Not long ago my sister Elaine reminded me of the date of our sister Barbara’s passing – April 27, 1984. I have always remembered Barbara’s birthday, May 26, but had forgotten exactly when she died, which was just a month short of her 46th birthday. When I think of her, I feel a void in my life that will never be filled. She had been not only my sister, but a friend and confidant for many years, someone with whom I shared good news and bad, success and failure, joy and sorrow.
Barbara was born in Salt Lake City, Utah at a Pillar of Fire Church home. Then the family of three moved to the church headquarters in New Jersey where Elaine and I were born. After an assignment at the Oakland, California church home we returned to New Jersey in early 1946, with Barb going on nine years old, me almost five, Elaine three and Robert an infant, to live in a church residence called Lock Haven. Already just a home of modest size, we shared it with an elderly couple, the Schisslers, in one separate part of the house and an elderly widower, Mr. Wittekind, in a furnished room upstairs. We occupied another area, large enough for the kitchen and eating area and living room on the first floor and upstairs a bathroom, Mom and Dad’s (and various infants’) room and small bedrooms for Barb and Elaine and for Robert, me and later Charlie, after he came along.
Since Barbara was almost four years older than me and was a girl, we were rarely playmates. She was more my boss or my teacher: giving advice and clarification, issuing deadlines, making sure jobs were done and so on. One of the common childhood chores was “scrubbing the bathroom, hall and stairs”, performed at different times by Barb, me or Elaine, with Barb always setting the standard and making sure the younger ones followed. With Barbara and Elaine on both sides of me, their common interests often bridged me, perhaps accounting for why I have always been a bit of a loner. However, I do remember taking some interest in a couple of their activities – playing with the furniture and figures in a dollhouse and playing with paper dolls. I remember helping Barbara cut out paper doll clothing, taking care not to cut through the little tabs which folded down to fasten the clothes to the doll figures. When we were little Barbara was often the one who made sure we got ready on school days and then led the way to catching the bus on time. Since Mom often was either pregnant or caring for little ones and Dad was absent much of the time, this help must have been greatly appreciated by her. Our home was always somewhat chaotic so each of us older children became very adept at carving out a little personal world of order and predictability. I remember Barbara being especially orderly, with clothing neatly arranged or put away in her area of the closet or her designated drawers of the dresser. A great memory from the Lock Haven days was listening to the big cabinet radio (Silvertone? Philco? Can’t remember) in the living room. On Saturday mornings Barbara and I would lie on the floor and listen to a show called “No School Today” featuring Big John and Sparky. Sparky, whose high pitched voice with clipped words and sentences was likely the taped and speeded up voice of Big John himself, opened the show by greeting by name all the children listening. Barb and I were thrilled to hear our names mentioned several times. Another show that we enjoyed was Bobby Benson and the B-Bar-B Riders, a child oriented western show, that like all radio shows in the fifties was fabulous to listen to because so much was left to the imagination.
The church used to show “movies” on Saturday nights which was a real treat for us to attend. The word is in quotes because seeing real movies was not acceptable in the church. So these were 16 millimeter educational films for the most part, enhanced occasionally with a cartoon or a comedy. Mom’s rule was that we could not go unless we took a nap on Saturday afternoon, so we all made the effort. However, then as now, I simply could not take a nap so used to emerge from the bedroom unsteadily with my eyes half closed so as to appear as though I had just awakened. I was crushed when Barb saw through my ruse and exposed it to Mom, claiming I was just pretending, that I was only squinting and had not really slept.
An important event in Barbara’s childhood was raising a flock of ducks while at the Lock Haven house. On the house grounds there were several other buildings – a large barn, unused for the most part, a dozen or so bee hives and what we called the “bee house”, a small frame structure housing Mr. Wittekind’s bee-keeping equipment. Also there was a hexagonal wooden structure that became a home for Barb’s ducks. She raised them herself from downy little ducklings, feeding and watering them faithfully, so they became quite dear. I recall the sorrowful tears she shed the day when the ducks were sold for food.
Barbara always had a boyfriend or at least someone of the opposite sex in whom she was interested. And her pretty blond hair, ready smile and engaging personality assured that this attention was in most cases mutual. Such relationships among children and teenagers were frowned upon in the church schools we attended, so pursuit and conduct of these relationships and courting in general, had to be conducted surreptitiously. I enjoy recalling that when Barb was ten or eleven and I was six or seven, she had me sit between her and a boy named Joe Kruger so that they could hold hands behind my back without the bus driver or any of the children noticing. . As a little girl and on into her teens, Barbara was a big help to her mother, her sister and all her little brothers. She helped Mom with care of the children, washing and ironing clothes, house cleaning, cooking, washing dishes, canning and sewing. She developed marvelous sewing skills which she enjoyed practicing all of her life. As a student she used to sew her own brown and tan uniforms required by the schools and earned money by sewing uniforms for other girls. Also a good hairdresser, Barb during this time made a few dollars giving other high school girls permanents.
By this time the family had been moved to another church home, this one called “Morningside”, a house that we again shared with yet another family, the Chambers. This home was located in among some of the church crop fields, very fertile because they were on the floodplain of the Millstone River. As I recall, the move was necessary because of severe damage to the Lock Haven house by Hurricane Hazel in 1954. By this time there were two more additions to the family – Richard and Glenn.
