I never knew why she picked me as a friend in junior high school in the early 1960’s. All I cared about was make-up, clothes, boys, dates, weight and hairstyles. She cared nothing for these concerns. While I read Seventeenth Summer and Marjorie Morningstar about young love, she was reading Miracle at Carville about leprosy.
For years, we remained close friends and met regularly for breakfast. We discussed not only our kids and our jobs and our spouses, but our strange high school friendship. I was attracted to Libby because she was different, had good ideas and was smart. She was drawn to me, because she said, underneath all the clutter and frivolity, she saw honesty, individuality and a free spirit.
And we always ordered and ate the same thing: oatmeal with salt.
Years ago, when I was regularly writing for a local weekly publication, I met a fellow writer named Rose at a party in honor of the newspaper’s first twelve months of existence. We immediately clicked and found we had many things in common – a strange sense of humor, a shared graduation year of 1965, sons, sons and more sons (together we had nine) and a love and reverence for the written word.
We had some great heart-to-heart talks, gave each other morale-booster shots and highly opinionated slants, and shared lots of laughs. We called ourselves not just Rose and Iris, but the never-fading blooms of the Midwest. And one day we agreed to meet for an early lunch.
Rose ordered grilled chicken salad and I ordered oatmeal. When our food arrived, I was hungry, as usual, and immediately began readying my oatmeal for consumption. I stirred the oatmeal thoroughly, ignored the butter, sugar and raisins that the waitress thoughtfully set beside me and methodically went for the salt shaker, which I promptly used with abandon.
My friend Rose stared at my concoction.
I stirred some more, shook some more, and expectantly lifted the first heaping spoonful eagerly to my mouth.
My friend Rose continuing staring.
“What’s wrong, Rosie?” I innocently asked.
“Is that the way you eat oatmeal?” she sputtered. “Without sugar, without sweetener, WITH salt?”
“Sure,” I said. “I’ve been eating it that way for years. Cream of wheat too,” I added proudly. “And Ralston.”
She swallowed hard, took a deep breath and proceeded to lean forward conspiratorially. “I do too,” she said. “I only eat oatmeal with salt,” she whispered. “Never sugar. All these years, I thought I was the only one. Everywhere I would go, people would stare, gawk and comment on my odd little habit.”
“I don’t look at it as an odd thing at all, Rose,” I commented pretty matter-of-factly. “Nor as unexplainable. My grandmother ate it that way for years – and another really good friend, Libby, also from the Class of ’65, does too.
“And I have come to realize that doing things a little differently is a welcome sign of individuality, originality and divergent thinking.” Pontificating pretty heartily by now, I continued. “Anybody can eat oatmeal with sugar, but it takes someone with strength of character and confidence in their own integrity to light out on such an adventuresome path!”
Rose smiled. And settled back comfortably to eat her salad – images of salt-laden oatmeal dancing in her head.
We started a club that day – The OWS Club – The Oatmeal With Salt Club – for those hearty souls who dare to buck the established mode of conduct and blaze their own trails – in any realm.
Libby, Rose and I were the charter members but we welcomed others to join our quest, which was a dedication to self-exploration and to individual expression. And also to friendship – the joy of coming together with kindred souls who share a zest for life, a willingness to be their own person and sing their own song.
Libby passed away suddenly in 2008 and Rosie and I have long since lost touch. But I hold the memory of both of them close. They taught me to never let your own bloom fade and your own dreams wilt. And to make time for friends – to share a bowl of oatmeal with and a little bit of salt.