celebrating Dr. Fran Howard.
Somehow it was okay for her to correct me. I didn’t know her well. I had only just met her at mother and daddy’s wedding. She lived in the duplex next to where mother, my new daddy, my older brother and sister and I lived.
I don’t know how it started, but Dr. Howard became my first adult friend. I was five and a half and she was probably in her mid-forties. Sunday mornings were our time. I would get up and get dressed by myself and go to her back door early for breakfast. It was my job to set the table. She taught me to do it properly. Dr. Howard had high standards and did not cut me any slack just because I was 5. It was a little scary sometimes, but I remember that I felt grown-up as she would teach me grown-up things. She would play classical music on her “hi-fi” and talk to me about it while we ate breakfast. We would eat blueberry pancakes and grapefruit halves. She taught me how to prepare the grapefruit with the special knife and to eat with a grapefruit spoon. Proper table manners were a must!
I thought Dr. Howard knew everything about everything. Some Sundays we went hiking around the hospital grounds. She showed me plants, bugs and answered my constant questions. We re-potted plants. We looked at books. Her house was full of interesting things that I was allowed to carefully touch. Sometimes we went to museums, with me all dressed up, down to white gloves and black patent mary-janes. I don’t ever remember feeling any fear, shame or misunderstanding with Dr. Howard, unlike what I felt in my new experiences with family.
I guess this went on for a couple of years until she moved into the city and we moved to a larger house on the grounds. We continued to do things together every now and then through my elementary school years. Then I’m not sure what happened. I think she moved out of the city. We exchanged Christmas cards and I remember receiving a high school graduation gift from her.
I look back at my parent’s wedding pictures and I see something now as an adult and parent that I never noticed in all the years of looking at those photos. In the big group photo everyone is looking at the camera except for two people. Those two people are looking with concern at the little girl whose life is being changed forever. Those two people were my beloved Aunt Nonie and Dr. Howard.
When I was re-learning how to operate in a family with parents and siblings, Dr. Howard was my safe, non-judgmental refuge. There were no expectations other than that I use my brain and be well-mannered. Those were things that Aunt Nonie had taught me and Dr. Howard reinforced. I was so much more comfortable with adults than other children.
So many of her lessons have stayed with me, from how to fold a napkin to a love of art museums. But most of all, I remember the confidence that came from knowing she was my friend. It never ocurred to me, not for one moment, that there was anything unusual about a 40-something psychiatrist choosing to be friends with a 5-year old girl, or that she was not sincerely my friend. It wasn’t until many, many years after I had stopped being Susie and had become Karen that I realized what an extraordinary gift she had given me.
It may not have been a balcony, but she certainly cheered me on from the top step of 10 East’s back stoop.