Norman Maclean Nonfiction Award 2014


I used to have a friend so close we might as well have been family. She was my best friend and I was hers and we were each other’s, exclusively, and I knew that she would never tire of me or bore of me or want a playdate a millimeter less than I did. She was the kind of best friend you can only really have when you’re eight or nine and in your head a lot and left free to roam, and it’s high summer in the Ohio country, and hot, and sunny, and you firmly believe that you are totally misunderstood and this other person is the only other person in the whole entire world who has, or will ever, “get” you, utterly. And you get them. Only in these situations can the friendship like I had with Iris exist because only those conditions can bear it, the total, relentless, innocent absorption in another person and the child’s world you make together.

Iris’s family owned a blueberry farm, and even as a child I remember being dropped off in her driveway, dust grinding in the humid air and sticking to the sides of the shuddering car, and stepping out to look across the blueberry rows and just being blown away by this: that somebody’s family could still make a real living in the twenty-first century letting people pick their fruit.

It wasn’t just that, of course. There was a lot of upkeep. But little girls weren’t asked to upkeep and so to me the blueberry bushes remained a savagely fantastic fairy territory, where you could spend an entire day (and night, if dinner were not pressing) introducing two worms from opposite sides of the farm and through worm-ventriloquism acting out the minutia of their slowly developing relationship (man-worm gets a job, commutes from two feet left of woman-worm, third worm is brought in to stand as woman-worm’s mother and is subsequently eaten by a wandering cat or one time terrifyingly by Iris’s little sister, etc.) or trying to play Australian rules handball with a single put-upon blueberry. I wonder if Iris was as enchanted by it all as I was, or if for her the farm had been dulled by familiarity, and was just a backyard. I wonder if I helped her see it differently. I’ve never again had days go by so quickly or so happily.

She had, at one point, six or seven peacocks that lived on the blueberry farm, and they would occasionally wander in and out of our hours, hens clucking, startled males shrieking, fantail shook out and fibrous in the shadow of the bushes like a Persian carpet. Later they went feral and fled to the woods behind the house, only to be picked off, slowly and often with a great scream in the middle of the night, by raccoons.

So during select and beautiful intervals of two or maybe three summers the days might pass this way, on the farm, with brief interludes inside between. We would wake up and tumble out of bed wearing each other’s pajamas and stumble downstairs to eat some kind of vegan or gluten-free pancakes or something that I could barely stomach but would try and look enthusiastic about because Iris liked them, and Iris had to eat them, and let things settle on the hammock just outside her house before throwing on some clothes and leaving for fairyland, or further, up to the mailbox at the start of the drive and sometimes even beyond, every day a new expedition, every expedition a new day. (Saturday we vowed to make a bridge across the river; three stones and 20 hours later it was forgotten and we were searching hard for wild honey, instead.) I never worried about what I looked like, or what people thought of me, maybe because I was eight. Or nine. Maybe ten. When I was ten I worried more. There were fewer hours spent between the blueberry bushes when I was ten, but those first summers felt like both forever and no time at all. Why can’t I remember if Iris ate vegan, or gluten free?

She had the brightest blonde hair and I remember running it through my fingers, checking the color, the heft of it against my own. I remember telling her I wished ours was the same, so we could really be sisters. Although I didn’t wish hers was brown. I wanted mine golden.

Although my memories before, say, sixth grade are thickened, shook up by time like a blurred photograph and caught up in all sorts of feelings (nostalgia goes to war with embarrassment before sadness silences them both) and projected adolescent should’s, I remember one day with Iris very clearly. The blueberry farm was closed and we knew it but we both still woke early and walked up the drive together, kicking gravel, and set up a stand at the head to sell blueberries, complete with a clumsy-lettered paper sign I was too proud of. It was a long walk. I don’t remember what I thought about but I do remember kicking a piece of gravel back and forth and knowing what that day would look like, and the day after that, and knowing it was perfect and not even not wanting to grow up—wanting to grow up but realizing that I was a child now (then) and that on that day and the day after that and possibly the day after that depending on whether my mother let me stay I was living out my childhood in the best way possible. And just being happy. And because Iris was my best friend I knew I could just say “I’m happy”, and kick the gravel and she would understand it all, would get me, and she, Iris, would kick and say “me too.”

Because the farm was closed, and because the whole point of a blueberry farm is to pick them, really, we were a stand without patrons. I think we left at about noon to get some sandwiches and climb a tree and eat them in it. I think a peacock stole my blueberry sign. But the really important part of the day, to me, was that walk up the drive. Sometimes I think the rest of my life will just be spent trying to recreate that feeling, of walking up a dirt road in the morning with your best friend and knowing where it will lead you, and that it will take you back. Sometimes I wonder if I can, because I’m older, and not sadder so much as harder to make happy. And Iris is not my best friend anymore. In fact, I don’t have any best friend at all.

I left Oberlin halfway through fourth grade after a career change by my mother, a bad panic attack on my part after intense procrastination because I thought fourth grade school projects meant something, and my home room teacher keeping me in during snack break and recess to discuss her mentally retarded brother because she thought an elementary schooler could be her friend. Other things were going on, too, but I can’t talk about them yet.

Although when torn apart we vowed, sobbing, to still be each other’s best friend, and be there for each other, and understand each other, forever, Iris and I very quickly drifted apart. Although we still very occasionally chat on Gmail it is not, clearly, the same. If we walked down a gravel road today we would not get each other. We’d probably make awkward small talk and discuss the weather and somewhere in the back of my head I would mourn the loss of someone who meant so much to eight year old me and hope to find another person who would care like that for fifteen year old Isabella. Yesterday she emailed me. She’s at some school exchange in China, and after that is rejoining her family at their new home in Guyana. They have, she told me, sold the blueberry farm.

Isabella Nilsson  
Shaker Heights, Ohio, USA

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