Written by Leslie Harley
I was a baby when Rhonda came onto my life, so I don’t remember when I met her, but she was my first BFF. Because my mom was a working mother, Rhonda’s mother Hattie was hired to be my babysitter, and I spent nearly every weekday at Hattie’s house for seven years. It was a carefree time, and there are so many memories I have of my childhood with Hattie and Rhonda. Playing in the backyard and being chased by the chickens; plucking berries from the mulberry bushes growing wild along the railroad tracks; sitting in a metal lawn chair by the garden snapping green beans; the howling of the coon dogs out back as they awaited dinner time. The hissing sound coming from the kitchen as dinner was cooking in the pressure cooker; glass canning jars filled with jellies, tomatoes, beans. Eating Hattie’s macaroni and tomatoes. The sizzle and welding sparks I’d see through the open garage door where Hattie’s husband worked on tractor engines. I even learned to tie my shoes at Hattie’s house.
But Rhonda was where my attention was. If I remember correctly, Rhonda was 6 years older than I was, and I looked up to her. Rhonda loved wearing rings, and she was one of those people who wore rings on every finger. Sometimes when grown ups came to visit, they would bring a new ring for Rhonda because they knew she liked them so much, and we would spend hours huddled together scrutinizing every piece of jewelry in the Service Merchandise catalog marking and circling our favorites. We did the same with the Christmas catalogs from JC Penney and Sears. Listening to records or the radio in her bedroom while looking at Teen Beat magazines and her pointing out excitedly when she laid claim on someone as her “boyfriend”.
I remember a bus picking her up in the mornings to take her to school, but I couldn’t go because I wasn’t old enough yet. I was fascinated by her notebooks. She would often sit for hours filling pages and pages of spiral notebooks with what appeared to be cursive or shorthand, but I didn’t know what it said because I couldn’t read yet.
I vividly remember one particular day in my life with Rhonda. We were tumbling and turning somersaults in the living room, and I noticed that Rhonda wasn’t doing them correctly. I would demonstrate for her, and I remember saying to her with frustration and confusion, “You’re older than me so you should be able to do these better than me.” Hattie who was in the next room and overheard our exchange came and sat down beside me on the sofa and asked, “Leslie, hasn’t your mom or dad talked to you about Rhonda being different? She may be older than you, but she can’t do some of the things that you can do.” Different? Even though I was too young to truly comprehend what she was saying, that moment was pivotal. On that day, my innocence was lost and the world looked different.
What I grew to learn was that Rhonda had been affected with mental retardation. That’s what we called it back then. Today, we have progressed to terminology such as Intellectual Disability or Developmental Disability.
Growing up with Rhonda had a profound effect on my life, my personality, and my heart, and 25+ years later when I learned that my unborn baby would be born with a profound intellectual disability, I realized that Rhonda had been more than just my childhood friend; she was my heart’s greatest teacher.