This is a different kind of story. It’s not about a building or history. It’s a tribute to a friend of mine that I did not realize I had lost until very recently. I wanted to honor her, and share her story with as many people as I could. Posting this on my blog was the best way I could think of. I hope our story touches you. I also realize that I don’t have any photographs of my friend Alexis. Not from high school, or any other time. So this post is illustrated with historic photographs of South New Berlin, NY, where she lived, and we both went to junior and high school. In our 7th grade history class we learned about our town’s history, as well as greater NY State history. Our teacher, Mrs. Johnson, would have loved these postcards and photographs.
During the summer between my sixth and seventh grades, my parents transferred us from one school to another. My mother had gotten a job teaching at South New Berlin Central School, which was the next town over from our home in Gilbertsville, where my brother and I were attending school. Both towns were about the same size, in fact, South New Berlin was smaller, with the same population and demographics – small villages in rural upstate New York.
That summer, I was going into 7th grade – junior high, and my brother Mark was about to be in 5th grade. Mom thought we would better thrive at SNB, and since she was driving there anyway, it seemed a good idea. So, for me, after six years in one school, I would be attending another, in a strange town, with new people.
The Principal of South New Berlin Central School was Richard Marsters. He was a very disciplined, but fair man, probably due in part to his experiences commanding a warship during World War II. He was also an educator to the core, and would have been an asset to education anywhere. He hired my Mom in a heartbeat, something that was quite daring in very white, rural upstate New York in the late 1960s. My brother and I were the only African American students in the school.
Mr. Marsters’ wife Patricia was the school librarian. They had two children, Paul and Alexis. Alexis was in my class, Paul was a couple of years older. When I entered the school that year, Alexis and I soon became friends. She and I had a lot in common, and soon became the best of friends.
We shared the bond of both having parents in school with us, every day. When you are a teenager, that’s not a good thing. She was the principal’s kid, also not a good thing. Some teachers tried to make her their favorite, some kids were resentful of her, and people tended to assume a lot about her, both good and bad.
Alexis and I also had other things in common. We were both adopted. Both of us had grown up with the knowledge, so that wasn’t traumatic, but there were other elements to it as well. Alexis was also very overweight. I was overweight too. We both struggled with it, but she had a much harder time. Her Mom was a tiny, petite woman who obsessed over Alexis’ weight. She had been on diets long before I met her, and would continue to be on them her entire life.
No one is more miserable than a fat teenage girl. Having a parent who harped on it constantly did nothing to make it easier. My mother encouraged me to watch my weight, but she never put me on diets. She always felt that when I was ready to lose weight, I would. I was overweight, but not morbidly obese. I was active, although not athletic, but I was a good swimmer, and loved hiking and walking. I was also tall, and could carry a few extra pounds much better than Alexis, who was short and big-boned.
Alexis was always on a diet. I used to visit her after school, and her mother would browbeat her over her food choices. She was the first person I met who was on Nutra-Systems and other such diets, when they first came out, and had far less good choices of food. Some of their offerings were reconstituted, and were just awful. Alexis ate more lettuce than a herd of rabbits, but she just didn’t lose weight.
Part of that was because she was denied everything, so she got into the habit of sneaking food. She was my buddy, so I knew. She hid bags of potato chips and other snack food in her closet and ate them at night. We would go to the grocery store and buy junk and eat it before we got to her house. We hated ourselves, but it was so forbidden in her house, and therefore so good. I don’t remember Alexis’ father ever coming down on her because of food, he was rather distant in that way, but her mother – the woman never quit. Even as a teenager, I could see this.
By the time we were in 10th grade, Alexis was starting to have medical problems. She had bad knees, made worse by her obesity. Her pain only made her less active. Her Mom got worse. Mrs. Marsters was a diabetic, and had to take daily insulin shots, and was on a restricted diet. In hindsight, I think that her struggle, and the discipline it took to live with the disease had a lot to do with the way she treated Alexis. I think she believed that if she could live a restricted life, Alexis could do better with hers.
Around that time, Mrs. Marsters became close to a girl who was a year older than us. Her name was Doreen, and she was everything Alexis was not. She was petite and pretty, with long straight hair. Alexis had a mop of flyaway curls, and was not what was considered pretty in the early 1970s. Doreen looked like a poster child of Woodstock. She was smart, and talented. She played flute in the band, but also played guitar and had a beautiful singing voice. She used to solo in concerts all the time, and with great passion performed Bob Dylan songs, and hung out with what passed for the “cool kids” in our school.
