Mary Ann Riddlebarger stopped me on the way into the gymnasium for my high school graduation, and she smiled at the funny badge on my robe, claiming I was a “Glad Grad!”
“You know, Denise, I always hated you for telling on me when I ate the popcorn instead of stringing it in Mrs. Shaw’s first grade,” she mused.
“I was actually in Mrs. Barkowski’s first grade, Mary Ann,” I bit off the words. “You’ve held a grudge on the wrong person for twelve years.”
“Isn’t that funny? I could’ve sworn it was you!” Her confident laughter filled the hall.
“It’s not funny,” I said, turning before I could grow too spiteful on such a good day for leaving. “It’s people like YOU, Mary Ann, people like you,” I stomped down the hallway, shaking my head in fury. Welcome to Farmland, Indiana, a place to gain a reputation for mistakes I didn’t even make.
She was my cousin—fourth cousin, to be exact—and in third grade, when MaryAnn’s father fell from a tall scaffolding, my mother asked me to be extra kind during his long recovery. So I was. I shared my handmade poncho during a particularly cold recess, two of us sitting side by side for warmth. I often invited her to play hopscotch, though her competitiveness meant she often beat me. A year later MaryAnn cornered me in the girl’s locker room after gym class, to say I don’t know why you are being so nice to me, but for God’s sake stop. “I don’t want people to think we are friends,” she said through clenched teeth. I didn’t look up at her, holding back fiery tears, but continued tying my shoes as if I hadn’t heard, as if I wouldn’t fall down against the lockers crying as soon as her footsteps were gone from the stairs.
“What did I ever do to you?” I thought, in that locker room. And now I know: I guess someone told on her in first grade, someone worth never forgiving.
But it wasn’t me.
I was a shy nobody with no sense of “cool” whatsoever. Telling on people could get you killed, as everyone knew, so that wouldn’t have been me. I’m big on eating popcorn. Regardless, would it have done her harm to continue being relatively nice to me, to just let it go, to say, “well, she is my cousin, after all, and she’s not so bad.” But what do I know? I never had fragile popularity to lose.
I hear MaryAnn is a city councilor in Farmland, Indiana, and my father tells me she is quite good at her job, that she takes no nonsense from anyone. She’s a real person with real responsibilities.
So now I’ve been gone from Farmland, Indiana more than 25 years, ruminating on why I could never live there, and it’s me who nurses a grudge over nothing. She is my cousin, after all, and she might have had some bad moments as a child, but I suppose she’s not so bad.
MaryAnn, I confess that I did not tell on you in first grade, that I wanted to spit on you at my high school graduation, that I was glad to leave you behind forever. I’m telling on you now, that you were spiteful when I was kind. I’m telling on myself that I was spiteful and superior, right back at you, when I was probably old enough to know better. I am telling on myself that I have used this illustration of small town life, at your expense, hundreds if not thousands of times.
Dear MaryAnn, let’s have a bowl of popcorn sometime and put all this behind us, next time I visit Farmland, Indiana. Let’s throw the popcorn in great handfuls, just a couple of cousins telling on everyone in sight, for old times sake.
You be well, and be good to my dad. I’ll see you next time I’m in town.