As a young teen, I was equal parts fascinated and horrified by a girl (I’ll call her Sally) in our church youth group who was a few years older. She did not attend regularly—something our parents took umbrage at. We came to find out that one reason behind her spotty attendance was her work schedule. She worked almost every afternoon and weekend at Wendy’s. Additionally, there was typically no one waiting for her at home: Her divorced mother worked the night shift, and I never heard any mention of a father.
I was mesmerized by Sally’s demeanor. As the only daughter of over-protective parents (not to mention brothers), I was intrigued by the fact that Sally spent so much time alone in her house. We heard that she started drinking around age 14, and there were even rumors of parties at her house when her mom was away. Everything about her was counter to the way I was being raised, to the rules of life that had been drilled in to me.
Where boys were concerned, Sally was a human magnet because of her well-developed chest and long legs that didn’t end. The only aesthetic justice that had been handed to her was acne, but undoubtedly boys’ glances never made it that far up anyway. Of course, her life as a latch-key daughter, alone or working most of the time, presented challenges those of us living with Wards and Junes could never understand.
At least at that time. I do now.
“John” came to our youth group even less often than Sally. He was the quintessential BMOC. Everything about him—from his shiny straight teeth to his thick wavy hair and buff muscles—captivated us girls. When he flashed that trademark smile, that’s all it took to believe he was flirting with you. We had heard of his wildness—the many girls he had bedded, the number of beers he could chug, and the speed with which he drove his Camaro. He exuded raw danger, yet I believe that if he had paid the slightest attention to those of us suffering through puberty and braces, we would have gone wherever he asked—even though we knew it would mean heartbreak.
But he didn’t want any of us. He wanted Sally. And Sally wanted to be loved, to have someone pay attention. She wanted to not be alone. When she told us they were in love, even in our naivete, we knew how this would end. It was like watching a horror movie where the girl is hiding under a bed and you see the footsteps approaching.
One night after church, we saw Sally talking with our pastor. We heard her crying and, standing outside the door, we could detect one crucial snippet of the conversation: “My mom said if I ever got pregnant I couldn’t come home.”
Of course, we knew not to gossip, not to let our parents knew. But that didn’t stop us. Sally’s story was too lascivious not to discuss. For young teen girls whose wildest desire was to be allowed to get our ears pierced, Sally’s situation was of epic importance. The judgements from us and our parents came fast and furious: “Not enough parental supervision.” “Didn’t know right from wrong.” “Should have spent more time in church.”
Not once was John’s name or action referenced. It’s as if Sally had conceived alone.
Weeks later, from the rumor mill, we heard Sally was in the hospital with a self-abortion. It was the mid-1970s, a few years past Roe v. Wade. However, there was not yet easy access to care. Additionally, abortions cost a lot of money and perhaps at that time they even required parental approval. Sally had no resources. No support. She who had been making her own money, cooking her own meals and ironing her own clothes, felt that, once again, she had only herself on whom to depend. Or so she thought.
She was in the hospital for several days. We didn’t go visit. After all, we weren’t really friends, right? Besides, we couldn’t yet drive, and our parents never offered, never suggested it. I have never known too many particulars—or the extent of Sally’s injuries. I know that a neighbor found Sally, that when Sally’s mother was told, she did not throw her out. I know that John refused her calls. Sally came home from the hospital but didn’t return to youth group. John did, though, flashing his winning smile and flirting with a new girl with big boobs and a tiny waist. He went on to play college ball.
Months later, after a failed suicide attempt, Sally spent a few days in the psych hospital. When she got out, our pastor called us youth together and suggested a plan.
“Sally needs friends. Why don’t you take her out somewhere, like bowling.”
It seemed an odd suggestion at the time, but perhaps bowling was one of the most innocuous activities of youth our pastor could think of. He told our parents of the outing and encouraged drivers. He reminded us all of the sinfulness of gossip and judgement. He made our parents see the profound Christian lessons to be taught in an afternoon at the alley.
And so we went bowling.
That day is etched in my mind for two reasons. First, I had never been bowling and so, when my turn came, I thought I was being particularly clever—and the others incredibly dumb not to try this—by running as far as I could down the lane. I butt slid almost all the way to the pins, and every time I tried to stand up, I slid down again. I had to be rescued by an attendant. The laughter from my peers was ear-splitting. Even Sally, who had been quiet all day, was howling. Fortunately, I have always enjoyed making people laugh, so only my tailbone was hurt, not my feelings.
But the second thing I recall about the outing is how the afternoon felt—the facile joy of being in that air-conditioned alley in the July humidity. Although I couldn’t articulate it at the time, those were hours of simplicity—of unconsciously relishing our youth with the blank slates of our lives spread out before us. Especially Sally. We gathered to cheer up someone whom we alternately admired and recoiled from. We came together as teens, and amidst the heavy knocking of balls against the pins, swirling around the cheers and laughter, was a feeling of hopefulness. A deep exhaling of God’s grace.
A few years ago, I ran into Sally. Now a nurse manager, she has a 25-year marriage and four children. “A house full of teenage boys!” she said. As we made small talk, a colleague of hers joined us, and Sally introduced me as a “friend from childhood” and went on to recount the story of my first bowl.
I’m glad Sally remembers me as a friend because I don’t feel like I was one. I’m thankful for pastors who counsel lost little girls, who speak truth to hatred, who remind us that every situation is complex, and that judgement lies in the hands of God alone. For parents who, despite their misgivings and their biases, pushed us to go bowling.
On this Independence Day, I’m longing for freedom. I’m thankful for choice— sometimes misguided, always complicated—and for the second chances that choice yields. For Sally’s story and a hundred other stories that I’ve heard.
And I’m thankful for my first bowling experience. Although I’ve never been a good bowler, I now know to stay behind the line.
But I’m glad I learned it the hard way.