As a teenager at the church high school, Barbara was very popular. She was well liked by everyone including her teachers and her friends. Barb was popular I think because she was generous – generous with her time, her good humor, her sympathy and her empathy. As noted above, she was always popular with boys, even going out over time with all three brothers from one local family, the Weavers. Another reason for her abundant friendships was that she was by nature an optimist, always looking for the good in a deed or event. Barb rarely said negative things about others and always preferred to look for the personal difficulties that caused someone to behave badly toward her. One fond teenage memory involving Barbara was when she babysat for a church family living across the fields from our house. This family had television, which we did not, so Barb occasionally invited me along to stay up late and watch the “Million Dollar Movie” on Channel 9 (this show’s intro and theme music I will forever remember). These were among my first movie experiences so I enjoyed these opportunities immensely. Several times Barb also invited a friend, Phyllis Finlayson, to come over as well to watch and swoon over Perry Como on his weekly show earlier in the evening. Sometime during Barb’s teenage years she began to have foot problems. While Mom was concerned and supported whatever measures Barb took, Dad was much more direct and blamed her problems on the “flats” that she and her teenage friends were wearing at that time, insisting that she wear unattractive and unfeminine lace-up oxfords, what we called at the time “Girl Scout shoes”, to give her feet more support. Wishing to assert herself, appear as attractive as possible and wear what she wanted, Barbara protested bitterly, but Dad insisted, bringing Barb to tears. The battle apparently ended in a draw since I can remember Barbara acceding to Dad’s dictum and wearing her lace-up oxfords but still wearing the flats as well, especially when the occasion required.
My love of reading was inspired in a large way by Barbara. When visiting the Zarephath library which served both the church high school and college, she was always ready to recommend staples of her favorite genre, animal stories. She loved reading the “Silver Chief” books there and on her recommendation I joyfully followed. Also I will always remember a favorite author of hers (I recalled the name instantly), Albert Payson Terhune, who I am sure was a favorite of hers for his famous book “Lad, a Dog”. We both also read and extensively talked about “Black Beauty”, a book that made both of us cry. But I do not remember questioning how a book about a horse could have been written in the first person. That strange fact never crossed our minds, we loved the story so much. Another book that we both loved and that Barb surely read first and then brought to my attention was “Smoky the Cowhorse”
After high school Barbara worked for a short time at the RCA plant near Somerville, New Jersey, which if I recall correctly, manufactured transistors. Barbara was obviously a good worker at the plant because she was advised by the union shop steward to slow down and not work so fast. My anti-union Republican parents loved to tell others about this incident.
I remember very fondly the times as an adult I visited Barbara and her family at her various homes in and around Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I enjoyed so much the wonderful salads she would make and serve, full of all sorts of delicious greens, fruit, nuts, beans and other savory and healthy ingredients. Visiting Gross’ Natural Foods was always a thrill. Barbara introduced me to the Dr. Bronner’s products, notably the peppermint castile soap and the seasoning which was so good sprinkled on salads. Often her daughters would be helping out at the store as well and it was lovely to observe the expertise with which they would replenish stock or help customers.
But most of all, I enjoyed reminiscing about life and school at Zarephath, our little church town. We joyfully recalled social gatherings at “the fountain”, ice skating on the canal and the pond, what boy laced up which girl’s skates and who skated with whom. Barbara had a photograph album dedicated to her teenage years at ZA and I enjoyed so much when she got it out and we went through it page by page, picture by picture, remembering each person and specific incidents and occasions in which they were involved in our lives. Sadly, that album is now gone, neither her husband nor her daughters know its whereabouts. Her husband, however, did give to me a little stack of high school photos given to Barb by her high school friends, among them Genevieve Dobash, Phyllis Finlayson, Eunice Wilson, Lillian Hellyer, Miriam Snelling and Astrid Skeie. The messages to Barb on the back of the pictures are sweet and touching.
We joyfully shared memories of music in the church and the school, where everyone was expected to participate somehow in the musical life of both by singing in the chorus or playing a musical instrument. I remember the sound of Barbara practicing her clarinet and hearing her sing soprano or alto (her specialty) in the chorus. Of course Barbara, like most of us, took piano lessons as well. And we recalled the prayer meetings at the church, people getting “saved” or “sanctified” or simply “praying through” and thoughtfully mused on the guilt-driven nature of this process and about its veracity with certain individuals.
Barb and I drifted apart after high school as our lives moved in different directions. Barbara got married at 21 and embarked on a family life that had its share of both joys and sorrows. Two sweet little girls, Anna and Sheila, were born early in the marriage. Barb and Daniel hosted a wonderful Friedly family reunion at their Pennsylvania home in the summer of 1967. And they opened their successful business, Gross’ Natural Foods, in Lancaster in 1969. They were eventually blessed with other children – Rhonda, Robert and Brian.
But I know there were also times when there was serious hardship, stress and need. At Bethany Fellowship, a missionary training institution in Minnesota where they began their married life, there were struggles to provide the basic necessities, complicated by Barb’s first pregnancy. After the move to Pennsylvania there were times when Daniel was sick or injured and could not work, and Barbara had to clean houses with a baby on her back to make ends meet. There was of course the tragic hubris of wholesale rejection of modern medicine and exclusive reliance on diet, holistic practice and quackery smacking of the occult to cure illness that contributed to the heartbreaking death of baby Vernon, their third child and to the misdiagnosis and maltreatment of Barb’s serious knee problem. When a real doctor was finally consulted a cancer diagnosis was made, but too late to save her leg. This hubris also played a role in the failure to properly monitor Barb’s condition afterward, resulting in the eventual recurrence and spread of the cancer, which took her precious life in 1984.
But through all of these troubles and tragedies, Barbara remained strong and resilient, and rebounded from misfortune again and again. Even when she lost that limb, she continued to be positive and look on the bright side. And she never lost the ability to burst out with the precious hearty laugh that was her trademark. To the last, she was always loving, kind and generous to friends and loved ones. Her children reflect those strengths today.
I miss my sweet sister Barbara still, after all these years.