A long lost classmate is located but not happily.
| It was precisely 10:30 in the morning of July 29, 2009, when my hand knocked on the front door of the little blue, down-at-the-heels house at 25530 S. Canal St. in Channahon, Illinois. I was searching for a classmate on whom I had last laid eyes in May of 1954. At that time she was Donna Hansen who had lived about five or six miles from us in the very gently-rolling-to-flat farmland around Eldena, Illinois. We'd ridden the same school bus for two years of grade school and four years of high school. We didn't get along very well, so my search wasn't so much for me, although we WERE in the same class. My immature teasing was meant to say “Let's laugh and joke at each other and ourselves as we go through this school process that has been forced upon us.” but she had very often been offended and reacted with anger. That experience of long ago had been long forgotten. It was replaced by warm, supportive feelings of comradery freshly generated in me as some forty classmates had held a reunion dinner four days earlier. The organizers had lamented that they had not been able to find Donna even though they had an address that was supposedly a good one. But the most impetus for my visit was that her very best friend from high school missed her terribly and had asked me to help if possible. Her name was Anita and her fears were that that Donna was dead or extremely sick.
Anita had sent many letters and tried without success to find a phone number for her friend for the last twenty five years or more. The two had last met forty or so years before as Anita visited Donna in her home in Channahon for a day. She'd learned then that Donna's life was a severe struggle. She had three little children, her husband (at that time a fellow named Corzine) brought home little money, she was estranged from her mother and step-father and, in fact, had been disinherited. Anita had learned Corzine had died and she'd married a fellow named Stinson and she strongly suspected the fruits of that marriage were similar—little money, no support, and constant struggle.
Anita and Donna had been best friends since eighth grade. Donna had spent nights with Anita and her parents, they shared whatever secrets girls shared, they laughed, and enjoyed good and great times in each others company. Through all that, Anita learned that life at home for Donna was not happy. The love for a father or step-father that a girl needs to experience to mature well was replaced by fear, if not loathing.
I knew her “father” (I didn't know she was adopted), Sinius, as a sour and dour Dane who passed on every opportunity to smile and went to church but exhibited not one iota of joy in his relationship with God.
Anita knew that Donna feared her step-father and that her step-brothers and sister were favored in every way over her. They could, for instance, never overnight at Donna's house for fear of setting off the wrath of imperious Sinius. And Donna never, ever mentioned having had contact with her older brothers and sisters.
It isn't unusual for three classmates to have only sporadic contact after school careers end. But, given what Anita knew of her friend, she feared that Donna did not want to be found as letters she mailed were never returned by the Post Office, but there was never an answer either. Organizers of class reunions had sent letters every five years with the same result. There was fear that Donna had become a recluse.
My wife, Helen, and I had gone through Channahon three days earlier on a trip to visit her cousins. She decided more visiting, was in order so the return trip was by myself and there was no deadline to make me drive by without stopping.
I'd parked the motor home five blocks north of the house because driving down a dead-end street where the Internet said Donna's house was located would be done only with planning to be certain of a good outcome—that is, that I'd be able to drive the rig out.
The front door at which I knocked had a large glass pane but nothing of the interior could be seen due to the presence of a shawl or other heavy cloth that hung down from the top of the door where it was held in place by the door pressing against the jamb. That, plus the unkempt house and grounds, mold on the house, a garden hose dropped where it had apparently last been used, a window air conditioner that appeared to teeter precariously on the sill, and two untidy big pick up trucks in the drive meant things weren't looking as rosy as the day had started. It was a beautiful sunny day with unseasonable cool temperatures, a light breeze out of the northwest and a kindly neighbor across from where the rig was parked had been very good signs.
After three or four knocks brought no response and the same procedure on the walk-in door by the garage yielded the same disappointing results, I knocked on the front of the house to the north. A fellow asked my business from inside a screened window. I told him I was looking for a classmate, mentioned Donna's name and asked if he knew her and where she might be. He told me he knew her but that his wife knew her better, that she did, indeed, live in the house, that she drove a little silver foreign-make car, that her son-in-law had just had heart surgery, that her daughter live next to her on the other side, and that Donna might be back in an hour or so. I thanked him, went back, wrote a note on the back of two calling cards and left one in each door. I then knocked on the door of the daughter's house and, getting no response, walked back to the motor home. The friendly neighbor across the street seemed inclined to talk and inquired about results of my search. When told of my lack of success he asked what her name was. Hearing her name he said he'd lived all his life there and had never heard the name. That wasn't a good sign at all as it signaled lack of sociability on the part of my quarry.
It seemed to me that delaying departure by having a bite to eat was in order—in part because any car going toward Donna's house would be easily seen from the rig. No food had gotten past my lips when a little silver car went by and turned down Canal St. I was followed by a brown SUV. After a couple of moments to put things in order, I set off down the road behind the two cars. Completing the walk of four and a half of the five blocks gave me a view of the front of 25530 revealing one garage door open, a little silver car in front of the open door, it's driver side front door open, motor running, and a white haired person standing between the door and the car. Her hair was cut short and not styled, her clothes were clean but not close to being new, she was obese, and apparently pained by a problem in her left shoulder as she touched it and winced every so often.
