By Colleen Sutherland
That first day of first grade, Miss Algard read us an Aesop fable about the grasshopper and the ant. The grasshopper fiddles away the summer while the ant works. At the end of the story, the ant is secure in its home with plenty of food while the grasshopper starves to death. Other versions would have the ant taking the grasshopper in but that was not how Aesop wrote it Miss Algard said She didn't believe in messing with the classics.
After Miss Algard finished the story, she asked the first grade class: “Which would you rather be?” We all dutifully said, “The ant,” which is what she wanted to hear. We promised we would all be good little workers. All but Sallie Mae. “No, the grasshopper. The grasshopper has all the fun.”
“But in the end, he starves,” Miss Algard said.
“Worth it,” insisted Sallie Mae.
Sallie Mae did have fun and got into trouble for it. On nice days she was down by the river splashing around, playing hooky. Once the police picked her up as she was riding her bicycle around and around the park and deposited her at school. She was there ten minutes and was out the door again. “Good days shouldn't be wasted,” she said.
She showed me her report card once. Straight A's in every subject but behavior. She got an F minus there. I got good grades, too, not as good as hers but I got an A+ in deportment and a note to my parents about what a good little helper I was.
She wasn't Sallie Mae for long. At the beginning of the second grade, she announced to her new teacher, “Everyone calls me Sacha.” No one called her Sacha, not her friends, not her relatives, not her parents.
“Isn't Sacha a boy's name?” I asked “Girl's name, too,” Sallie Mae said. “It's short for Alexandra.”
“But your name isn't Alexandra either.”
By the end of that year, her name was Sacha and remained so. She was one of my best friends but I never went on escapades with her. Every time she got into a scrape, I reminded her of the ant and the grasshopper, but she laughed.
“I see a lot of grasshoppers and ants down by the river and none of them are dying,” she said. “Working like an ant is just gross.”
It was that way all the way through grade school and high school. I plodded along, getting good grades, working hard in school, church and the community. I was in Girl Scouts. Sacha tried one meeting and never came back. “Boring,” she said. I sang in the school choir. Sacha played the violin in the school orchestra.
“I intend to fiddle away my life, like the grasshopper,” she said when she first took up the instrument. It was the one thing she worked at. Sometimes our church invited her on Sundays to perform solos and I found out they paid her, too. I knew enough about music to know she wasn't really playing Christian songs, usually something from some pagan opera.
We remained friends for a long time. I tried to get her to behave, she tried to get me into trouble. Finally, it was too much an effort. By our junior year we had drifted apart. She was taking college prep classes, I was in the business courses, taking shorthand, typing and bookkeeping. Rumor said she was dating college guys and everyone said she was loose. I had a nice boy friend my parents introduced me to but I intended to be a virgin on my wedding day.
Sacha's grades got her into an Ivy League school. Though I got the best grades by doing extra credit, the faculty said Sacha would probably be better at giving the graduation speech. I should have been up there at the podium but I don't know what I would have said...maybe something on the grasshopper and the ant and working hard to achieve our dreams. Instead Sacha spoke on the theme, “Time to go out and live!” Everyone laughed throughout and applauded though the faculty frowned. Later the school board had a meeting about that.
Sacha went off to college on scholarships. I had scholarships, too, but I followed my parents' advice and went to the technical college for more business training. A year later, I was in the clerical pool in a big insurance company. Two years later, I was pregnant and married.
Before graduation, I had signed up to be on the reunion committee. Soon we were working on our fifth reunion. It took us a while to locate Sacha. Her parents had moved and so had she. We finally found an ex-boyfriend who knew she hadn't graduated from her big Eastern college. Instead she had moved to California and was living in a hippy commune. She sent word she would be at some West Coast peace rally and couldn't make the reunion.
She did show up at the tenth reunion. Our committee hadn't invited her because we didn't know where she was, but she showed up anyhow, throwing all the number count and seating arrangements for the dinner off because she brought two boyfriends. “Couldn't decide which one,” she said. Instead of a nice dress, she wore jeans, a leather jacket and boots.
By then, I was working again. My husband and I were salting away money on annuities, stocks and savings. We had three children to educate and we were thinking ahead to retirement.
“How are you doing?” I asked Sacha.
“Great. We've started a blue grass band. Gregor on the drums, Eli on the guitar and me on the fiddle.”
“Oh, that must be lucrative.”
“Nah, we've been hitchhiking around the country, but Gregor just bought a van to take us to the next gig.”
Late that evening, we found her with Gregor in the back of his van, smoking pot and half naked. My husband called the police, but by the time they arrived, the van was gone, leaving boyfriend no. 2 behind.
