Map: Michigan, setting of “Remembering Zelda” by Carol Sanford

This is a guest post from Carol Sanford who contributed in response to the American Vignette call for submissions. The setting is Michigan. Enjoy!

“Her? She was very strange. Down right weird.”

That’s what one of our classmates recently said about Zelda as a child. He thought of her as withdrawn, even implied mental illness. For seven years he and others who lived south on Shepherd Road had walked with Zelda to and from our country school, a mile each way. That’s a lot of time spent. My house was a mile east of school on Nine Mile Road, and I only knew Zelda during school hours. She was an Indian, which meant we lived separate lives. My parents didn’t think much of several local Indians—nobody said Native American then–and that somehow carried over to all Indians. That I liked her so much was my secret.

How could Zelda be weird without me knowing it?

Smart and nice, that’s how I remember her. A girl not much different from me. My main memory of her, in fact now that I think of it, my only solid memory of her, is how we sat with our desks pushed together in order to color world outline maps. We were good students being rewarded for finishing an assignment early. I know for certain she enjoyed as much as I did swishing the tips of sharpened pastel colored pencils back and forth to make England, Europe, Russia and Africa—all in different colors—beautiful. It seemed that life could take us to one of those places someday. I don’t mean together.

Zelda wasn’t considered beautiful. If I squeeze my eyes half shut, she’s wearing a spotless white short-sleeved blouse and a dark blue skirt. She’s slim and broad-shouldered. Her dark brown face is set with high cheek bones, wide nose, small eyes. Her raven hair is braided, like mine, but long. She walks quietly.

It’s cliché to say memory is slippery. It is slippery. For many years now, without giving a thought to conversations Zelda and I may have had, I assumed we talked. Did we? It’s not likely one of us said, “What did you do Saturday?” or “Do you still play with dolls?” We may have said, “Let’s make South America light blue.” But I can’t recall a single word. And I don’t remember playing with her at recess. How I hope I did!

Thirty years ago I wrote a poem about sitting with Zelda to color world outline maps. Last year I wrote an essay about our country school, which for lack of use has deteriorated like a dead body and ought to be razed. Zelda is in the essay. When I write about her, she shines for me. I want her to go on shining. It seems impossible that she wasn’t who I thought she was when we were young. Were we friends or acquaintances?

Zelda died up north when she was in her forties, and someone told me she had married, divorced and was an alcoholic. I heard all this years later. My grief mixed with guilt. When consolidation swept like a plague over country schools in Michigan, she and I were sent as eighth graders to the same school in town, but soon lost track of each other. That’s how I used to think of it: We lost track. Actually I thrilled to the bigger school setting and the opportunities it offered me, and hardly gave Zelda a thought. Her picture is in our senior yearbook so maybe she graduated, but I think she probably dropped out. The classmates I’ve talked to aren’t sure.

I’m the one who ought to know.

Carol Sanford lives in the village of Sanford, Michigan, where she writes nonfiction, short stories and poetry and teaches memoir workshops. On line her work can be found at Ragazine, The Zodiac Review, and Newversenews.

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