Carmel Chadwick and The Sidebar Story

There are certain people from our pasts who stand out more than others. Favorite teachers, for example, or the neighborhood bully who beat you up in the playground because he didn’t like it that you found him during a game of hide and seek. You remember the kid who told you to go home and call your mother a “fuck.” Or the teenager who looked so cool smoking a cigarette and then offered one to you. Everyone remembers the prom queen, the neighborhood slut and the person who kissed you for the first time.

It’s easy to recall the tabloid moments. For me, screaming headlines stream through dreams like a news banner running across the video screen of my mind.

I, however, prefer the sidebars. The little stories. Dredge up these memories at class reunions and those listening are bound to cock their heads and say things like, “how the hell did you come up with that?” I’ve told many sidebar stories about tiny, random memories—incidents long forgotten by most, but for some reason, are significant to me.

Additionally, I have a knack for remembering birthdays. If I picked up the phone on every birthday I remembered of someone with whom I went to Girl Scout camp, or someone with whom I shared a microscope or traded vocabulary words, I’d have a very big phone bill. Occasionally I’ve acted on the impulse to acknowledge the birthday of an old acquaintance. I’ve sent e-mails, made calls, even sent flowers. Most often, the response has been: “How the hell did you remember my birthday? I don’t even remember my birthdays any more.”

Which brings me to today. Today is Carmel Chadwick’s birthday. I’ve known her since first grade, and she was the smartest girl in class. She was cute, funny, had a big family full of loud and crazy characters and had a little brother who watched “Speed Racer,” on television. She was popular in high school, became class president, sat on the Homecoming Court and gave the commencement speech at our graduation. And by this time she had changed the pronunciation of her name from Car-mel´(stress on second syllable) to Car´-mul, as in caramel corn. How distinguished was that?

When I woke up today and noticed the date, October 7, I immediately thought of Carmel. But it wasn’t all her achievements that I initially recalled. It didn’t even cross my mind to wonder what she was doing today. Instead I recalled an incident in fifth grade, where we attended a parochial school in La Grange Park, Illinois, and our our teacher, Mrs. Fencil, asked us to come up with synonyms for the word “gently.”

Bobby Mastroanni came up with “easily.” Dawn Capilupo offered “smoothly.” I probably said “softly.”

Carmel waited patiently for all the regular kids to get the boring and unimaginative words out of the way before finally raising her hand.

“Yes, Carmel?” asked Mrs. Fencil.

Carmel folded her hands in her lap, raised her chin and said, “Gingerly.” She slowly pronounced every syllable, moving her lips with great exaggeration as though talking to a deaf person.

The entire class burst out laughing. We were sure she was kidding. “Gin-geeeeeeeeer-ly,” mocked Dawn, looking at me for approval.

“Very good, Carmel,” said Mrs. Fencil, bringing our laughter to a screeching halt. “Gingerly is at the very least, a seventh grade word.”

Ooooooh. A seventh grade word.

Obviously I was impressed. Impressed enough to still remember the first time I heard this word THIRTY-FIVE YEARS LATER.

I have a daughter in fifth grade. She’s a smart kid—maybe even the smartest in her class. She’s cute, funny, has a family of loud and crazy characters and a little sister who watches “I Love Lucy,” on television. With the memory of Carmel Chadwick fresh in my mind, I asked her to give me a synonym for the word “gently.” She’s accustomed to my little games at the breakfast table, where I quiz her on spelling words or ask her questions from the crossword puzzle. So this little quiz was nothing out of the ordinary.

“Another word for gently?” she asked. Then she looked me straight in the face and slowly pronounced every syllable of the word, “gingerly.”

I kid you not.

Wherever Carmel Chadwick is, I hope she has a happy birthday, and I sure wish I had a phone number for her so I could call and gingerly remind her that she just turned 45.

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