Lifelong Friendship – A Return to Diapers and Bibs.

My earliest memory of Lori is faded and worn, much as most photographs from the 1960s. I was a tiny thing – I maintain that I was three while Lori insists we were five (we squabble over that detail to this day) – and can still feel the searing in my eyes from the noontime mid-summer sun. Stubbornly, I persevered through my headache because I couldn’t care less about the pea green chairs and brown plaid sofa being unloaded from the moving van. I had one interest and one interest alone as I stood on the sidewalk in front of the house four down from my own. Did the new family have a girl for me to play with?

Those early years with Lori saw hours of hopscotch, chalked with precision on her driveway under my exacting eye. We played Chinese jump rope like pros as I insisted that we practice to perfection. In the fall, we arranged piles of leaves into floor plans for our dream home, arguing over how many bedrooms there’d be. In winter, we built igloos and had spirited snowball fights. In spring, we’d eyeball each other’s new Easter dresses and bonnets, each secretly assured that our own was the prettiest. In summer, we swam in her above ground pool or pumped our legs hard, until the poles of her metal swing set lifted out of the ground, competing to see who could soar highest. And, somewhere along the way, Jackie, who lived around the corner from us, seamlessly joined our adventures and we became a trio.

grade school (2)

Half a century later, I joined my two lifelong compadres for one of our time-to-catch-up dinners. Over the years, we’ve drifted in and out of each other’s lives as our days were commandeered by the usual marriage/kids/careers frenzy that puts all else on hold. Somehow, like a homing device that leads us back to those who knew us in our simplest incarnation, we intuitively convene over food and Pinot Grigio when one of us has hit a life obstacle. What is it about those friendships formed in childhood that we gravitate toward knowing no explanations will be required?

It’s like slicing a baseball in half. At the core, at the very heart of the ball, is a round cork. This is how I picture old friends – stripped down to their authentic selves before life’s demands and responsibilities begin building layers around it. The ball’s center is covered by two sheets of rubber, then four separate layers of tightly wound yarn. Next comes a coating of rubber cement before two coverings of cowhide are applied and stitched into place. Through our lives, we add layers to the raw center of who we are, creating facades, wearing multiple hats, and building an image as we meet our parents’ expectations, peer pressures, career demands, and become upstanding members of society.

baseball

I’ve known Lori and Jackie since we were cork. I don’t have to wonder about their upbringing or life events that have made them the resilient, polished women they are today. I don’t have to question why Jackie’s children have been openly and unabashedly showered with her love since they were born. I know without asking why Lori is fiercely loyal yet emotionally delicate. And, in turn, they understand why I am demanding and defiant.

As we raised our glasses to toast fifty years of friendship, I realized that I never notice our time-worn faces, professionally enhanced hair color, or crow’s feet. Age spots on hands go undetected. Softening abdomens and saddlebags disappear as these friends are forever youthful through my retrospective lens. I see three little girls with flowing blond hair; I hear Lori’s infectious giggle; I picture Jackie’s open and engaging smile; I recall my endless rebelliousness.

As children, a favorite pastime was slapping metal roller skates onto the bottom of our sneakers and racing to Schmidt’s Corner Deli to peruse the shelves of chocolate and jars of penny candy. We’d pool our money – allowances or loose change dug out from under sofa cushions – then calculate what we could get when divided by three. Candy cigarettes made us look cool. Wax lips were both entertaining and tasty. Often, we’d settle on candy necklaces because who wouldn’t want edible fashion? After we made our selections, we’d hang out on Schmidt’s porch and greet other friends who came and went until I had to leave for my afternoon schedule of homework and piano practice, followed by an hour of baton twirling.

            Them: “Why do you have to do this every day? You never get a break!”

            Me: “You don’t get really good at something unless you work at it.”

            Them: “Yeah, but we want to play, and you’re always busy.”

            Me: “If I don’t get straight A’s and practice piano and baton, I’ll get in trouble.”

And, off I’d go, conflicted. I was sad to think of my friends having fun without me, and nearly tempted to stay a little longer, but I was more afraid of my mother’s reaction if I disobeyed her.

By the time we hit our early teens, my friends were used to the demands on my time, and I had learned how to game my parents’ system. As boys became more important to me, I spent less time procrastinating and became efficient in accomplishing my chores. Also, I’d learned to remove the screen from my bedroom window so I could sneak out whenever I pleased. Our favorite place to hang was a nearby busy road where carloads of teens would cruise up and down. We perched ourselves there on the split rail fence in front of the motorcycle dealership and waited for the ego-boosting honks of appreciation. Often missing from those adventures was Lori.

              Lori: “I can’t make it. I have to do the laundry and vacuum.”

              Us: “How about when you’re done? Meet us then.”

              Lori: “I can’t. I have to watch my little brothers and sister.”

              Us: “How about when your parents get home?”

              Lori: “They won’t be back until really late. Go without me.”

