how they were. It took me a while to understand what had happened. Even though I was innocent, a part of my innocence had fallen away. I was aware of things previously hidden to me. We only lived there another year, moving at the end of 5th grade.

I have often wondered what happened to Katherine, the adventurous girl who looked like me but lived such a different life. What would my life have been like if I had been born to her family, and she to mine? Were my moral principles a reliable guide that transcended my upbringing when it differed so much from her family’s code of ethics? Was her behavior consistent with a different morality, one underwritten by loyalty to her family? Did I deserve the things I had more than she did or was it luck that I had been born into my family? If faced with want, would I have behaved like her sister? How did my childhood circumstances affect all my future choices? These are thoughts that still occur to me from time to time when I think about my friend Katherine.



  1. Heptaparaparshinokh says:

    Thank you for this. This was real; I had experiences not all that dissimilar to this growing up in the Midwest, especially once we left a swanky suburb of Chicago and moved to a grittier town out in the heavy industry belt along the Illinois River.

    As the father of young children living in a socioeconomically heterogeneous area (and not just on the regional scale; I mean that there’s a Section 8 house occupied by professional foster parents down the street), I have wrestled with the question of how much my kids should be exposed to, well, reality. I nagged the school district to get my daughter out of a school where virtually no students speak English at home and 99% get free meals to one (that’s actually closer to our house) with the highest test scores in the district, but I felt a little dirty doing it.

    I get why so many Latter-day Saints want to move somewhere like northern Utah County or east Mesa, where all the kids in their neighborhood will be Mormons from intact traditional nuclear families of pioneer stock (perhaps with the occasional Latino or Pacific Islander parent). It makes one’s job easier as a parent. (Unless your kid turns out to be gay, anyway.) All the same, what I don’t want is to cripple my children. I want them to understand that they are very, very lucky, and not take for granted what they have, and to realize that their own choices–while still very important!–are made within a framework not of their own choosing. The best way to do this is for them to know kids whose parents are very unlike their own.

  2. Lovely. I also had a similar experience. I grew up on a nice, but lower income townhouse neighborhood. We had parents dealing drugs, smoking, trading porn, and instead of sand dunes, we had a big lot of farmer’s trees set aside by the city to be turned into its next freeway.

    My friend’s name was Vanessa. Her mom was probably part prostitute (which I did not understand at the time…) who treated her daughter terribly. To this day, I still wonder what happened to her. I’ve looked for her, but her name is common enough that she’d be hard to find.

    We are raising our kids in a town that is 65% Hispanic with lots of migrant farm workers. My ten-year-olds best friend is very, very low income. She comes to our house regularly and we have to work very hard to keep her in her comfort zone (she absolutely won’t eat with us, which I’m pretty sure has to do with not knowing how to approach white-people food. We took her to Chipotle once, and thoroughly intimidated her). The hard thing though is that it is very clear that her parents see her friendship with our family as a step-up for them. But I’m so introverted/anti-social that it just makes me feel awkward and I have no idea how then to talk to them!

    I don’t think I would change my kids experience though. In our last, more affluent ward, I was several times assigned to VT very low income women and found that my very wealthy partners would refuse to go. The poverty and type of conversations made them uncomfortable. I know that isn’t universally true of wealthy women of course, but I’m glad that I grew up seeing both sides and that my kids are as well. I don’t want to ever look down on anyone and its easier to do that if you can be comfortable in their space.

  3. nobody, really says:

    There’s also those of us who grew up broke, but with good parents. I gave up my lunch hours in middle school to wipe down the lunchroom tables and chairs in exchange for off-the-books lunch. That continued until we got free Federal lunch a few years later. We gleaned the fields for potatoes on every fall General Conference weekend. There were a few grocery stores “in town” where we knew we could safely go dumpster diving. Mom maintained that if anyone in the county went hungry, it was their own fault. We picked apricots from abandoned farmhouse orchards, and harvested asparagus from ditchbanks (it was a common weed). One of my brothers hasn’t bought meat for his family for over ten years now – he legally harvests roadkill, reporting each animal to Fish and Game.

    Looking back, we had a few family friends who looked out for us and made each kid feel special. A adult friend had a “spare VCR” that he kept at our house. Local farmers would hire us kids for occasional manual labor. But, there were the obvious slights, like when the EQ president told my parents that he wouldn’t assign us home teachers because there was no telling how long we would be there. New kids at church would be introduced to us by kids our age along with the explanation “You’re not supposed to like them.” An older Scout defecated on my Christmas-present tent at a campout, and the Scoutmaster excused him when he claimed “It’s a crap tent anyway.”

