In Hightstown, New Jersey my Mom, brother and I lived on the corner of Center Street and Second Avenue. Our next-door neighbor’s were the Pepp’s. Shawn Pepp was a year older then me and I hated him. He was like a demented Pee-Wee Herman without any of the goofy charm. He was dark and mean not to mention a pathological liar. He used to swear that when we thought he was away at summer camp he was really on tour with Bon Jovi. One night, when we were home with a babysitter, Shawn Pepp spent hours creeping around our house tapping on windows and making weird noises. When he finally rang the doorbell, I answered it, prepared to tell him off, and he was standing there in a Jason mask flicking a lighter. It was fucking scary.
When my mom got home we told her all about it.
“Mom, it was so scary and he is sooo weird!” I lamented with my brother, blues eyes wide, nodded solemnly in agreement.
“Listen to me, Alicia. I know he’s not exactly easy to deal with but you just have to give Shawn Pepp break. He is always welcome in this house.”
My mom was friend’s with Barbara Pepp, Shawn’s mother. Barbara Pepp used to call the house all the time and my 9-year-old self thought she was so annoying. Just like Shawn. I’d grumble when our family TV time was interrupted by a phone call from her, which happened almost every night. She’d come over and my mom would make tea and they’d sit and talk, sometimes for hours. Barbara Pepp used to make my mother mix tapes. I remember the Maxell cassette cover filled out in her meticulous script with the names of the song and then the artist. Artists like Carly Simon, Carole King and, my mom’s personal favorite at the time, Anita Baker.
The last time I visited my Mom, I asked her about Barbara Pepp. I told her I remembered how they would sit in the kitchen and talk.
“Yes,” my mom said nodding and remembering, as I did, the tiny kitchen with window by the table. The window where a bat once got stuck in between the glass and the screen we had to call our neighbor who worked for animal control to come rescue it. The table with the stained glass overhead lamp where my mom my spent so much of her time on the phone to her mother and sisters, feeding my brother and I and talking to Barbara Pepp.
“I helped her with her homework,” my mother was saying. “She was illiterate when we met.”
I was astounded. “So, you taught her how to read?” I asked. I was shocked by how much I didn’t know about my mom’s relationship with this woman.
My mom just laughed. “I certainly helped,” she said.
But then she continued to talk about Barbara Pepp:
“Barb, she didn’t have it easy. She grew up in East Orange and was bullied by the streets. Nobody cared about her and she slipped though the cracks. She wanted to go to college but she had no self-confidence. She was intimidated by her son’s intelligence and her husband didn’t want to pay.”
Her husband. All of a sudden I was struck by a vivid memory of that man.
We were playing out in the street, a bunch of us: my brother, me, Dale and Penny from down the street - maybe a few others. Shawn Pepp was torturing us throwing rocks and spraying the hose and just being so annoying! We were all yelling at him to “Stop” and “Leave us alone.” I’m sure my voice was the loudest – it always is. Suddenly, Shawn’s father, burst through the screen door and grabbed his son by the arm. He threw him over his knee, yanked down his pants and began to wail on Shawn’s bare behind. It was horrifying. Watching something that cruel and worse yet feeling as though you were somehow responsible.
My mom was still talking about Barbara Pepp:
“She told me ‘I can’t go to school.’ Sure you can! I told her. And she did. She went to night school and was assessed at a 5th grade reading level but she got her GED and that day she came over with that piece of paper and, I’ll tell you what Alicia, just the fact that she was eligible to go to college. She was so proud. “
This is the thing about my mom. She has a way of talking about people and to people. She’s an educator but more than that she is relational. She empathizes. And, she makes people feel like they matter. In my book, my mother is an activist. When I tell her this she laughs.
“I’ve never thought of myself as an activist” she says sheepishly, drawing out each syllable of the word as if saying it will make it true and she may not be ready for that realization.
“You’re on the front lines, Mom.”
She is and always has been – then at our kitchen table with Barbara Pepp and now as a leader of wellness retreats for women surviving breast cancer.
But my mom wasn’t just there for Barbara Pepp. During this time, my mother was healing from a pretty nasty divorce. She was raising two young children and making ends meet at a government job.
“Barbara Pepp – she was a good friend. She helped me cut wood; she would bring over premade dinners when she knew I had to work late. She took care of me. And me, really, I just listened to her.”
A few months ago I got a friend request on Facebook from Shawn Pepp. When I saw his name on the screen I heard my mother’s voice and I wished that kitchen table was still there because I would sit with Shawn, make us a cup of tea and I would listen to him.