My first best friend, Tim Leonard, a boy wedged in the middle of a pack of ten siblings, grew up in a Roman Catholic household in a big, rambling house that teemed with the scurrying bodies of children and densely populated like a scene in a Bruegel painting. My parents, then youthful and aspirational white Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs!), moved in across the street into what would become my first home, the home they brought me to straight from the maternity ward of the hospital.

I was born with at least two—nobody counted; there were probably more—silver spoons in my mouth. The Leonard kids had to share the spoon, a spoon not made of silver but of some other dubious ore.

Mrs. Leonard and Carolyn Poplett too were best friends. Mrs. Leonard, a devout, mass-attending Catholic of Irish descent, Carolyn, a migrant rebel from North Carolina, from a family of hillbillies, of Scotch-Irish descent, who by an abundance of natural grace, grew into her full promise, a great Southern lady dwelling comfortably among Yankees.

Carolyn Poplett

While rearing two sons[1], Carolyn also wrote books about the formative years of feminism, before feminism got its name. She wrote a book about the early 20th century suffragist Grace Wilbur Trout. She wrote another book about the women of the Nineteenth Century Club[2], women who pioneered America’s first social safety net when men of station were too busy trying to invent new businesses and finding ways to screw anybody and everybody[3] except possibly people who attended the same church or were members of the same country club.

Carolyn was and—at ninety years of age today—still is an exemplary model of femininity who also happens to be a second-wave feminist, albeit a feminist who never once dreamed of burning her brassiere.

As a young child growing up, my mother endured poverty which is unimaginable to a great many people in America today, at least, any family or individual blessed to have a home and to live outside of poverty or suffering from the trauma of sudden or extreme,  intimate losses of life or dignity.

Bluetick Hound

Carolyn came of age in the great depression. She and her surviving siblings moved from home to home, forced to move most likely because my grandfather was perpetually broke or out of work. My grandfather—I imagine only out of sheer necessity—inadvertently embittered his eldest son, almost for life, when he took my uncle Bob’s pet dog, Jake, a bluetick hound, a breed prized for its fearlessness (mountain men used them to hunt black bears), to sell it for cash. Uncle Bob and my mother and most of my aunts and uncles, then children, were living in the mountains or likely a “holler”, in a cabin, when two of their siblings starved to death for lack of food.

She reached her maturity as did all of her siblings with the burden of survivor’s guilt. I am sure it was very much intact by the time Carolyn and Mrs. Leonard bonded. I am sure it is an essential fact for the tightness of that bond.

For, you see, Mrs. Leonard herself birthed two children, her two eldest boys, who died from the complications of multiple sclerosis by the time they were twenty[4].

That explains why Carolyn would sometimes cross the street to the Leonard’s to wash dishes after the family assembled together and had their meal. The Leonard’s had it rough. It resonated so deeply with my mother that of her the neighbors said:

Even the nuns gave up on the Leonards.

Meaning, pointedly, that my mother never gave up on her friend.

From Mrs. Leonard I learned one of the most abiding lessons in my life. As the bratty Wasp kid with the two spoons, I complained to her one day that her entire brood had decided to pick on me on that particular lazy, hot summer day, probably out of boredom and for the sheer sport of it. We were out of school; we had all day to play and get into mischief; there was no reason to have a single concern. Mrs. Leonard was lugging bag after bag of groceries out of the back of a station wagon into the house with indifferent help from a few of her kids.

I uttered my complaint while she crossed over the front porch to enter the house through the front screen door. Without breaking stride, she answered my complaint, “That’s too bad.”

That was it. Many years later, decades later, when I remembered that incident, I had to smile. Fundamentally, it is hilarious. Mrs. Leonard with a passel of her own challenges could hardly feign concern. I doubt she had even a fleeting impulse to console me. I am now quite convinced she did not. And now, I promise to never forget that’s all a parent should sometimes tell a child, whether their own kids or the child of their best friend, whether their spouse, another adult, or a co-worker:

That’s too bad.

God bless, Mrs. Leonard.


[1] According to mom, “you rear children and you raise cattle”.

[2] The 19th Century Club is a short block and a half walk from my current residence here in Oak Park, Illinois

[3] Cast your mind back to the age of John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and JP Morgan.

[4] An outstanding fact of their bond was that neither my grandparents or Mr. and Mrs. Leonard practiced birth-control.

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