    Serving a mission probably did more to expose me to the world than anything else. Yes, I saw the abject poverty in the projects, but I also got to see what life was like for lawyers, doctors, engineers, bankers, and musicians. College was far easier once I got home because I had a goal in mind. I still do most things on the cheap (my new vehicle this year is a 2004), but at times I’m still embarrassed to be living such an extravagant lifestyle. My main worry is that my kid doesn’t know how to put in a day of hard labor.

  4. I grew up outside of Cleveland Ohio. We were the taxi cab for all the broken home kids who’s parents were kind of members of the church. I saw my first Playboy photos in the back of my mom’s station wagon on the way to Primary (which was on a week night because we didn’t have a chapel yet and it was too expensive to rent the buildings we would meet in for more than 1-2 hours on a Sunday) I can’t say it was easy ever. My brother and I were the only two kids in my High School who were LDS. No one could check us on our religion because no one knew what our religion was. My parents are converts and my mom really loved the church. I don’t think my dad cared either way? He never protested or not go, I just don’t think he really cared. We are not “pioneer stock” and yet we are our own pioneer’s in a sense. We would routinely have to correct social studies teaches about who Joseph Smith was and what the Book of Mormon was and “no, we don’t practice polygamy”. Most of the kids I grew up with in the church were converts too and maybe 3 of the 20 or so kids actually grew up to stayed in the church. The kids that came from Utah or Idaho or Arizona (who’s parents transferred their job to Cleveland, and they all worked for a giant oil company like BP or the FBI or CIA) where mean and looked down on us for not being “real Mormons”. I grew to hate them and preferred my non member friends who never judged me and rarely ever questioned my beliefs. The “good mormon boys” I went to church with had pretty much all broke the law of chastity with the “good mormon girls” and because I was a “punker”, “skater” with a “weird hair cut” and “funny clothes” I got the 5th degree every time I even tried to go on a date with a “good mormon girl” . And me of all people respected and did not cross the lines of teenage chastity with these girls. Why? Because I have a mom and sisters who I love and respect and I thought others deserved the same. After we got a big enough ward the church bought land about 30 minutes from my parents house and we all helped build the church building. I was proud of that building and proud that we played a part in building it. Being a convert (or a member) for that member away from “zion” or in the “mission field” (as we were so smuggly called by Utah/Arizona/Idaho members).

    I now live in Mesa Arizona. There are a lot of churches. More than I have ever seen in my life. My Bishop actually lives across the street from me. All of this for me is a first. Even when I lived in Oceanside CA (which compared to Ohio might as well be Utah) was not as populated with members or chapels. The ward still has bullies, marital strife, inactive members, closet drinkers, about 1/4 of the men in my ward are in addiction recovery, and most of my ward voted for Trump.

    You would think that I have every right to be cynical? I do not have that right. If anything I have a responsibility as not just a Latter Day Saint but as a decent human being (which I learned in Ohio wth my non member friends, not in church) to use the things I learned about not judging people and loving people for who they are. It’s sad but true but members can be their own worst enemies when it comes to “self policing” and setting “pharasees and saducies” type judgements of “who is obeying the law!” . ughhh.. it drives me crazy .. but I have a testimony. I have had that might change of heart that we are taught about in the scriptures. When mormons can realize that membership does not have privileges but responsibilities they will stop being their own enemies and start participating outside of the bubbles they choose to live in.

    I love how I was raised and where I was raised. I love the world, I left the church and I came back. I love the gospel and I love Jesus Christ and the appreciate the atonement. I was a vegetarian, I ran a DIY music venue, I worked in and with professional skateboarders and surfers. At times I lost track of who I am but I always end up back here. Back at church because I know it’s true. Your kids will be “alright” and you will love them for whoever they turn out to be ..

    I send this with love

  5. Hope Wiltfong says:

    Thanks for sharing! I’m a convert, so crazy stories like this from my life are pretty normal – but my kids were raised as military brats, and I’m always surprised to hear some of the nutty stuff which THEY were exposed to, mostly while living on military bases across the world. But I am WONDERFULLY aware that they are such non-judgemental, accepting adults who also happen to be active, lovely Latter-Day Saints. They don’t get shocked by much,, and I love that.

  6. I keep trying to convince my wife that skinny dipping is a normal and healthy activity. I’m afraid I’m losing this battle though.

