Tag Archives: Seventies

The friendships that last

 

I spent the last week with a friend. In fact, it was a week full of friends, and it reminded me of how important they are, particularly those closest to us.

I have five very close friends. I have many more good friends. The difference between the two is subtle but important, and in no way does the intimacy of one group detract from the value of another. We need all sorts of friends, I’ve found. There are the casual friends with whom we might enjoy a common interest. There are the old friends who saw us through a transformative era of our lives, and even though we don’t see much of them any more, we still care about them. There are former friends, and there’s no shame in having a few of those – people whose values you may no longer share but with whom you once had a rapport. There are childhood friends, and work friends, and situational friends.

But I am most interested today in the deepest friendships, the ones that have outlasted time, other relationships, and distance. One of those friends came to stay with us last week. Patti and I have been friends since college. Our bond has survived a long drought where we barely wrote to each other or saw each other. It was forged in our carefree college years, tempered by tragedy, and has mellowed to a deep understanding.

No one teaches us about friendship. Although our early friendships are usually made in school, there is no class in being, or making, a friend. It is all trial and error. Yet we know from the first day we set foot on a playground that finding and keeping a friend will be the difference between acceptance and social ignominy. How well I remember the two girls who whispered quickly together before running away and leaving me sitting alone on the swings! Yet just as well I remember the sudden bonds that would spring up with other girls and make school suddenly bearable. When I made a friend in third grade, we decided that when we grew up, we would live in Florida together! A year later she moved away and I never heard from her again.

Our family experiences don’t seem to matter much, either. My father had a cadre of friends, of all ages, but my mother had none at all – her three sisters were her confidants, if you could call them that. When I was in junior high school, she complained, in my earshot, that I had “so many friends,” her tone indicating it was some kind of character failing. So I did not learn at her knee to be a friend, and my father’s relationship with his old-time Yankee buddies – with all its tobacco-spitting and story-telling – did not provide much guidance, either.

As I grew older, the way of friendship seemed to lie in the written word. It is no coincidence that of my five closest friends, four have at one time been correspondents. Some of us still write to each other. There is a closeness that letters engender. They require reflection on the other person’s point of view (that is, what is shared in their latest letter), as well as empathy and understanding. Letters inspire a more thoughtful confidence than face-to-face conversation. They require deeper thinking. All of that thought and emotion brings us closer together.

I have many of these letters, and reread them from time to time. They remind me where my friends and I have been together, what we have shared and what serves as the foundation of our friendship. Some of my former correspondents are no longer friends, and some, sadly, have passed away. I treasure our letters, evidence of an earlier bond, one that enriched us both, if only for a short time.

I wonder what sort of friendships this up-and-coming generation will form, out of the raw materials of fleeting online commentary and texts. Facebook turned friend into a verb, but most of the people we “friend” are not the sort of companions I’m talking about. They are situational acquaintances, or casual friends; some might be good or even close friends, but the relationship formed outside social media.

The word friend can be traced to the German, frijon, to love. Curious, because we think of love as romantic, and forget the importance of its other permutations. I do love my close friends and tell them so. Maybe that’s because, at 59, I’ve learned how fleeting life is, and how important it is to tell people they are valued. Maybe it’s because I’ve seen friendships endure long after my family members have passed away. Maybe it is just the gratitude we feel toward those who know us best but do not shrink from our faults.

I was thinking of friendship while Patti and I sat on the porch at the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, Conn., the birthplace of American Impressionism, both of us reveling in our shared appreciation of art and creativity. Beyond the porch it rained, but on the porch we beamed. Like the walrus and the carpenter, we talked of many things.

I thought of it Friday evening, when my old friend Andrea gave me an unexpected gift. It was a t-shirt with Coca-Cola, “The Real Thing,” written on it, and with the shorthand that lasting friendships allow, she referenced so much from our long-ago past: how Coke ads were a kind of talisman of happiness for us, which we sometimes grasped all too briefly. It brought back trips to Misquamicut Beach, skipping school and flying kites and making up phrases that only we understood. Our friendship was the “real thing.”

There is no way, I think, to predict who we will bond with. Neither age, nor religion, nor occupation seem to matter much. Perhaps it is a shared attitude. Maybe it is just the good fortune of making it through all the stages of friendship intact – the early days of shared interests and experiences, midlife when we become too distracted to connect, the later years when we realize the jewel that close friendship is.

