My Childhood Best Friend and I Spent One Summer Pretending We Were Bon Jovi’s Jon & Richie

The language of our friendship stretched across decades and into some of our darkest moments

Photo by julio casado on Unsplash

In the summer of 1987, Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet was at the top of the charts. My best friend Kathy Wiener and I decided to spend the entire summer in character as lead singer Jon Bon Jovi and guitarist Richie Sambora. I was Jon, and Kathy was Richie.

I didn’t get to be JBJ because I was bossy or anything. Casting decisions were based on a single criterion: hair. In the 1980s, hair was a foundational element of a band’s identity. Kathy’s hair was dark brown and of medium length, like Richie’s. My hair was longer and a lighter brown, like Jon’s.

We strutted around as if we were wearing leather vests with no shirt underneath. We didn’t actually own leather vests; we were eleven-year-old girls, after all. Everything we said was how we imagined rock stars would say it.

Jon: “Achoo!”

Richie: “Bless you, man.” [fist bump]

Jon: “Thanks, dude. Be cool and hand me a tissue?”

Richie: “Yeah, man. Tissues rock.”

Kathy and I lived across the street from each other. My family had moved in when I was three and by the summer of 1987, it was a given that Kathy and I were together at one of our houses. One particularly hot day, we stayed inside Kathy’s air-conditioned house, looking for something to do.

What would Jon and Richie do? We decided Jon and Richie would clean the bathroom. We cleaned the toilet, the sink, and the shower. We changed the toilet paper roll. We arranged fresh, clean towels and tossed the old ones down the laundry chute. We cleaned the bathroom like rock stars.

Richie: “How’s it going with the bathtub, man?”

Jon: “Whoa, we’re halfway there!”

Richie: “Can you do the sink, bro?”

Jon: “I’ll Give. It. A. Shot.”

Mrs. Wiener was so thrilled with our work that as a reward she took us to Friendly’s for ice-cream sundaes. We got Cone Head sundaes: a scoop of ice cream for the head, an upside-down ice-cream cone for a hat, and M&Ms for eyes and a nose. I didn’t eat the cone part; I didn’t like sugar cones. But we had to get the Cone Head — it’s what everyone got.

We had a great day, so we decided to clean the bathroom again the following day. We did an equally thorough job. Mrs. Wiener didn’t take us to Friendly’s again, but she did give us a dollar each. We thought this was shaping up to be the best summer ever. We repeated it again the next day. This time Mrs. Wiener gave us only 25 cents.

On the fourth day, Mrs. Wiener sat us down.

“You have to stop cleaning the bathroom, girls.”

“Mom, call us Jon and Richie,” Kathy protested.

Her mom ignored her request. “You’re throwing perfectly clean towels down the laundry chute. Who do you think has to do all that laundry?”

We hadn’t thought about that.

“Do you want to do the laundry instead of cleaning the bathroom?” she asked.

Kathy and I looked at each other and shook our heads. Nah. We went to Kathy’s room to come up with something else to do instead.

Once, on a vacation in Florida, my family went out to dinner at the Hard Rock Cafe. Our waitress told us they were having a raffle, and every table could enter for free. All five of us entered. We didn’t usually win things, but with no cost of entry, my dad said we might as well try. Later in the evening, a man came on the loudspeaker to announce the winner, and he said my brother’s name. The prize was Richie Sambora’s guitar!

When we walked out of the restaurant, my brother cradling Richie’s guitar in his arms, people crowded around us. Some were calling out to him, “How much for the guitar?” One guy waved hundred-dollar bills, fanned out like playing cards, in my brother’s face. “I’ll give you $500, cash and carry.” My dad intervened. We would not be selling the guitar that night, thank you very much.

Back in the rental car, my dad explained that if people were offering money like that on the spot, the guitar must really be worth something. We would have to do our research and determine how much it was worth. Maybe it would pay for my brother’s college education. I suggested that my brother give the guitar to Kathy, because she was the true Richie Sambora. My brother said not a chance. (He still has the guitar.)

Kathy and I were best friends, and our little sisters were best friends, too. Karen was Kathy’s sister, and Karyn was my sister. We called them “the Karens” or “the Karyns”. It only worked if you said it out loud; otherwise, we had to pick one spelling and that wasn’t fair.

Kathy and I, on the other hand, shared the same first name, spelled exactly the same way: Kathryn. Obviously, this called for starting an exclusive club. Guess what we named it? The Kathryns Club. Guess who wasn’t invited to join? The Kare/yns.

When I was thirteen, my family moved away. I called Kathy’s house every now and then. It’s still one of the only numbers I know by heart besides my own. We went to high school, then college, and drifted away from each other.

The Kare/yns did better than we did. They wrote letters. They talked on the phone. Even after they grew up, they visited each other.

Karen got her PhD at Harvard and became a literacy specialist with a passion for improving education in the developing world. She went to Malawi in 2012 to work on a community intervention for children. On the morning that she was to fly home, she didn’t wake up. She had died suddenly in her sleep, alone in her boarding room. She was thirty-three years old.

My sister and I traveled back for the funeral services. I walked into the memorial hall and spotted Kathy across the room. What do you say to someone who you knew better than anyone for ten entire years, but over twenty years have passed since then? When your Karyn is standing next to you, but her Karen is gone forever?

I walked over to Kathy.

“Hey, Richie.”

She smiled and reached out her fist for a bump.

“Hey, Jon.”

Kate Eberle Walker is the CEO of PresenceLearning, the leading provider of special education teletherapy for K-12 schools. She leads a majority female employee population, providing a flexible career path for over 1500 special education clinicians, many of whom are working mothers. Kate’s first C-Suite role was at The Princeton Review, where she became CEO at age 39.

Before becoming a CEO, Kate went to Harvard Business School and navigated the male-dominated world of Wall Street as a Goldman Sachs investment banker. Kate’s first book The Good Boss: Nine Ways Every Manager Can Support Women at Work was published in March 2021. She lives in Germantown or Brooklyn, depending on the day and the state of the pandemic.

This essay is part of our Moms Don’t Have Time to Grieve column.

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Kate Eberle Walker

Kate Eberle Walker

CEO of PresenceLearning and Author of The Good Boss: 9 Ways Every Manager Can Support Women at Work. Mom of 2 girls. @eberlewalker