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.