Mrs. Marsters used to let Doreen and her cool friends hang out in the library, and Doreen was a frequent visitor at the Marsters’ house. She may have been dating Paul, but I don’t remember for sure. We liked Doreen, but were never that close to her. Mrs. M. made Doreen a second daughter, and used her as a model for what she wanted Alexis to be – petite, pretty, graceful and talented. “Why can’t you be more like Doreen,” was a frequent complaint in Alexis’ house.
And God bless her, Alexis tried. She and I were both interested in playing the guitar, and got our parents to buy us instruments. We taught ourselves chords, and learned Simon and Garfunkel, Carole King and Bob Dylan tunes. We both tried to get solos in chorus, and like Doreen, we were both in our school band. We weren’t trying to be Doreen, but she was the closest thing to star our school had, and both of us had a need to be seen as more than our outward appearances.
In 1972, my junior year in high school, I was in teenage hell. I was the second tallest girl in my class, overweight, and had braces. I didn’t walk around with a comb in my hand, combing my long, straight hair, and I wasn’t a cheerleader. I was one of the smart kids, hopelessly unathletic, and a Brainiac and music geek. My mother was one of the English teachers, so I was doomed anyway, as teachers, as a group, were the Establishment. I was the only black girl in the school, as the Civil Rights movement turned into the Black Power movement, and I wasn’t even a cool, militant black girl. I was quiet and shy. Boys were vastly uninterested in me.
But not far away, SUNY Oneonta, the state college, established a program for gifted high school students. One of the programs was a two-week trip to Italy. The group of about 30 kids would fly to Luxembourg, take a train across the Alps to Rome, and spend almost two weeks with an American guide, touring Rome, Florence and other Italian cities and towns. This was an opportunity of a lifetime. My parents scraped up the money from somewhere, the trip cost somewhere around $300. And I was on my way to Italy!
Alexis’ parents had no trouble financing the trip, so she and I represented the school, and as besties, we were prepared to have a great time. Only one problem. About a month before the trip, she had an operation on her knee. She didn’t know if she could go, but in the end, was on the plane. (My first plane ride!) We took a bus to NYC, and JFK airport, and flew to Luxembourg.
I was so excited. We only had a few hours in Luxembourg. They had arranged for us to meet the US Ambassador at the American Embassy, then we would check in at the train station, and could walk around the city with our chaperones until our train left. So, we did the Embassy thing, and then were bused to the train station.
I couldn’t wait to see the city. But Alexis couldn’t walk any more. All of that sitting and standing had done a number on her knee, and she didn’t want to go anywhere. The chaperones were parents and teachers from the schools that were represented in the program. They were all pissed, because one of them would have to sit in the station with her, and would miss out on the city. They decided that I could sit with her. They left me there, with Alexis, while they all went out and saw the sights. I was stuck in the train terminal with her.
I was seething. It wasn’t fair, and I really was angry that she was hurt, angry that the chaperones were not doing their jobs, and resented the fact that my friendship with her was ruining my chances of seeing Luxembourg. I would probably NEVER get back there. But Alexis WAS my friend, it wasn’t her fault, and I wasn’t going to leave her. I remember buying a French newspaper, and practicing my high school French. We survived.
I don’t remember missing out on much of the rest of the trip because of our friendship. We both had a wonderful time, and the trip changed my life, and opened up the world. I often wonder if the chaperones ever realized how criminally wrong they were to leave two naïve American teenagers in a foreign city, in a train terminal, by themselves. If anything had happened to us… We never said anything about being left behind. Alexis and I took part of the program the next year. This time we went to England. We had a great time there, too. She was in much better health that trip.
We had a fun senior year. We both became active with church groups, became Jesus people, and were both playing our guitars and singing at our churches and other events. I was blooming – I discovered a love for music that I have to this day. I joined a Christian folk rock group in Gilbertsville, and I did what many teenage, lovesick girls with guitars did - I wrote poetry and songs about my life and loves. A couple of them were even good. I was a regular in local coffeehouses, and I loved performing.
We graduated from high school in 1973. I went away to college at Yale. Alexis decided to go to a local school for secretarial studies, to her parent’s disappointment. Her brother Paul was on his way to a professional career, and would soon be married, and a father. After college, I moved to New York City to pursue a career in music. Alexis came back to South New Berlin, and lived at home.
Somewhere in there, her mother died. I know she loved her Mom, but I always hoped that she would now be able to blossom and bloom. But her medical issues got worse. She had back problems, knee problems, other problems. After a few years alone, her father married one of his former teachers, Gertrude Shillabeer, who was one of SNB’s most revered and beloved teachers. She and my mother had been close friends for many years.
