A Hidden Resentment Smoldered For 43 Years And Shocked Me At My Wedding

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Wedding toast and bride

I had a friend! I couldn’t wait to tell my mom about Sarah.

"Ich habe eine neue Freundin, Mama. Sie heißt Sarah."

I was only three and quite lonely.

It was the mid-1960s, and my parents had worked seven days a week to buy their first house in America. They were now proud owners of a twin house with a black Falcon automobile parked in the driveway. They were on their way to achieving the American dream despite speaking only German at home.

Our red brick house was in the middle of a city block that was a mix of Catholic and Jewish families. Not only was Sarah my first playmate in the new neighborhood, but she served another important role — she taught me to speak English. With two uneducated parents not long 'off the boat,' I needed someone to prepare me for Kindergarten.

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No English-As-A-Second Language classes for me — I had Sarah.

Since she was two years older, she was the teacher in our pretend school. I wanted to be a big girl like her, and I was glad for a friend who didn’t laugh at how I spoke. She benefited from our lopsided arrangement, savoring her elevated status in my eyes. She was the lowest of low at her house, the bratty youngest of three.

Once I could converse well enough, Sarah ushered in more sophisticated play in the alley next to my house. We hunched over a concoction of ripped-up leaves and broken grass in our cement tunnel. We called our earthy stew "kemochapi," which we ground into green pulp.

In retrospect, our made-up word sounded almost identical to Kemosabe, a term we no doubt had heard in a popular radio and TV show called The Lone Ranger. But it was "our" word and became part of our make-believe dramas.

Eventually, we transitioned to more sophisticated languages that only other kids could understand, like Pig Latin and Ubbi Dubbi.

Her older siblings taught Sarah, who in turn kept me in the know of secret kid languages. Through our linguistic treachery, we could discuss taboo topics in front of grownups without being found out. We had nothing to hide, but we embraced the idea that we could be mini-mistresses of deception if needed.

But the thing we loved more than our crazy languages was playing Barbies. Barbies had become the hottest toy by the late 60s, and every little girl had to have one. I possessed more Barbies than Sarah because there were fewer mouths to feed in our house.

I had a bonanza of Barbies.

My collection included the original Barbie with the dirty blonde hair, PJ, the super blonde go-go boot-wearing hippy, and Stacie, the sophisticated redhead.

Ken and little sister Skipper joined the trio. To add to my bounty, the crew lived in a vinyl tri-fold house, a carrying case with pink Murphy beds, and a camper. An orange sports car made of rugged plastic had two circles cut out for Barbie’s and a friend’s legs.

Sarah only had her sister’s old Barbie, who appeared to have gone through the wringer. I shared my collection with Sarah but kept the best and coolest one, PJ, for myself. Sarah didn’t complain at first but grew more bitter about my Barbie abundance as time passed.

Sarah, a curly-haired brunette, had another beef with me — my blonde hair. She muttered to herself loud enough so I could hear about how she wished she’d had blonde hair and how spoiled I was.

I didn’t want my best friend to be unhappy with me, yet I didn’t know what to do.

When my white-blonde hair began to darken, she still held a grudge that I had it better. Sarah was my best friend, and I didn’t want her to be mad. I couldn’t change my looks, but my life was filled with things because I had no built-in playmates like Sarah did.

To entertain myself, I relied on reading books, setting up elaborate Barbie scenes, and playing with my fluffy German Spitz puppy, Cindy. Sarah’s mother wouldn’t allow pets, so again, I was "ahead."

As Sarah developed into a pre-teen, she outgrew our beloved pastimes, and I was sad to see less of her.

Sarah became steeped in her Jewish culture, spending summers far from home at sleep-away camp. She’d come back right before school started, sun-tanned and wearing cool earrings she’d made in Arts and Crafts. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but Sarah seemed happier and more self-assured.

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The maturity gap expanded when she went to high school.

She went to a high-ranking Jewish college, and a couple of years later, I went to a Catholic one. Our differences started to compound.

We stayed connected by phone as we climbed the corporate ladder and lived further apart. Years passed, and we rarely saw each other. After a decade apart, we ended up living in neighboring towns. Our two-year age difference seemed insignificant now, but Sarah remained my teacher.

After earning a master’s degree at an Ivy League college, she trained corporate employees in diversity training and educated me on inclusivity.

She survived a few corporate right-sizings but grew weary of the stress. One restructuring caught her in its net, forcing her to become self-employed. Even though it was painful to be jobless, she discovered that she could stand on her own while maintaining her dignity and sanity.

