“My Cousin Janie,” Friend, Aug. 1987, 40
Today my cousin Janie moved to our neighborhood. She’s the daughter of Uncle Ben, who never had much to do with the rest of the family. She has red pigtails and buck teeth and wears glasses that look like the bottoms of pop bottles. I saw my friend Lola frowning at her during recess, and later Lola walked the long way around to avoid meeting her. That’s when I knew that I had a real problem.
You see, Lola is the most popular girl in my class. She has silky blond hair and blue eyes, and if you’re friends with her, everyone likes you and you get to go to her house and play with her dolls and eat chocolate ice-cream sundaes. I’ve been her friend now for two months. It’s been the best time of my life, and I don’t want it to end.
I avoided Janie the whole day, but when it was time to go home, she caught me as I was sneaking through the hedge behind the school building.
“Hi, Ginger,” she said.
“Hi,” I answered, peeking over my left shoulder. Lola was nowhere in sight.
“I haven’t seen you for a long time—not since we went ice-skating on the creek at Grandpa’s. Remember?”
I shrugged. “Sort of.”
“Do you think we could do that again?” Janie kicked at a rock with her toe.
I noticed that the ends of her shoes were scuffed and that there was a hole in one knee of her leotards. It made me wonder how I’d be dressed if I didn’t have a mom. “Maybe, sometime. I have to go home now,” I told her, then hurried away and left her standing behind the hedge with her hands clasped behind her back, looking at the ground.
Things went much better than I’d expected. I had been afraid that I’d have a terrible time getting rid of Janie and that she’d follow me around like a lost pup. She didn’t. She stayed away from me, and the only thing that I noticed was that every once in a while I would glance up and see her staring at me from behind those thick glasses. But she seemed fine, so I didn’t worry.
Then Sister Bates was sick one week and couldn’t teach our Primary class, and Brother Bates took over. He’s a stake missionary and always says things like “Feed my sheep” and “Love one another.” On this particular Sunday he told us a couple of stories and finished off by quoting what Jesus said in Matthew 25:40: “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” I thought that that sounded all right, but it was ridiculous to think that it applied to me and Janie. After all, I was very kind to her—I didn’t tease her or pull her hair, like some of the other kids did.
But then things changed for the worse. On Saturday morning Uncle Ben called. He had to go to Edmonton for the day, and he wondered if Janie could stay with us. “Of course,” Mom said. “Bring her right over.”
Now, Saturday morning is when I always go over to Lola’s to play with her dolls. She has every kind that you can imagine. I used to count them, but I gave up long ago because she keeps getting more and some of them look so much alike that you can’t be sure if you’ve already counted them or not.
When I put my sweater on that morning and headed for the front door, Mom asked, “Aren’t you taking Janie?”
“I guess so,” I mumbled.
By the time we were halfway to Lola’s house, I had worked out a plan: I would leave Janie standing on the corner, go up the block to Lola’s house, tell her that I wasn’t feeling well, and ask if I could please come back and play another day. Then I would go back and get Janie and go home again.
We got to the corner. “Wait here a minute, Janie,” I said. She had on a brown dress and gray socks and those scuffed black shoes.
“Will you be long?” Janie asked.
“No,” I said. “I’ll be right back.”
As she watched me walk away, my feet got heavier with every step I took. “This is dumb,” I said firmly to myself. “I’m not doing anything wrong.” But my knees started to hurt. Then a lump began to grow inside of me, and it worked its way up to my throat till I could hardly swallow. I stopped. “You’re being silly,” I muttered to myself. “If you keep this up, you’ll ruin everything.” Then I turned around and cupped my hands around my mouth and called to Janie.
Lola answered the door. She was wearing a pink silk dress with ruffles on the sleeves and the neck and a ribbon around the skirt. Her hair was done in French braids, not a strand out of place.
I looked Lola right in the eye. “This is my cousin Janie,” I said. “We’ve come to play.”