Miss Shillabeer had never married, and was in her 60s when she married Alexis’ Dad. She always loved Alexis, and had watched Alexis grow up. I always felt she knew more than she ever revealed about her opinion of how Alexis was raised. But that’s my conjecture.
Alexis decided to become an EMT, an emergency medical tech, in an ambulance. She took classes, and passed the test. She lost weight, and had really found something she loved. But her back didn’t love it, and she was sidelined permanently with back and other injuries, and was never able to realize her dream.
She and I kept in touch over the years. My Dad still lived nearby in Norwich, and I visited a few times, whenever I was able to rent a car, something I did not have in NYC. As the years went by, she gained back the weight and more, and was always in pain. She was active in her church, and had friends, but I always felt that hers was a lonely life. She worked when she could, but was usually on disability.
Her father died, and eventually, Gertrude had to go into a nursing home, her memory and faculties gone. Alexis’ brother and his family were not close to her, and they lived a distance away, anyway. I was in NYC, and Alexis and I spoke infrequently, or shared a post on Facebook. Neither of us were great at keeping in touch.
Alexis had been left the family home – the one I had visited so often in junior and high school. She couldn’t work, and couldn’t hold on to the house. She sold it. She moved to Norwich, and last I heard, had been living in an assisted living facility. Her family had always been one of the more affluent in town, but for whatever reasons, the money was gone. Medical expenses, inability to work, I don’t really know.
Years passed. Aside from holiday greetings, we hardly ever corresponded. We ended up having very different ideas about life and politics. We were diametrically opposed right and left. I didn’t like the political posts she would share on Facebook, and some were so negative that I stopped following her, so I wouldn’t get the posts in my feed. I was not going to argue with her, or lose what was left of the friendship. I felt so bad for her, I didn’t know the details, but I knew her life was nothing like what she wanted for it. My own life had had its struggles, but nothing like hers.
One day I got a message from her that Paul had died. I sent my condolences, and we started to talk again. I think our last messages concerned the outcome of the 2016 election. She was elated. I was not. We parted amicably, but I never heard from her again.
Last week, one of our classmates, Becky, messaged me on Facebook, out of the blue. She and I haven’t seen each other since 1973. In the course of catching up, I mentioned Alexis. Becky said she had just heard that Alexis had died. She had just found out. There had been no notices in the papers, no announcement in any church, or from friends. There were no memorials, no prayer sessions, no news.
Becky did some digging and found out that Alexis had died soon after her birthday, this last May of 2017. She had been in a nursing home, suffering from congestive heart failure, and died of a heart attack. She was not close to her sister-in-law, and no one did much to reach out, or celebrate her life. She died alone, unloved, and forgotten. We haven’t found out where she’s buried, or if she was cremated, or what her final wishes were.
We failed Alexis. I failed Alexis. We get so caught up in our everyday lives, we are separated by distance, by thought and ideas, by our own family concerns, and our own problems. I knew she was having money problems. I had sent her funds to repair her car. Not very many of her Facebook friends chipped in, as far as I could see. But we all were going through tough times, goodness knows I was at that time. I wish I could have had her car fixed, but I sent what I could.
It’s so easy to forget about people who have problems. People who for whatever reason, are not the life of the party, and not easy to get along with. It’s very easy to be older, infirm, sick and alone. Alexis never married, did not have a close relationship to her only brother and his family, and was just never included, because it was easier to not deal with her infirmities, or perhaps her personality, or her issues.
She loved God, her church, and was strong in faith. I have my faith, my love of God, but faith can be difficult when problems seem insurmountable. When you don’t know how you are going to make it, or when your body is wracked with never-ending pain. We don’t all suffer in silent agony, our eyes turned heavenward like a saint in a Baroque painting. We hurt, we are angry, and life is profoundly, inexplicably, and massively unfair.
It is also lonely. I know Alexis was in love, perhaps more than once. The loves of her life were unrequited. When you are isolated from people because of location or situation, loneliness can crush the spirit, and take the breath from your chest. I mourn her loss, but more than that, I mourn her days of loneliness. I mourn her unrealized potential. I mourn her being alone when she died.
I believe with all my heart that Alexis rests in the loving arms of God, sheltered in His wings, and is deeply and divinely loved. I believe that she is no longer alone, and knows a joy beyond understanding. I will never forget her. I will also use her memory to help me to never forget the people we shun – the annoying, the unpopular, the unattractive, those who are alone and unfriended. Alexis taught me that. I will miss her.
My name is Suzanne Spellen. I've been many things: a writer, historian, preservationist, musician, traveler, designer, sewer, teacher, and tour guide; a long time Brooklynite and now, a proud resident of Troy, NY.