In 1962 Lenna Baranoff and I, eighth graders, were assigned as assistants to the Wilson Junior High School office during 4th hour of classes. We assume we were competent helpers to the white-haired ladies of the office, though what we remember most about those hours is the giggling. We became best friends. We had a great photo of the Beatles inside our shared locker. Even though we went to different high schools, we both went to the same church and had overnights most weekends and stayed best friends. We loved “Dr. Zhivago,” and Lenna, being half-Russian, vowed back then to name her daughter “Larisa.” We both were sent to Girl’s State from our respective high schools. I was a mayor and Lenna was the governor! (She was then sent to the Senate Youth Program in Washington DC where she met Jon Kottke of New Mexico and LBJ.) We were both crowned one kind of queen or another at our high schools. I met Jon when he came to Lenna’s graduation and prom from New Mexico…handsome, smart, great personality – check, check, check…OK! Lenna and I and her brilliant Mother went to Europe by ship for seven weeks after our graduations. (I found odd-jobs to save money for a year that my parents matched, and Lenna’s Mother required only that fabled “$5 a day” from me plus transportation.) We liked to sing Beatle’s songs on trains and balconies, and first heard the very ‘weird’ Sgt. Peppers while trying on mod clothes in London. Lenna went off to Stanford with Jon (she was later a Phi Beta Kappa there – the smartest of the smartest); I went off to Northwestern.
In the interim years we gave each other the same presents, discovered we had the same books and albums on our shelves, and were each other’s bridesmaid. Lenna and Jon moved to Boulder, Colorado, where Jon went to law school; I continued to head eastward. We had our kids. I took my family to Boulder and our two 4-year-old girls stripped naked and peed in the bushes. (Lenna and Jon have a son, Chris, who is getting his Ph.D. in pure math at MIT and their daughter, Larisa, works for a non-profit in Boston for foster/adoptive families). Lenna’s mother gave her a copy of my father’s interpretation of the Psalms because her mother was one of my father’s writing mentors.
Lenna has run a non-profit in Boulder for 18 years – “Special Transit,” which provides transportation to Boulder’s older or more fragile citizens. She has doubled the size of the operation several times over while putting together an extraordinary staff. She gives unlikely employees a chance to prove themselves and succeed.
In 2006 Lenna and I shared a room in Tulsa at the first reunion of our Wilson Junior High School class – 42 years after graduating 9th grade and going off to different high schools.Everyone had such a fantastic time together that a second reunion just took place this month. Lenna and I were unable to attend because she had decided that what she wanted to do for her 60th birthday was to celebrate our milestone together in Brazil! Her birthday was in late August, and on my very birthday in September, Lenna and Jon emerged from the baggage section at the Natal airport in huggable 3-D! They were fresh from Rio. It was the best birthday of my life, with roses, chocolates, live music on a boat, grilled salmon, champagne, and my favorite seriously chocolate torta with my best friend.
We had leisurely breakfasts, Cotovelo and Ponta Negra beach time, good food, and a wild day in a dune buggy in the dunes north of the city. Here’s our driver Darto and his “Jesus” buggy: I opted out of the rides “with emotion,” not being a roller coaster devotee, and closed my eyes and held on for the “without emotion” part; but Lenna was thrilled with the plunges and elliptical climbs, as well as with the “aero-bunda” ride where a harness carried her down a cable into a lake.
I took Lenna to see the largest cashew tree in the world in the next beach town. She noticed that ‘seniors’ over 60 only pay half to get in, so we had our first opportunity to cash in on our age. The dismissive shrug I got when I asked if any I.D. was required either indicated that we were surely trustworthy or obviously feeble!
My darling husband surprised us with flan after dinner, which he made while the rest of us were on the beach. Lenna’s darling husband washed the dishes after every meal and knew the name of the knot he used to secure the beach umbrella – cool. He is the original ‘water off a duck’s back’ guy, so flexible and sane!
On our last night in Natal the four of us went to hear live chorinho music on an inter-city street corner. The self-appointed dancing crazy lady and the staggering drunk who thought he knew the musicians added flavor. A guest trombone player added a nice twist to the traditional chorinho guitar, mandolin and cavaquinho strings and flute.
It didn’t really matter how we spent our time…I was with Lenna! Yes, her intelligence is extraordinary, the sort of intelligence that spills over into kindness, courage, sensibility and humor (we still love to giggle!). She offers a standard I cannot attain because we are so different, but it is a standard I love to bump into, like a mooring for the wind-tossed…a charm that puts all at ease, a grace that baths everyone lucky enough to spend time in her presence. You don’t realize second-by-second that you are being bathed in grace; it just dawns on you later that you have experienced a stunning immersion.
After too many late dinners for a week, Lenna, Jon, Newton and I caught an 8:00am flight to Salvador, Bahia. I had ridiculed an acquaintance of theirs for telling them it was “just another big city,” so I was feeling some pressure that Salvador would live up to the mystical, samba-infused Afro-Brazilian phenomenon I had witnessed in 1983. See next dispatch…