At the 20th reunion, we found out she was now an artist, showing her wares at farmer's markets and craft shows. She sent us pictures of her daughter wrapped up in a quilt at the edge of her booth and news that she was now a socialist. We left that last bit out out of the memorial album. She didn't show up for the reunion anyhow.
She was in town for the 25th reunion because she was part of an environmental group picketing our biggest business, the chemical factory where I worked as a secretary. I told her to leave them alone because if I stayed with them another fifteen years, I would get a good pension.
“Where's your daughter?” I asked her.
“She lives with her father. I get her over the summers.”
Sacha had no photos of her daughter but did have some slides from her travels and agreed to show them to the class along with a talk about her adventures. I could have shown photos of our trip to the Grand Canyon, but Sacha had been all over the world it seems, fighting pollution. Each slide had a silly story to go with it.
“That must take a lot of money,” I said.
“Nah, I just sign on to work with various environmental groups that give me a place to stay. Then I give talks about it later to pay for the air fare.” That's when I found out she was being paid to attend the reunion. Everyone seemed to get a kick out of her.
“She makes these reunions more fun,” the chairman said. I quit the committee then and there.
I queried her again after the dinner. She had never married, so that daughter was illegitimate.
“What about the future? Don't you want to save money for her college education?”
“Nah, her daddy has all the money for that, plus the connections to get her in. Plus, she's a smart little cookie. She'll probably get scholarships. I take her with me when we go abroad.”
Sacha didn't seem to see the need to save for the future. We, on the other hand, were building up a nice nest egg. We had moved into our second home, a sprawling house with on an acre of land. It needed a lot of upkeep and the lawn had to be mowed every week, but it would be a good investment. It was worth the two mortgages, plus they would be tax write-offs our banker said as he handed us the forms. It meant an hour commute each way for me to work at the chemical plant.
I was now the office supervisor. I didn't like the snippy young girls who worked under me and they didn't like me either, but it was food on the table and health insurance. We needed that now. Bill had developed ulcers and high blood pressure. Diabetes was my problem but as long as I had my job we were OK.
My daughter was in computer classes at the tech but her grades were never that good. One son was in jail but we never talked about that at reunions. The other boy just disappeared one day. The word was that he was in Colorado living with another guy. We wrote him off, too. It didn't look like there would be any grandchildren for us.
By the time the 40th reunion rolled around, I was a widow. I kept up with the house. It was an investment after all. I managed to renegotiate the mortages, turning them into one. I gave up driving to work and took the bus.
Sacha didn't show up for the reunion but we watched her on PBS news talking about the environment. She had written a book about political activism. A few members of the class had read it.
Our town was one of the first to have to deal with the collapse of the housing market. The chemical plant closed and went into bankruptcy taking the pensions along with my job. Then the recession hit and all my investments were gone. The house followed. I found myself in a one room subsidized apartment. The only traveling I did was to take the bus to Tea Party rallies. I was now working at Walmart, trying to get by on social security and a part time job.
At the 50th class reunion everyone gathered around Sacha. She was a celebrity now, still working on environmental issues and considering a run for Congress. She brought along photographers and newsmen so our reunion had great coverage. Some of us were interviewed, but I passed on it. Sacha looked great in her designer dress. Mine was the same dress I wore to the 40th reunion. It didn't fit all that well.
She was huddled in a corner talking to Mr. Pritchard about her career. He must have been eighty years old now. I sidled over to listen. She was giving him credit for starting her environmental career in his advanced biology course.
Sacha owned a townhouse in Georgetown, she told him, paid for with the proceeds from her memoir, which had been a best seller. She felt the house would be necessary while she was in Congress.
“That's our Sasha,” Mr. Pritchard said. “Always confident.”
She finally noticed me.
“How are you doing?” she said. I wasn't sure she even knew who I was. It was the final straw. Damn her!
“Lousy! And it's not fair. All my life I've worked like the ant and you've been the grasshopper. Where's my reward? Where's my cushy home? Where's my money?”
Mr Pritchard asked, “What are you talking about?”
“Aesop, the grasshopper and ant story. I've worked hard all my life and what has it gotten me? I have nothing! I mean, Sacha should be dead by now.”
Mr. Pritchard and Sacha looked at each other and back at me with sorrow written all over their faces.” I hated it that they felt sorry for me.
“Aesop got it all wrong,” Mr Pritchard explained. “Ants live three months. Grasshoppers live up to eleven months.”
Sacha patted my hand. “Kiddo, Aesop was no scientist. It's only a fable. The truth is in the end, we're all dead sooner or later. We have to live it up while we can.”
When she travels through this area, Sacha visits me here at Glen Valley nursing home. She is one of the few visitors I get.
She tells me about her life, about her travels. I pretend to listen but I am thinking of that old bastard Aesop. I hate him almost as much as I hate Sacha.
I won't be going to the 60th reunion.