I wonder sometimes what happened to Janet DeVries.
The last time I saw her was in 1970, at grade 8 graduation. Then she went to one high school and I went to another.
That’s her picture below. I didn’t take many pictures before high school, so that’s about it– my only picture of Janet DeVries.
Janet, circa 1970. .
When I look at my graduation picture, and all the young, fresh little faces, I have a place in the cosmic geography for each of my friends. John Ellens was the farmer’s son, straight up, diligent. John Suk was impish, and compensated for his size with wit. Ria Brouwer was a bit straight-laced, but a go-getter, an organizer—always on a committee of some kind. . Diane was quiet and smart, and a bit sophisticated. Coreen was sweet and kind. And so on and so on. I knew them all in a way, though I didn’t really know them at all. I know where they are though, in the mythic land of my cosmological imagination. They have a place. They have a source, a destination, a style.
But I didn’t really know Janet DeVries. She was different. She had a kind of cheerful self-sufficiency that I didn’t see in any other girl in that class. That’s not to say that the other girls couldn’t be cheerfully self-sufficient– just that I didn’t notice it.
I felt like I was smart and funny when I hung around with Janet, and a couple of other friends, and that good things were going to happen to me. We didn’t hang around all the time– that was part of what made it cool. And it didn’t seem like it was an “occasion” when we did hang around. We just seemed to “get along”. If you were a teacher and you were assembling groups for a class project and you were mixing boys and girls up, you could safely put Janet together with Bill, and probably add John Vandermaarl and Grace Prinzen, and you would have a group that would “get along”, would do the work, and could have a bit of fun at the same time.
It was not that usual, at that age, to have friends of the opposite sex. There was too much pressure to be one of the guys. It created suspicion to say that you liked girls. Besides, if you showed the slightest interest in a girl, it always invited humiliation, if she didn’t like you back. I always remembered that I felt “safe”, in that sense, around Janet and Grace, and I recently realized that she probably felt “safe” around me, and if she did, I’m glad.
We actually played spin the bottle a few times. We were on a walkathon once to raise money for the school gym. We stopped at an abandoned house on a country road. If I remember correctly, the group included Janet and myself, and Grace and John Ellens and John Vandermaarl. I feel sure there were others there, but I can’t remember. We were adventurous, but when you’re12 or 13, your worst nightmare is to be ridiculed in front of your peers. When the bottle spun around to Janet, she chose me, and when it spun to me, I chose her. I think we also both chose others, on different turns. It was okay.
I don’t really remember it all too clearly. It is possible that the entire event struck Janet completely differently. Maybe I didn’t even kiss her– maybe I only wished it later. I’m pretty sure she kissed me though. I’m pretty sure because I can still feel the tension in my gut– is somebody going to want to kiss me? I’m pretty sure because I don’t think there was ever a time in my life when the memory of being chosen at that particular moment, even for a casual kiss, didn’t matter to me.
Most of us were 13 in that class photo. Thirteen is an extremely interesting age. Boys and girls start to get interested in each other. You’re not sure what to do. You are experimenting and exploring. You don’t assume the worst about everybody else.
I look at the picture and think, geez, I was a baby then. But how far was I away from that most adult of enmeshments, marriage, and children, and full-time work, and that dull membrane of fiscal encumbrances—a mortgage?
Here’s the chart:
1970 Grade 8, the picture above
1971 Grade 9, high school.
1972 Grade 10
1973 Grade 11- got my driver’s license
1974 Grade 12
1975 Freshman year at college.
1976 Sophomore year.
1977 Trip to Europe, worked.
1978 Junior year.
1979 Graduated, married.
And that’s it. In less than 10 years, I was married.
From what to what? I don’t know. One minute, it seemed, I was a child, with no definite ideas about the world, but lots of dreams about traveling and having all kinds of exotic experiences. I wanted to be a writer when I was 13. I don’t make my living at it now, but I still write.
People don’t change as much as I thought most people think they do.
But I make my living managing personal computer systems and networks. They didn’t even exist when I was 13.
The trajectory of my life felt quite chaotic, until 1979. Until marriage. When you get married, everything becomes kind of fixed. It goes like this:
- hanging around together
- going to things together
- showing up at parties together
- getting serious.
- getting more serious
- apartment, used and borrowed furnishings
- rented house: buying your first couch
- purchased house: mortgage, furnishings, debt
- bigger car
- bigger house, more furniture, more toys
You might not like the word “trapped”. It has negative connotations, doesn’t it? But I don’t like it when people redefine words to suit their prejudices. The truth is, once you have children, it is almost impossible for a sane, reasonable person to change his life. You are “trapped”. You have to work to keep paying for the house and the car and the toys and the furniture. You can’t move to some other place unless you have a job there first, and a house. You can’t quit for a year to see if you’d like to take up mountain climbing or writing or belly dancing or something instead. You keep working. You work. You work. You get up every day and go to your job. You must have that check. Your friends would think you were despicable if you did anything else.
As someone pointed out, you seem to lose the ability to make new friends about the time you buy your first expensive piece of furniture.
You also realize that to get very, very good at something, you have to work at it for years and years. And you realize that you will never have the possibility of doing just that– dedicating yourself completely to the development of a particular set of skills. You just don’t have the time. You can’t stop your life and get off and do something else for a while and then get back on.
Your kids would like to believe that they are now the center of your lives. They are. It doesn’t mean that the rest of your life no longer exists.
You see all these other people doing stuff– working at something for years and years until they get really, really good at it– they are single.
I can see why some people panic when they hit their mid-forties. That’s when you really confront the fact that you have pretty well had all of the opportunities you are ever going to have in your life. It was all no big deal after all.
Janet, where are you now? If you’re out there somewhere and you ever stumble upon your picture on my page, forgive me for invading your privacy but, please drop me a line. I’d like to know what happened to you. I’d like to know if you’re married and have kids. I’d like to know if you’re happy.
You see what happens? I found another girl I liked a lot in high school 40 years ago on Facebook recently. I was glad to reconnect. We friended each other. Then she started posting despicable right-wing blather about how the “mainstream” media goes crazy when a white nationalist kills a lot of Muslims but plays down stories of Christians being killed by Muslims.
Well, you know where that is going. I, sadly, dropped her from my “friends”.
When I wrote the original piece a few years ago, I was pretty glib about my memories of Janet, and our friendship, and how cool she was. When I read it over recently, I realized I was probably guilty of romanticizing, or projecting, or whatever it is we do when were are safely removed from our old narratives. We lie. We tell ourselves what we want to hear instead of what we really remember.
Which is not to say that the reality wasn’t as charming as my memory of it. It’s just that since I never saw or met Janet again after Grade 8, it is quite possible that she grew up to be something else. What I do remember clearly is that Janet was funny– she had a wit and a sense of humour. She was cute. She had dark hair and a great smile. She hung around with Grace Prinzen, whom I also liked. And I enjoy thinking about her because we will always think fondly of those who liked us, and whom we liked back.