Let me tell you ’bout my best friend

If you don’t recognize the song lyric in the title of this post, chances are you’re not as old as me. (It’s by Harry Nilsson, and it’s from the theme song of “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father,” which aired from 1969-1972.)

My best friend, Donna, turned 60 a couple of months ago, and I’m not far behind her. Coming to the end of one decade and embarking on another always leads me to reminisce and reflect. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about our long friendship, and how it has endured against some pretty steep odds.

We’ve been best friends for over 53 years—nearly 90 percent of our lives. In fact, I can barely remember anything about my life before we met, on the second day of second grade. (I told our “origin story” in a blog post a few years ago, when we celebrated half a century of friendship; you can read it here.) IMG_2709

Although we grew up on the same street in Milford, Connecticut in the 1960s, in many ways, our family backgrounds were very different.

Donna and her younger brother were raised by two parents who had lived in Milford all their lives, and who still live in the suburban ranch on Marshall Street they moved into in 1965. I was raised by a widowed mother whose family had lived in Maine for generations and who regarded her time in Connecticut as a period of exile to be gotten through before she could retire back to her home state.

Donna’s mom was 25 when she was born, and she stayed at home to raise her two kids. My mom was 39 when she had me and had already raised my four much-older siblings; of necessity, she went to work outside the home by the time I was three or four.

Donna’s father was Italian and her mother was Irish, and they were Roman Catholics; she went to mysterious church-related things called mass, confession, and catechism. I was especially puzzled—and made envious—by the concept that if her family had something else they wanted to do on Sunday morning—even just sleep late—they could get mass out of the way on Saturday afternoon.

Although we lacked the wealth and social connections implied by the acronym, my family was pretty WASP-ish, and we went to the big white Congregational church downtown, every Sunday morning without fail.

Donna’s mom worried a lot about whether we were safe when we were out of her sight; my mom figured that her other kids had survived childhood and, more than likely, I would, too.

After high school, Donna would become the first in her family to attend college, a prospect so terrifying to her mother that she bribed her with a car to stay at home and attend a nearby Catholic university for the first two years.

IMG_2704Both of my parents, and even at least one of my grandparents, were college graduates; I was raised without any question of whether or not I would be, too—and my mother gave me a suitcase for my high school graduation, just three months after I turned 17, to reinforce the idea that it was high time for me to leave the nest.

Not only were our backgrounds different, but the paths we chose through life—or those that chose us—seem, on the surface, quite dissimilar.

Donna finished college in the customary four years; it took me 31. (I got distracted by other things along the way.)

I’ve been married twice. Donna has never been married, although she has a long-time partner, Jerry, who has been in her life almost as many years as Tony has been in mine.

I’ve owned a home since I was 20 years old and have always dealt with yard work, peeling paint, leaky roofs, and remodeling projects. Donna has rented for 40 years (something that makes more and more sense to me the older I get).

Despite this, she has been the responsible one, always holding a full-time job with good benefits, while I’ve indulged my irresponsible inner free spirit with a series of dozens of jobs over the decades, many of them part-time, most without benefits.

I have a blended family that includes four kids (most with some degree of free-spiritedness themselves). She has one stepson (and he’s ultra-responsible, too).

Given our differing backgrounds and the different life decisions we’ve made, perhaps it’s a bit surprising that we forged such an early, enduring, and fulfilling friendship. However, the qualities that make us soulmates transcend the details of our family backgrounds, where we live, or how many kids we have.

We are both introverts who can happily spend all day alone, or with just each other, but are easily exhausted when we’re forced to go “among the people.”

We both love cats. She has two; I have three. She knows that two is a sensible number of cats. I confess that if it weren’t for Tony’s objections, I might well have six. Maybe more.

We love our homes. We love them so much that we grieve when we have to leave them for work. We text each other, “It would be a perfect day to stay home and do projects,” and “I’m feeling sad because when I leave the house today it will be ten hours before I can come home,” and “I wish I could just stay home with the cats today.”

We both love a good project, from the planning to the execution to the sense of satisfaction when we’re done.

And we both love camp. We never feel more like ourselves than when we’re there, whether we’re swimming, kayaking, relaxing on the deck, reading byIMG_2711 the woodstove, or doing a project.

We both love email and texting but hate talking on the phone. Although we probably logged several thousand hours talking to each other by phone in the first 30 years or so of our friendship, if either of us gets an actual phone call from the other nowadays, we can be pretty sure it’s either a major crisis or a pocket-dial.

But the most valuable aspect of our friendship, and the reason it has not only endured, but flourished, is the sense of comfort and security that comes from being truly seen, known, and understood by another person—and being loved anyway.

How many of our conversations include the words, “I wouldn’t tell this to anyone else, but…”?

To whom else could we reveal not only our soaring hopes and our greatest fears, but also our most embarrassing moments, our meanest thoughts, our most unflattering pettiness?

As two women who are nearly always viewed by others as unfailingly calm and polite, whose stock-in-trade is our willingness to be helpful and kind, we find great relief, now and then, in giving our better angels a rest.

My daughter uses the hashtag “#textsfromyourthirties” on Instagram to (over)share conversations with her sister and friends. (It’s pretty funny; you should check it out.) If Donna and I created “#textsfromyoursixties” it would be full of posts like this:

IMG_2755“Everyone thinks I’m so nice, but really I just want to hit them.” IMG_2749

“Why does everyone always want to talk to me?”

“If people knew how mean we are, they wouldn’t like us nearly as much. And that might be a relief.”

