The summer I was 9 years old, I spent hours looking out the upstairs bedroom window at Amanda Stevenson, a girl a few years older than me, with chestnut brown curly hair, playing alone in her garden. Even though there was only one cottage between us, she never looked up at my window. Because she went to Protestant school and I attended convent school, all I knew about her was what I saw through the window.
Yet I felt I knew her well from watching her glide for hours on her swing suspended between trees heavy with rosy apples, which she ate while reading books with hard covers I saw at the library. We lived in the Soldiers' Cottages in Bagenalstown, a small railway town on the Barrow River. Our fathers received the cottages because they were soldiers in World War I.
Through the open windows, Amanda playing "Pop Goes The Weasel" on the piano drifted across the meadow. I ran and sat under her hedge and kept time with my feet. Then I jumped up and rapped on her door. It was opened by a tall, thin woman wearing a flowery blue apron and graying hair rolled in a tight sausage at the nape of her neck.
"Yes?" she said, without any smile at all.
"Can Amanda come out ta play?" I stepped back and looked up into her gray eyes.
"No. Amanda can't come out to play." She shut the door so fast the brass knocker quivered.
A few days later, I knocked again.
"Yes?" said the same serious woman.
"Can Amanda come out ta play?"
"No. Amanda's too old to play with you." When she closed the door, the knocker trembled.
It was a sunny day, but I felt cold and I kicked the gravel stones on my way out the gate.
Days later I heard "All 'Round The Cobbler's Bench" on the piano. I ran through the Stevensons' gate and gave the knocker three strong raps. The woman I'd come to know appeared before me.
"My dear child. How many times have I told you Amanda's too old to play with you?"
"Oh! I don't want ta play with Amanda. I'm takin' piano lessons at school. I just want ta play 'Teddy O'Neil' for ya."
The woman's face melted into a smile and the door inched open. I was now face-to-face with Amanda, too. She had green eyes like me. We sat close together on the piano stool and Amanda showed me how to play "Pop Goes The Weasel" for four hands.
I rushed home bursting with news that the Stevensons had no picture of the Sacred Heart, no red votive lamps, no statues or holy water fonts and no picture of the pope. My family said I was indeed too young to play with Amanda. Still, when I knocked on her door, her mother would let me in sometimes.
This summer, 50 boys and girls ages 9 to 11, sponsored by the Belfast Summer Relief Program, will travel from Derry to Buffalo for six weeks. They are from Catholic and Protestant schools just one mile apart. Maureen Fecio, volunteer co-director of the program, told me recently, "On the flight over will be the first time these children will talk to each other."
Her comment brought back memories of Amanda playing "A penny for a spool of thread, a penny for a needle," the little rhyming song that drew us together and broke the silence of our religious segregation. Amanda still lives in Bagenalstown. She's a grandmother and a piano teacher. We're still friends.