In a few short weeks my nephew will graduate from high school. Right now he’s all wrapped up in the complex dynamics of his peer group, a few who will be moving on to college in the vicinity of where he’s chosen to go. But soon after making heartfelt pledges to always stay in touch, the vast majority of them will splinter off and go their separate ways, never to be seen again. And so this photo and song are for an old high school friend, because we should have kept in touch.
Janet wasn’t a childhood friend, in fact, I didn’t even befriend her until my senior year. Barely three weeks into my final year of school I lost my high school sweetheart and first serious boyfriend in a tragic automobile accident. Already somewhat of a fringe person, I felt lonely, isolated and completely unprepared to navigate the grief process. So I don’t recall how Janet first came up on my radar screen, but I’m fairly certain it had something to do with music. Music was my lifeline. I was enrolled in several music theory classes and sang in the highly revered select choir. It’s quite possible given Janet’s love for the same, that we met in music class. Or rather, that I simply snapped out of my funk one day and there she was.
Janet was quite possibly the most beautiful and serene person I’d ever met to date. She had an ethereal quality that was both calming and soothing. Her voice was soft and breathy, a natural fit with her tall, willowy shape. Even her laugh was as gentle as a breeze. I learned later that Janet had a strong spiritual upbringing, but at the time I didn’t understand the filter that would have on everything she did and said. I do know I never heard her speak a harsh or unkind word to anyone, ever. What I do remember is that one day Janet was just suddenly there … in my life.
Janet played a mean acoustic guitar. I understand now that her impetus for playing probably got it’s roots from her involvement with church. Back then, church youth groups were very folksy. Flower Power was still very much in vogue. So if a kid brought up in the church wanted to rebel a bit and spread their creative wings, they got involved in a youth music group. (Today, this kind of group is called a Worship Team) I remember Janet came over to my house one day and brought her guitar. We escaped up to my bedroom, where I sat on the floor as she perched on the edge of the bed and strummed. I enjoyed listening to her play, but I didn’t know any of her music since most of it was stuff she played with her youth group. So I did the most logical thing I could think of doing: I broke out my Joni Mitchell albums! Janet was immediately captivated. She borrowed my alum Blue and started working on the songs at home. The next time we got together we both sang along as she played and it was clear by the rapturous look on her face that Janet had found her Holy Grail.
When we’re children, teenagers even, we think we know so much about the world around us. But we don’t. We’re unable to see our friends and ourselves with any sort of clarity because we lack the life experience we need to measure them. I know now that Janet was a very sheltered, naive girl who probably grew up in a family with parents who had certain expectations for her life. But then I came along and threw open the door to a whole new world she’d never known, and everything changed for her. Another drawback of being a teenager is that we’re so self-absorbed and focused on our own stuff that we don’t really know what’s going on with our friends. And that was very true of my friendship with Janet; what looked OK on the outside was not a bed of roses on the inside.
Janet had struggles I didn’t know a thing about until one day I got a collect phone call from her. She’d ‘run away’ from home and was living at the Y in the city. Would I come visit? I did, and what I saw was very sobering. I lost touch with Janet shortly after that visit. Apparently her stay at the Y was only a temporary layover and she left, destination unknown. I don’t know if she had somewhere else to go live, but my next contact with her was a letter postmarked California. She told me she’d met someone and was in love. He was a songwriter and a poet and her dream was that they were going to make beautiful music together, be singers and poets, Bohemian beatniks. Peace, love, groovy. I was happy for her, considering all her sadness and struggle. She sounded so up, so excited about her life.
A season or two passed, then in the last letter I got from Janet she told me she’d had a baby. Her love child, a boy, was born with Down’s Syndrome. It was 1977, she was maybe all of 19 or 20 and living in a van in California. Two decades passed before I heard from Janet again. By then she and her husband had relocated to the area where we grew up. She tracked me down and called and brought me up to speed on her life. There were many changes. She’d gone through an amicable divorce shortly after having relocated and given birth to a baby girl (In her late 30’s!). She was still playing guitar and writing music. We talked in vague terms about getting together when I went home for a visit later that summer, but even as I spoke the words I knew our plans would never materialize. I was going through a really rough patch in my own life and I didn’t have the wherewithal to rekindle an old friendship.
A few years later I went home to attend a class reunion with the hope that Janet might go. I’d heard rumors she was still in the area, but she never showed up. In the years since I’ve tried several times to track Janet down. I want to apologize for dropping the ball, but I can’t seem to find her anywhere. I think of her often, especially in the spring. And every time I listen to Joni Mitchell I get a lump in my throat when I picture Janet; still seventeen, still picking and singing, her clear voice high and free.