IMG_2748“I want to scream, ‘I just want to go home!’ but that would be inappropriate.”

Although he may not be famous for his pithy texts, Ralph Waldo Emerson is known for his nuggets of wisdom, and he hit the nail on the head when he said, “A friend is a person with whom I may be sincere. Before him, I may think aloud.”

Or text, with impunity.

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BFFF: Our Origin Story

Donna_and_Amy_bridge   Donna_and_Amy_bridgeThis weekend, my best friend, Donna, and I are celebrating the golden anniversary of our friendship—BFFF: Best Friends For Fifty. In comic book terminology, an “origin story” is an account or back-story revealing how characters gained their superpowers. This is ours.     

Fifty years ago this September, on the morning of my second day of second grade, I waited for the bus at the end of Marshall Street. My older sister, Leslie, the only one of my siblings still at home, had already left the house to walk to the high school, or catch a ride with her best friend Mary Lee’s older brother, Johnny, whom my mother trusted because he lived across the street and was our paperboy.

As on the previous morning, my mother had packed a peanut butter sandwich, an apple, and two cookies in my red plaid metal lunchbox, and taped two nickels—one for snack milk, one for lunch milk—inside the lid. She sat at the wooden table beside the kitchen window with me, sipping black coffee while I ate my Cheerios and milk and drank a tiny glass of orange juice. Then she drove me the tenth of a mile to the bus stop on the corner, because it was on her way to work.

The day before, on the first day of school, she had parked the car and waited with me beside the mailboxes that belonged to the two almost-identical ranch houses across the street until the bus came. But now, on my second day, I was an old hand at the bus routine, and she stopped the car to let me out, bestowed a quick kiss on my cheek, and was gone.

I was the first to arrive at the bus stop, ahead of the four Milewski siblings, who lived across the street from us, in a house almost hidden behind overgrown spruce trees. The Milewskis, two boys and two girls, had been the only other kids at the bus stop yesterday, and my mother had made sure we all introduced ourselves, but they hadn’t spoken to me again, and none of them had turned out to be in my grade.

This morning, though, a moment after my mother’s station wagon disappeared around the corner onto Ford Street, the front door of one of the houses across the street opened, and a woman in a flowered house dress stepped out, followed by a freckled girl with short dark hair, her bangs cut in a straight line across her forehead like my own.

I watched as they walked together down the path to the driveway, then down the driveway to the street, and across to the bus stop. The woman, who was much younger than my own mother, and tiny, walked right up to me, propelling the little girl toward me with a hand between her shoulder blades.

“This is Donna,” she said. “What’s your name?”

I told her, keeping my eyes downcast and pretending a sudden interest in the toes of my saddle shoes.

“What grade are you in? Who’s your teacher? Mrs. Mendelsohn! You’re in Donna’s class! You two must have met yesterday.”

Without raising my head, I studied Donna from beneath my lashes, and saw that she was doing the same to me. Had she been in my class yesterday? I couldn’t remember, nor could I recall her mother in the throng of parents who walked their kids to the door of the classroom on the first day of school. There were nearly thirty kids in my new class, and so far all I knew was that there were three boys named Michael.

“I need to ask you a favor,” Donna’s mother was saying to me. “Are you used to taking the bus?”

I thought about the question. The year before, I had gone to a different elementary school, Point Beach, because it was just down the hill from the house where my mother took care of a little boy while his parents worked. I walked to school then, with my friend Susan. But now my mother had a new job, as the librarian at another of Milford’s seventeen elementary schools, so I was attending West Main Street School, where Leslie had gone to school through the eighth grade. It was across the busy Boston Post Road, and too far for second-graders to walk in any case, so now I was a bus kid.

Yesterday had been my first time on the bus, but I had taken it twice—to school in the morning and home again in the afternoon, where Leslie was waiting to meet me. And when my mother got home from work, she had told me I was “an old hand” at the bus routine now, and would not need her to wait with me the next morning.

So I nodded.

“Good,” said Donna’s mother. “This is Donna’s very first time on a bus. Will you take care of her, and make sure she gets to school safely, and home again this afternoon?”

“Okay,” I said, relieved, because this was an easy job.

I took my duties seriously, leading the way up the bus steps as soon as the rowdy Milewski siblings had boarded. I steered my new charge to the seat directly behind the driver, Irene, where I had sat alone yesterday.

“This is Donna,” I told Irene importantly. “It’s her first time on the bus.”

“Yeah?” said Irene. She cracked her gum and said nothing more.

Donna and I rode the bus together, sharing a seat, for the rest of elementary school. That first day, I took care of her, as her mother had asked. After that, we looked out for each other—on the bus, at school, and everywhere else we went. We guarded each other from mean boys, mean girls, mean bus drivers, and mean teachers. We passed notes in class, spent hours on the phone, and wrote letters every day during the summers, when she was in Milford and I was in Maine.

We were Brownies and Girl Scouts together.

We grew up and went to high school and got our driver’s licenses together.Donna_and_Amy_Milford_1977

We’ve shared dozens of birthdays, hundreds of sleepovers, and thousands of tears.

When my first husband left for good, I called her before his car was out of the driveway.

When her brother had a terrible accident, I knew before I picked up the phone that she was calling with bad news.

Her mother calls me her second daughter. Donna had a place in my mother’s obituary, listed as her “third daughter.”

Over the years we have helped each other navigate relationship drama, workplace aggravation, and health crises—and now, menopause, arthritis, and absentmindedness.

After fifty years, we’re still taking care of each other.

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