  7. Can’t help but read this heartbreaking tale and have these verses come to mind:

    23 But, verily I say unto you, teach one another according to the office wherewith I have appointed you;
    24 And let every man esteem his brother as himself, and practice virtue and holiness before me.
    25 And again I say unto you, let every man esteem his brother as himself.
    26 For what man among you having twelve sons, and is no respecter of them, and they serve him obediently, and he saith unto the one: Be thou clothed in robes and sit thou here; and to the other: Be thou clothed in rags and sit thou there—and looketh upon his sons and saith I am just?
    27 Behold, this I have given unto you as a parable, and it is even as I am. I say unto you, be one; and if ye are not one ye are not mine

  8. Fascinating, especially to someone who grew up in a Leave It to Beaver family in a nice suburban Utah neighborhood (which in recent years hosted a gruesome murder that was all over the news). It’s hard to judge people when you see what sorts of families and neighborhoods shape them as children.

  9. Interesting tale. Some of us who are ‘pioneer stock’ lived in homes (in Utah) that were as odd and out of place as any that can be described. My parents were both members, as were their parents (pioneer children..everyone in the family seemed to marry late in life). Still our home wasn’t the traditional ‘Leave it to Beaver’ household at all. In fact I don’t recall, as a pre-teen and young woman, ever inviting a soul to my house because of the opinions of others who were traditional. Mental illness can color a person’s life and change it regardless of religion.

  10. Anonymous today says:

    Thank you for this, Angela. Really resonates at the moment. We have had similar encounters in our Ward, and neighborhood (nowhere near Utah). There was an initial hesitance to expose our children to some of the issues that their friends manage on a regular basis, but it became unavoidable as their friends’ struggles spill over into their relationships, and it was necessary to provide context. I remember having a discussion with one child, helping them to understand that, everyday in school, they walk past multiple people who don’t currently have a stable place to live, or who return to homes that don’t have food for them, or whose living situation might be unsafe. Allowing them to appreciate the precariousness of life has, in my opinion, fostered a sense of compassion, patience, and understanding as they interacted with their friends, or others at Church. This has become even more important in recent weeks/months, as our own situation has become somewhat unstable, and they have had to confront how precarious their own world can become in a quick instance. Now that they are one of those walking the school halls who do not currently have a stable place to live, and have to struggle to make sure their very temporal needs are met each day, I sense that they don’t feel the shame they might have felt, that they don’t think of themselves as outsiders in their circles. Of course, focusing on that makes it easier to forget, for a while, that our (their) situation is quite crappy. Fortunately, ours is a temporary situation, and will be resolved. We have also shared with them the details of our situation and the reasons for the position in which we find ourselves (they’re old enough to understand, for which we are grateful). We emphasize that we have the resources to make it through this moment (a little savings, a lot of friends), and that we will, but that many of their friends aren’t able to look into the near future and envision their circumstances improving much. Empathy doesn’t just aid in helping others. It can provide a foundation for approaching your own trials, and protect against feelings of isolation. Thinking you’re alone, that you’re the only one dealing with things, can be very alienating. We’re glad they were exposed to the precariousness of life prior to this. It doesn’t make it easy. We’re hoping it’s making it easier for them. Hoping.

  11. Oh this makes me think of my own best friend T who rented the house next to ours in Northern California from 6th to 8th grade in the late 80s. We lived in a nice, but not the nicest/fanciest, neighborhood an easy walk to the elementary school and had several other nice families (including a couple lds families) on our block. All very stable homes with moms at home during the day who would stand on their doorsteps and call their kids home for dinner after playing outside all afternoon. Anyway, T moved in next door and was different in just about every way. She had only a mom, her parents had never married (this blew my mind – it was the first time I realized you could have a baby without being married first), her mom was rough around the edges, her mom smoked, she was very different from all the other moms, wore revealing clothing, seemed a little scary and often had different men staying at the house. It seemed like those guys all had motorcycles and long hair (!). T had big dreams of having a farm full of horses and being an artist. We almost exclusively played at our house or in our yard or the other neighbor kids’ yards, and she rarely wanted us to play at her house. Once she called my house at night to talk to my mom. Later I learned that she needed to ask for some feminine supplies because they didn’t have any and wouldn’t be able to get any soon. She was my first friend I knew who was open about being on welfare, and open about her mom being on drugs. She once told me she flushed her mom’s drugs and then got in big trouble for it. She also told me which other kids at our school were in similar situations as her. Our family moved out of state before we started high school and whenever T would come up in conversations, my mom would wonder if they should have tried to bring her with us somehow. She was a wonderful friend and I often feel guilt about not being a better friend after we moved away. She was patient with me and didn’t seem to get mad at all the times I was so clueless, never knowing what to say about difficult things going on in her life. I sure hope she has a happy life and ended up as an artist with her horse farm!

  12. theBarrio, and everyone else,

    Could you please never say “broken home kids” again? It’s so incredibly hurtful.

  13. Cody Hatch says:

    Beautiful, Angela. I don’t really have any other comment.