29 July 2010

Friends: Then and Now, Here and There

My old friend Jane has broken her foot. Once, long ago, our lives were seamless; now we visit rarely on Facebook or email, face to face in summer. There is great affection there that distance does not end. I want to show up at her door, prepare her dinner, sit by her side, but she has others and I am visiting for just a short time. Still, my heart reaches out to her, I want to bring her comfort. This is what old friends do in time of need.

Other friends are dealing with less tangible hurts. The woes of children, unemployment, transitional futures. I listen. I sympathize. I proffer a few words of comfort or commiseration. This is all I can do. I am a long-distance friend now. I made a move across country, thusa different sort of friend now. Neither good weather nor bad weather friendship, merely occasional, in the truest sense of the word. We share big birthdays, weddings, seasonal holidays. On summer visits we walk at the beach, dine, sit by a pool, or take a day in the city, a trip to the theater. Good times, albeit few and far between. In between, emails and phone calls and comfort provided long-distance when possible.

My friend Ginger would say that I have exiled myself, and perhaps there is some truth to this. Those of us who make a move suffer the distance, despite the joys of creating a new life. Nothing is perfect, these are the trade-offs of a late-life change. The very essence of change, for better and not.

When I make my way East, I try to see all those most dear, and I am grateful to have so many to visit. I make the effort to visit regularly mostly for me, but also to ensure that they know there is someone who loves them still, despite distance. We pick up conversations as if sentences still hanging from a recent conversation, and for many this is true, as email and Skype and cell phones keep us close. I often wonder what it was like for pioneers who ventured across oceans and vast landscapes without any contact, loved ones left permanently behind. Refugees and holocaust victims who never again enjoy the sound of voices that warm their hearts or see the smiles that sustain their lives. Imagine the wait for letters that never arrive?

Visiting CT, where for 26 years I built home and career, is like walking backward in my own footsteps, and, as if stepping into old shoes, there is great familiarity and comfort. Although, as one might expect, footsteps don’t conform quite as perfectly to my prints these days; perhaps age, perhaps the effect of sandals and flip-flops worn more often now, my arches fallen a bit, my toes spread closer to the ground.

Time together now is what we once called quality time. Quantity is no longer possible. Quantity without quality is acquaintance, not friendship, while quality keeps a friend forever. I miss the spontaneity of a trip to town, a quick cup of tea and conversation, the days and nights of friendship that cement bonds over time. Still, the time we spend together has meaning, and each year we reconvene, picking up where we left off. We raised our children together. We struggled through job losses, kids’ heartaches and missteps, divorces, depression, loss of our parents, illness, joy, and all the joys of the good lives we've had. In our old age we elevate good times in our minds and hearts, and forget those that are best left forgotten. We share values and have shared experience, irreplaceable and unforgettable, and these keep us bonded.

My women friends are my sisters, replacing those I never had, and their husbands my anchors and adopted brothers. These are the people who ground me, the link between childhood and age, east coast and west. If I belong to anyone, I belong to them, although I am the one who left home, returning each summer like a college girl to recharge before returning to my adopted life. Most of them remain in place, cemented to community and family. Many in the same jobs, the same houses. I admire their steadfastness, their connection to community. I slide myself in for a while like a thief and slip away again to another life. So far, it works, but not without the tug on my heart, always.

I have found lovely new friends. Common ground in a sense of place, late life choices, life in transition, shared pastimes. In the current vernacular, we are present. New friends are made largely through work, paid or volunteer, or neighborhood connections. We are friendly companions. Fellow wanderers. True friendship takes time. It is an evolution. Cemented each time we laughed and each tear shed and thus as deeply constructed as bricks with slowly dried mortar, bonds that last forever, no matter the frequency of contact. I suspect I will never have friends in California that match my friends in CT and NYC. But, different is not necessarily less worthy, and lucky the woman like me who has both.