Her name was Marilyn Maini. She was an outgoing, gangly pre-teen, taller than all the boys in the grade-school class.
His name was Jim Freyler. He was shy with a passion for rock ’n’ roll. They found out they had that in common, so a friendship blossomed between the two grade-schoolers at St. Joseph’s Parochial School in Hewlett, N.Y.
“That was unusual back then. In the ’60s, at pre-puberty age, it just wasn’t cool to have a female friend,” recalls Jim, now 63.
Jim was one of dozens of readers who contacted me after I wrote a column on returning to Beverly Hills, Mich., for my 44th Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Grade School reunion. That November gathering — which I now refer to as Best Weekend Ever — reignited old friendships and resurrected memories long forgotten. We had such fun that we’re doing it all over again next summer.
Jim had his own story, and it touched my heart. So I called him at his home in Sebring so I could learn more, and share it with you.
He wasn’t sure how he and Marilyn discovered their shared love of music. But he does remember getting together after school to spin vinyl. They would talk about the groups of the day — think late ’50s, early ’60s – and listen to the AM radio to hear the newest songs. One day, the nuns allowed the students to bring their records to school. Marilyn and Jim brought their copies of a Bobby Rydell album. They got a real kick out of that.
Yes, those were innocent times. No texting, no Facebook, no Internet. Just kids being kids.
They went their separate ways after eighth-grade graduation in 1963 — Marilyn to the all-girls Catholic high school, Jim to the all-boys school. They made new friends and moved on. But every time Jim thumbed through his record collection and saw the Bobby Rydell album, he thought of her. Wonder what Marilyn is up to?
After college, Jim moved to Fort Lauderdale and worked for the post office for 31 years. He and his wife, married 17 years, got a place in Nova Scotia as a getaway and to earn extra income as a rental property. His life in New York seemed so long ago.
Until a few years ago. A nostalgic guy, he occasionally would look up old classmates from high school. In 2008, he decided to try to track down Marilyn.
It was a lot easier than he thought. She had an unusual last name and began using it again after her divorce. She was living in Las Vegas, working for the county as a grief counselor. So he decided to reach out to her in the old-fashioned way — with a handwritten letter.
“I got a great reception. She contacted me by phone, and we had some great conversations about our shared past,” he says.
Marilyn, it turned out, had married a rock ’n’ roll musician. Jim also learned he and Marilyn had frequented the same bars and clubs after high school, but somehow their paths never crossed. They talked about their lives, the successes and failures. Neither of them had children. And, sadly, their old school had closed down.
It was as if their friendship picked up just where it had ended; only now they were having grownup conversations. And they still talked about music.
Jim doesn’t know why, but after several calls, he felt there was “some kind of elephant in the room” that Marilyn wasn’t acknowledging. Finally, after several months, it came out. She had breast cancer, and it had spread.
“What do you say after that?” he asks. “I kept our conversations going, and I always tried to stay hopeful.” Though he no longer attended Catholic church — he says he’s an old-school believer and not too happy with the church’s modern way — he still believed in its doctrines. His parochial education had given him a strong faith foundation.
In January, 2010, Marilyn made plans to visit her parents in Florida. So after 47 years, the two grade-school friends met at Ruby Tuesday’s in Daytona Beach for a two-hour lunch.
“It was really fun to see each other. Even though we had talked on the phone a lot, we still had a lot to say,” he says. He brought along his old Bobby Rydell album; she signed and dated it. Then they went their separate ways again.
Jim really thought he would see Marilyn one more time. They had a few more phone conversations. She was always in fine spirits, hopeful she could beat the big C. One day, about six months after their lunch, he got the courage to call her with a message he had been thinking about for a long time.
“I wanted to remind her of all those rosaries we used to have to say at Mass back at St. Joseph’s,” Jim says. “I was going to tell her to think of those prayers as making a deposit, and now it was time to cash them in for a big withdrawal.”
There was a strange voice on her answering machine in Las Vegas. Jim had a bad feeling about that.
About a week later, he received an email from a friend of Marilyn’s. She had found his address on an old email Marilyn had also sent to her. She told Jim they had worked together for 13 years, sharing an interest in cooking shows, music and art. And that Marilyn had often expressed how much it had meant to her to hear from Jim, and to reconnect their long-ago friendship.
Marilyn had died peacefully at age 60. “She was a very special person and I miss her a lot,” the friend wrote.
A few months later, Federal Express delivered several large boxes to Jim’s home. It included Marilyn’s entire record collection, a stack of vintage 1970 Rolling Stone magazines and her high school yearbook. She had left instructions to make sure her friend would get these items.
It included her copy of the Bobby Rydell album.
Jim still thinks of Marilyn each day. He treasures that last gift; even more so, her gift of friendship, interrupted by life but never diminished by time. He says he’s a better person for knowing her, and will never forget her.
Now he’s toying with the idea of finding other classmates for a 50th class reunion. It seems an uphill task, tracking down grade-school friends from afar after a half-century has slipped by.
I urged him to do it. I know the difference it has made to reconnect with my OLQM friends. I know they will continue to be in this later part of my life.
Do it for Marilyn, I told Jim. I have a feeling she would like that very much.