At my call of “HELLOOOO” this person, whom I did not recognize but presumed to be Donna, asked “Who are you and what do you want?” I told her a search for my classmate Donna Hansen Stinson had brought me. She asked with suspicion, “What do you want with her?”
I told her that her friend, Anita Aughenbaugh, very much wanted to be in contact with her. “Who are you?” she asked. I told her my name and that we'd been classmates. She said, “I don't remember you at all.”
All the while she was clutching one of my cards indelicately between her thumb and closed forefinger in such a way that the words on both sides of the card were largely covered by her digits rather than between thumb and forefinger tips which would be natural had she welcomed the card and the messages thereon. It struck me later that it bothered her that the card had been left in her door but she could not bring herself to dispose of it immediately. It also struck me that she had left the car engine running and the door open while retrieving the card, and that she had remained stationary, leaning against the car for the entire time it took me to walk the five blocks. It was obvious that she was unable to celebrate contact from an old school friend. I would give a LOT to know what was going through her mind all that time.
Following a bit more desultory conversation, my next move was to take out my phone and say “I'll call Anita and you can talk to her. Will you do that?”
A nod of her head was all the assent she could muster.
When Anita answered I told her someone wanted to talk with her. She knew instantly of my successful find and the two talked for about five minutes or so. It was clear from my end that the conversation involved reminding Donna of who I was (She asked at one point, “Did you have red hair?”) and of the times the two great friends has spent together.
Anita had told me before my search got serious that she and Donna had been in a class together and were paired in an assignment to act out two old friends finding each other in a store after an absence of many, many years. They had squealed, jumped up and down, and talked animatedly as they acted out their joyous reunion. Unfortunately, this telephone reunion did not go nearly as well as the assignment of years ago. In fact, it would have received a failing grade as Donna scarcely smiled and exhibited bewildering puzzlement rather than any joy at all at being found. It was depressing then and caused me to cry afterward. I had hoped the passing of the years would have washed away whatever problems existed between us kids. We had, after all shared the same space as we struggled with our teen angst and done the best we could to become adults. As kids, the depth of her despair didn't dawn on me but it is clear now.
My last attempt at a re-connection was to ask “What can I do for you?”
Her response was “What do you mean?”
I took that to mean that all she knew her whole, entire life was to do for others and never, ever, think about what another single solitary person could do for her. She could not contemplate being helped. That thought still brought tears to my eyes after I'd left as it does as this is written, and again as it is edited—that a human being should be left in such condition by her childhood and life is a gross indictment of our society.
Later than evening Anita told me her daughter had walked into her presence as the phone conversation with Donna was ending and that that she could not help but hang up the phone and stand their and cry and sob in grief and sadness.
There are crimes and guilt aplenty in this tale. Sinius and Donna's mother are horribly guilty. I hope he is rotting in hell for his mis-deeds. Not a very Christian thing to say, but true. And what of her mother? How could a mother accept such terrible treatment for her daughter and not shoot the perpetrator? But what of others? What about my own reactions? Why did I not offer peace when she reacted with anger to my teasing? Why did I not know that those who react with inappropriate anger have been abused and are to be helped?
In truth, my parents did not teach me very well that I was a good person with great potential which is one of the foundations for those able to lead a full and productive life. The difference between her parents and mine are that mine were nominally supportive and encouraged independence of thought and action.
And school officials? No one identified a child at risk. (The term had not been invented yet, but they knew about abuse and it's effects and should have known of it's symptoms.) In fact, a few short years later, my sister maintains that school administrators heavily lobbied pregnant females to quit school.
There is a post script. One of those odd little things that happen for which we are very grateful. Leaving Channahon, I'd driven west toward Nebraska, gotten tired, and parked the motor home in the little municipal park in Webster City, Iowa. I'd settled in and walked the three or four blocks to a Subway restaraunt. A lady was sitting at a table just inside the door and she smiled at this old guy and I smiled and said hi in return. There was a forty-ish lady in line ahead of me. She was nicely dressed in slacks and we greeted each other and she asked how my day was going. For some reason, the usual “Great” wouldn't come out of my mouth and I told her the truth, “Not so good.” She asked why and I gave her a very brief synopsis of finding Donna and my conclusion that she'd had a very hard, difficult life that continued even as we spoke and how sad I was at those results. She expressed her sympathy and said it was good of me to have taken the time to find her.
The remainder of our few minutes we exchanged very brief biographies. Her name was Marcy, she was a sales person for the JM company, a pipe manufacturer in Texas, she had been in Fort Dodge
and was on her way to Cedar Rapids for more sales calls, she'd sold pipe all her working life, and lived near where I'd gone to college. She learned I was on my way back to Nebraska in a motor home and a couple more details. By this time she was facing the cashier who asked me if I wanted anything other than my sandwich. I said “No” and she took the lady's money. When I faced the cashier and Marcy was on her way out the door, she told me Marcy had paid my bill as an unasked act of kindness. Marcy is a treasure!!