A huge milestone was when I was the first of us to get my driver’s license. We immediately gained the freedom we’d been craving since watching older teens cruise past as we waved from the wooden fence. Soon, we were driving with the rest of the group, stopping at a 7-Eleven for a Slurpee with me showily twirling the car keys around my index finger. That summer we cruised back and forth to the Jersey shore several nights a week just because we could. My parents thought they’d curtail my roaming by denying me access to their cars. No problem. Jackie’s mom let me drive hers so off we went. For hours we cruised, often with no destination in mind. When it was time for Lori and me to get home, Jackie would usually go with one or the other of us.

              Us: “Don’t we need to get your mom’s car back?”

              Jackie: “Nah. She doesn’t care.”

              Us: “Well, you should call and let her know you won’t be home tonight.”

              Jackie: “It’s okay. She probably won’t even notice.”

Fifty years of friendship. We’ve been each other’s cheering section, best audience, and most honest critic. We’ve been there through it all. First kisses, first loves, first heartbreaks. Family history, family dynamics, family secrets. Marriage, children, divorce, death. We’ve argued and hurt each other’s feelings and always moved beyond. We do more than listen and sympathize. We know. Know, only in a way possible because we’ve been together from the time we were cork.

Today

Our recent dinner was both a celebration and the mourning of Lori’s impending move to South Carolina. For numerous reasons, this is the best decision for her family, and we are excited for her. For selfish reasons, Jackie and I will miss the easy camaraderie that comes with our lifelong friendship. Always sentimental after a couple of long pours of wine, I lamented that it’s hard to break up a trio that’s been together practically since we were in diapers and bibs.

“But,” I said, thinking about buying Depends from the smirking teenager at Walgreen’s (long road trips can be tricky and sneezing fits are a big mess), “I guess we’ve been friends so long that we actually need diapers again.”

Jackie looked pointedly at the blob of salad dressing that had landed on my chest and said, “And bibs.”

Lori laughed that infectious laugh and said, “I guess when you’ve been friends as long as we have, you come full circle.”

 

…The Girl’s Girl

Girl's Girl

I met Jennifer at the farm stand. We got to chatting about the unbearable humidity that had plagued the U.S. northeast for much of the summer. We agreed that the only comfortable places to be were in air conditioning or a swimming pool. Although we’d never met before, she was one of those people with whom I immediately clicked. We talked unhurriedly on a range of topics, including that we were both looking toward retirement. Trying to find the measliest bit of shade to cover us while we chatted, we agreed that we’d prefer to deal with cold and winter over this insufferable heat and humidity.

“Your hair looks great, by the way,” she said.

Confused, I lightly touched it to assess if the humidity had turned my sleekly styled bob into a wiry Brillo pad. “You mean, in spite of the humidity?”

“No,” she said. “No qualifiers. I just like the way you have it styled. It’s very flattering.”

I continued to stare at her, not sure why she was telling me this.

“Isn’t it a shame that women can’t just compliment each other and build each other up,” she continued, “without suspicion of an ulterior meaning?”

Then it hit me. Jennifer is a Girl’s Girl.

I remember as a child, the friends I made were predominantly based on convenience. Who lived nearby. Who was in my class. Happy lunch hours were spent playing hopscotch or duck-duck-goose on the playground. I mainly hung out with my “best friend” or whoever shared my current interest in books and games. I recall being friends with many of the boys, too, particularly those who lived on my street. The only competition I noticed was athleticism – who was best at kickball and therefore chosen first for teams – and report cards. In the fifth grade, things shifted.

A new girl transferred into the school. Colleen was perky and adorable with enviable dimples and a splattering of freckles across her cheeks. The preadolescent boys were gaga, and several girls rushed to befriend her to establish themselves as “popular,” if only by proxy, and I watched the rise of Middle School Mean Girl Mentality. Whereas we’d once all played together as equals, a new hierarchy of who’s in and who’s not was established. Suddenly, cruel names, like “four-eyes,” “fatty,” and “dork” were spit at other girls, thereby verbally discarding former friends. At the tender age of ten-ish, the chubby girl, or the introvert, or the girl with a mouth full of metal, had her developing psyche and sensibilities stomped and ground to a pulp by those jockeying for social position.

In the seventh grade, the competition among the girls became based largely upon their physical appearance. Who was the prettiest? Who was the thinnest? Who was developing breasts? Who did the boys like? Of course, there were still plenty of girls competing academically and athletically, but they weren’t the ones society was instructing us to hold in esteem. Billions of dollars were spent annually on make-up, hair care, diet pills, the latest exercise craze, short skirts and low-cut tops. I don’t recall any of the messaging campaigns for “self-improvement” directed at boys.

By high school, it was clear that, while a girl could excel in areas such as soccer or physics, what was of utmost importance to most was if she was liked. In my own teenage mind, I believed I was in the popular category. That didn’t stop me from anxiously checking my friends’ schedules every day to make sure I would have someone to sit with in the dining hall; it didn’t stop me from spending all week arranging social engagements for Saturday. Better yet, if I had a steady boyfriend at the time, I never had to suffer the humiliation of sitting home over the weekend without plans. The residual insecurity and self-doubt that began during those middle- and high-school years haunt me still.

