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A Different World, Next Door, Essay Example

Pages: 1

Words: 1268

Essay

When my friend, Bobby, asked me to come to his house for dinner, I thought it was perfectly ordinary and very strange at the same time. We had been friends mainly because our families lived next door to one another, and children seem to be able to forge friendships out of whomever is nearby. Our own friendship had evolved in just that simple way.  Playing individually in yards turned into shared playing in both, and the first years of school were taken on by us as comrades. Our parents were there to be waved at, said “hello” to, and usually only seen in passing. Somebody’s father would be washing the car as we ran by, as somebody’s mother would call out an alert about the timing of homework or dinner. I would imagine a million such intimate and casual childhood friendships are formed exactly this way, every day.

Naturally enough, we played in each other’s homes, too, in our rooms. So, why did it strike me as strange that I would merely be sharing a meal with my friend? I think I had a vague sense, even as a child, that boundaries would be crossed. It is one thing to politely greet your friend’s mother; it is another to spend an hour with her, eating her food, and sitting with an entire family not really known at all. I remember I was actually nervous, even as I said, “Sure.” I also remember thinking, also in an undefined way, that Bobby’s family probably did not sit down to dinner as my family did. I know I was afraid of doing something wrong, or inappropriate.

As everyone knows, a child’s world is very confined. It is a whole universe of the rooms of the home, the yard, and the family seen every day. It is all you know, so you cannot really conceive of anything very different.  My own “world” was fairly ordinary, but that was not the issue; what mattered is that this ordinariness was composed of a million, small things I knew as absolutes.  This was not, of course, in my mind as I walked over to Bobby’s home for dinner. There was, however, an odd kind of unease I could not name.

From the moment his father opened the door for me, I had an unusual sense of formality.  It was not that Bobby’s house was nicer than mine, or that some sort of “ceremony” unknown to me was already evident.  It was more that I was coming through the front door, like a guest, and being greeted as such.  Adults sometimes enjoy, I think, deliberately addressing children as if they were older, in a kind of parody of adulthood.  He shook my hand, which startled me.  Fortunately, Bobby, from behind, brought me to the reality I knew by gesturing that we could play upstairs for a while.   In that hour, normalcy was mine again. This was a part of the universe I knew, and could be comfortable in.

Part of me wants to say that dinner was a bizarre experience, one where I had no idea of what was going on.  Nothing that dramatic happened, I’m afraid.  In fact, as we came downstairs, I was glad to smell food I knew.  Nonetheless, I had the distinct feeling that, for the next hour or so, I was to be a part of something unusual.  I took my place, and was aware of some awkwardness on the part of Bobby’s family.  If this was a different situation for me, it was for them as well.   His sister, two years older, was angry, as far as I could tell.  I will never forget her face, all through dinner, expressing a resentment over something of which I had no idea.  It would be many years before I realized that I may have been the cause of it.  Bobby’s parents, however, soon took on the aspect of casual, gracious hosts, and the little awkwardness faded as they made small jokes, to set all of us at ease.

Then, just after Bobby’s mother placed a platter of roast beef and potatoes on the table, Bobby’s father dropped his head and held out his hands.  His wife sat, immediately taking her husband’s hand as she did so.  Then Bobby’s sullen sister, seated next to me, closed her eyes tightly and also reached her hands out.  I turned to Bobby on my right, and somewhat frantically; this had happened suddenly, and I honestly had no idea of what was going on.  He found my hand with his and gestured with his chin out, to indicate that I take his sister’s hand.  Once the circle was complete, his father led the family in prayer.  It was fairly brief, and then we began the meal as though – to me – this quick and solemn ceremony had not even happened. Meat and vegetables were passed, conversation was made, the sister never said a word, and the dinner went smoothly.

Something had changed, however, certainly for me. I was aware, probably through movies and TV, that some families prayed before meals. I had never found it odd, or unsettling, but  had never been within such a scenario either, and the energy of the room was completely altered in those moments. More importantly, I felt as though I had been suddenly submerged in deep water, then surfaced; in a matter of seconds, I had been exposed to a deep component of the way my friend’s family lived. I also felt, uncomfortably, that this somehow removed him from me, no matter our close and easy-going relationship.

This new and unwelcome sensation within me, I became observant. I had never before noticed the few religious artifacts, the crucifixes and embroidered Biblical sayings, in Bobby’s house. Now, they took on vast import. With absolutely no idea of what his family’s faith actually meant to him, I perceived my childhood friend as both mysterious and greatly unknown to me. A child’s imagination can make much out of the simplest things, and mine most definitely took this course. Even after we played and watched a little TV, I was thinking. No: I was inventing. I created in my mind a religious reason for the sister’s anger. I believed that, somehow, the kindness of Bobby’s mother to me was not due to any liking of me, but was a directive of her faith. As I would come to see in later years, I exercised an innocent, but lethal, placing of judgment. I did this, not because I objected to prayer or faith, but only because it was not a thing I knew.

That evening, as with every other time I saw him, Bobby was the same, in every way. I retreated.  I distanced myself from him as kids do, withholding words of response and replacing them with shrugs and grunts, and by being unavailable when I was obviously free to play, or talk. When I  have looked back on this, I have tried to rationalize, and excuse, my behavior.  Confronted with something strange as a child, I had merely enlarged it in my young mind and allowed it to take on unfortunate, and unjustified, proportions. Regret, however, remains with me. The reality I see is that I have gained from the experience because, in later years, I made determined efforts to never be so unaccountably stunned by the various ways in which people live differently than I do. The cost, however, was high, because I know as well that I lost a valuable friend from my youth through a childish dislike and suspicion of what was, very simply, out of my experience.

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