Always ahead of the curve, she started a blog and dinner club for foodies. She dove in deeper, embracing and learning the language of the burgeoning online world, first becoming a technical writer and then a ghostwriter.

Sarah let her hair go gray before it became cool.

After not seeing her for months, I was astonished to see her mostly salt-with-some-pepper head. While I was hiding my grays and dying my hair to the blonde of my youth, she was showcasing a natural look.

"I can always dye it back," she said matter-of-factly.

Together with her husband, she became a bourbon aficionado. I couldn’t believe anyone, especially a woman, would drink this foul-tasting liquid, but that was her.

In her forties, she learned to fence. Again, I was in awe. What couldn’t she do?

Her example inspired me to dip my toes into new ventures.

She had no qualms about reinventing herself and trying new things, and I was there for it. I was proud of her.

Only special friendships that have endured for decades, like ours did, are resilient enough to survive life’s traumas. After her fiancé broke off her engagement, I was there to commiserate. When she finally met her beschert (beloved), I witnessed her weeping with joy as the guests lifted her high during the hora wedding dance.

I confessed to Sarah her’s was the best wedding I’d ever attended. We had grown up so differently but somehow could mingle and celebrate each other’s cultures.

Sarah attended my first wedding at the German club. She held my hand when I divorced, and when I remarried, she and her husband traveled to attend my beach wedding.

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She even gave a surprise toast that our guests still talk about.

At first, I was honored that my first friend was getting up to speak. But then I grew curious. What would she say?

I only had seconds to imagine her sharing that I was her oldest friend. Would she say that she taught me English? Would she share the happy times sailing our rubber raft at the lake?

Sarah looked at ease in front of 250 guests, expertly holding the microphone. She was a professional speaker, after all.

As expected, she regaled our lifelong friendship growing up in our ethnic neighborhood in the 60s and getting a taste of Germany from my mother’s cooking.

But then she pivoted.

Her words became foreign. What was she saying?

I didn’t understand.

Did she say … Barbie?

That’s when I deciphered the words. She told our guests about my Barbie collection, the car, the camper, and the house — the whole shebang. How I always had the best ones. How she wished she could have had them.

Her long-buried hostility oozed out with every word. Sarah, a 50-year-old woman, was still the little girl with her sister’s hand-me-down Barbie.

I stopped listening and willed her to sit down. She was normally so reserved but had clearly enjoyed the open bar too much. She was drunk!

Please let this end, I prayed.

I looked to her husband to signal her to wrap it up.

Finally, she sat down and nodded at me. I gave her a weak smile. I could not give my approval when I wanted to strangle her.

"I really wanted to give you a toast," she said, with a big smile on her face.

"Thanks, that was really something," I said, better words escaping me.

My husband had several friends toast (more like roast) him since he’d remained single until age 48. His friends viewed our wedding as payback time. This was my second wedding, and my friends weren’t the toasting kind. Sarah had seen the imbalance and filled the void.

But this? How had I missed her lingering resentment?

I had always held her on a pedestal and was blind to my childhood privilege. To me, our family didn’t meld with the ideal of American prosperity. My parents had grown up in poverty in Germany and continued to behave as if they were paupers in our middle-class home, convincing me as well.

Her parents were educated and worked professional jobs, while mine had eighth-grade educations and had grown up working the land. I’d never considered that we’d been better off because of who we were and our Christianity.

Playing Barbies had always been more fun when I was with her. I would have given her my collection had I known how much pain she’d been in. I had misjudged the scale of our differences because I’d seen myself as the little one whose family didn’t fit in.

The scorn and discrimination Sarah must have faced never came up. Had she been protecting me? Or didn’t she think I would understand?

The thought that my friend felt 'less than' when she was an amazing, beautiful person was confounding.

She’d always been my lifeline when I was small and had no one. Yet I hadn’t been there for her because I had never put myself in her shoes. I was too wrapped up in my own family’s suffering to acknowledge hers.

She’ll always be my friend and teacher. I’m happy that she gave that toast. I learned a lot.

In my eyes, Sarah is worthy of a thousand Barbies. I hope she knows that now.

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Ilona Goanos is a writer and yoga instructor from the Jersey Shore. Retired from her career, she has embraced creativity in her third act, including ghostwriting, guest blogging, writing on Medium, and her own weekly Substack newsletter.

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.