Are there exceptions to this thesis? Of course. But, it’s not difficult to see the evolution of how girls treat each other and understand the underlying problem. What if, instead of the cattiness and put-downs, girls were raised to encourage and support each other? What if, instead of eying one another to assess if the hair/make-up/weight/clothes were up to some superficial standard, we eyed each other with genuine caring and compassion? What if put-downs were no longer in vogue, having been replaced with build-ups?

And, what if girls weren’t taught that their value lay in youth and allure but, instead, on character and accomplishment? In Beyoncé’s song Flawless, novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says:

We raise girls to see each other as competitors/Not for jobs or for accomplishments/ Which I think can be a good thing/But for the attention of men.

Unfortunately, by the time we graduate high school, this shallow value placed on a woman becomes normalized for many. I can remember in my 20s, one of my college friends was studying a picture of the two of us. It was before I dropped the freshman fifteen I’d put on five years earlier. It was also during the time when she began struggling with bulimia. I can still envision her, as if she’d forgotten I was watching, looking from her image, to mine, and back, using her fingers to measure the thickness of my waist compared to hers, my thighs compared to her thighs. She walked over to a full-length mirror and began turning one way, then the other, to admire how skinny she’d become. Not that there was anything wrong with her wanting to look her best. But, during her short 20-something years, she’d become convinced that her very worth hinged on her appearance.

If we’re lucky, we have role models who can help buck the ideals society dictates. But, those lessons are always in competition with pervasive images and influences that are difficult to ignore. In Hollywood, there is a saying that “there’s always someone younger and thinner.” How many brilliantly talented actresses spend copious amounts of time and money being nipped, tucked, and liposuctioned into plastic-looking oblivion? Renée Zellweger is one of the most acclaimed actresses of her generation, having won multiple awards including an Oscar. Why, then, do entertainment sources concentrate less on her body of work and more on her body, with every pound she gains or loses? Susan Lucci, the undisputed queen of the soap operas with a career spanning over forty years, has undergone the plastic surgeon’s knife over and over to maintain her vixen appearance into her seventies. Sadly, the male-controlled industry continues to reinforce its standard of value. And, tragically, women continue to buy into it.

My girlfriend Kathy, who I’ve known for almost thirty years, is a Girl’s Girl. How many times has she come upon me in the throes of emotional self-flagellation to rescue me from my torment? When my thighs are too big, or my love handles have become a full-blown muffin top, I have only received support and encouragement from her. “I think you look great!” or “Really? I thought you’d lost weight!” When I complain about my slackening jawline or the turkey neck I’m developing, she tells me, “You have beautiful skin, and you always look great.” She builds up my confidence in the areas that have been my lifelong demons and focuses on my accomplishments, instead. When I announced I was taking the plunge and “going for it” as a writer, she became my unpaid marketing hero. This should all be a given between friends, right? Unfortunately, by the time many of us reach middle-age, we are still sifting through the women who are stuck back in that Middle School Mean Girl Mentality. So, when we find those who have managed to leave that all behind and enter friendship with real love, support, and kindness, we hold them dear.

I won’t say I have been above all that nonsense through the years. The appeal of being part of the “in” crowd is strong, and the influence of society is intense. I believe I’ve softened and grown, and I intentionally practice extending kindness to other women as I’ve learned from those in my life, like Kathy. A couple of years ago, I was on a mission trip to Guatemala. Each morning, we’d all meet in the dining room of our hotel for breakfast. Early in the week, I noticed another guest at the hotel, a woman slightly older than me who was always by herself and seemed a bit sad. Something from the Middle School Mean Girl Mentality days stirred in me and it felt like watching a high school classmate sitting alone at the lunch table. I made it a point to catch her eye, offer her a smile, and say “good morning” to her. Each day, I watched her face light up in response. At the end of the week, as we were getting ready to leave, the woman approached me in the lobby.

“I need to tell you,” she began. “I’ve been here all week to visit my son in the hospital. He suffered a brain trauma and has been in a coma. I live in Canada but flew here when I was notified of his accident. I have been sitting by myself at the hospital with him, each day, not knowing if he would survive.”

“Every morning,” she continued, “when I came down for breakfast, I was worried about what I would find when I went over to the hospital. And, every morning, you were in the dining room, smiling at me. You’re a complete stranger, but somehow you could see I needed that smile. Yesterday, the doctors said that my son was going to be okay.”

She reached out to hug me, and for nearly five minutes, we held each other. I had tears in my eyes for all she had been through with her son. She cried with relief that he was going to make it. It was such a small thing on my part, but to learn that merely offering someone a smile had helped her during the darkest time she’d ever faced, made me think.

Women can offer so much – to themselves, to each other, to the world. Why, then, do we allow ourselves to be pitted against one another from a young age? What if a conscious effort was made, instead, to teach our daughters how to build up other women instead of tearing them down? What if we stopped placing such value on the shallow and superficial? What if we cherished character and accomplishment? What if competition was based on how to be our best instead of how to look our best? Imagine how much healthier and happier we’d be if we were all Girl’s Girls like Jennifer and Kathy.