However we got here, I’m glad my friendships have endured. Glad when Patti comes to visit every summer and warms our home with Portuguese wine and deep laughter. Glad when Andrea agrees to some spontaneous jaunt. Glad when Cheryl reaches out to offer a hand when I need one. Glad when Tara writes me long letters full of books and writing and politics. Glad when Laura and I share some special occasion, whether it be a dinner out or a celebration that envelops our two families. All of these meetings end in a hug and a fond farewell, a salute to the friendships that endure, and gratitude that we are still around to enjoy them.

 

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Pet cemetery. No horror.

 

Gypsy entered our lives in the early 1970s, showing up in the backyard with a waddle in her walk and a defiant look in her yellow eyes. We voted on what to name her, with my father scrawling Owl on the paper I passed out to him, and it wasn’t inappropriate, given that steady, appraising gaze, but Gypsy prevailed – fitting for the tortoiseshell cat who roamed into the yard carrying nothing but her prenatal baggage, clearly the reason someone had dumped her on the road next to our house.

The kittens came a few weeks later, five of them, two orange, two black, and one multi-colored like her mother. Andi and I named them: OJ and Pumpkin, for obvious reasons, JT and Panda for the tuxedo-clad urchins and Crackers for the tortoiseshell. They would be only the first in a feline clan that would multiply exponentially over the next few years.

She wasn’t our first cat. We’d had many over the years, including Smoky, who can be seen in my first birthday photos, swishing a tail away from my clumsy baby fists. His name had something to do with the floor furnace in our first house and a singed tail. Then came Jimmy Durante, a rather ugly looking white cat whose appearance degenerated when he contracted a mouth tumor. We were in the Shannock house by then, and my father called Ray Richards, the police chief, who pulled out his service revolver and smoked a hole in Jimmy Durante’s peach-pit-sized head.

I don’t know who named him after the Cyrano de Bergerac of vaudeville, but Blackjack got his name from Andi, a reference to Jackie Kennedy Onassis’s father, John V. “Black Jack” Bouvier, a socialite and rake so called because of his perpetual tan. Andi was fascinated with celebrities and kept a scrapbook of Marilyn Monroe, Jackie O, and Natalie Wood, who she claimed I resembled. In the era before Wikipedia, she had a deep knowledge of the most arcane cultural references, gathered from reading Photoplay magazine and movie-star biographies.

In a similar way she came up with an outrageous name for the deformed little kitten who showed up at my grandmother’s house in Tug Hollow one day. This little girl also had been dumped and had spent some time in the wild. One eye was crusted over and infected, and she walked with a hitch in her gait, as though she’d never recovered from a kick. We took her in, of course, and as she bumped into table legs and walls we realized she was at least partially blind.

In a moment of perversity, Andi named her Nadia Comaneci, after the graceful athletic powerhouse from Romania dominating the Olympics that summer of 1976. “Nadia” stuck, but the kitten lived only a year or two before succumbing to her various handicaps.

When it came to pet naming, I had neither the imagination nor the sly humor of my sister. When my sister Mary Jane produced a white rabbit for me one Easter, I promptly named her Mary. I had also named my favorite teddy bear after my glamorous older sister.

Grown up, I would have many felines of my own – Swifty, named by someone else; Perry, a name put to a later and much more important use; Gloria, for the 1985 hurricane; and, perhaps the finest of all, Dauber, who came with that awkward name from the animal shelter, where he stuck his head out of a cage and demanded to be rescued.

My mother, after years of Andi’s wicked humor, rebelled after we left home by naming every cat she ever had Kitty. Going to the vet and having to explain that Kitty was the particular, not the general, name grew tiresome, but my mother would not budge. When she passed away we took in the last Kitty and renamed her Misty, but it never stuck; my mother was right, she was Kitty, and now at the vet I would have to rack my brain for the name I’d told them was hers but never used.

Our late cats reside now in eternal rest in the northwest corner of the Shannock property, in a cemetery my father created under the pines, without the frightening connotations of a Stephen King novel. Each one grew into its name and left behind an indelible impression, and if I close my eyes I can remember their particular faces, their warm fur, and their stubborn determination to survive.

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