Unlike most of my skills that have deteriorated with age – nailing cartwheel splits, remembering the names of people I meet five minutes after they introduce themselves, and sleeping through the night – my ability to form and keep good friends has improved over time.
Early on, I blundered badly.
My first friends were the kids who lived in my neighborhood and tolerated my company because they couldn’t play hide-and-seek alone. Chief among them was Wendy, a girl with a dutch-boy haircut and one of those garden statues of a black jockey holding a lantern on her front lawn.
Wendy and I saw each other daily for years, yet I can recall only one interaction – the time she took me by the hand, led me into her basement and showed me how she could pee in a metal bucket.
The shock of seeing her shuck her shorts and squat obliterated any fragments of fonder memories.
At some point in elementary school, I moved on to Lissa. That relationship left more permanent traces. Shame has a way of etching deeply into your soul.
Lissa was smart and sweet but had what we now call developmental disabilities, which meant that she had even fewer friends than I did.
Her mother, knowing my reputation as a good, polite girl, must have thought I’d make a nice friend for Lissa. And my mother, thinking it was an act of kindness, encouraged me to go play with the poor girl.
Little did they know that when we were left alone, my inner bully emerged. With no grown up watching, I made sure I always got to be the privileged princess to her scullery maid. The overbearing teacher to her cowering pupil. The chooser, the winner, the umpire and the boss
Looking back, I blame the way I mistreated her on powerless sibling syndrome, which might not be listed in the official compendium of psychological trauma, but as anyone who grew up as the youngest of three or more kids in a family will attest – damn well should be.
So, so many nights I went to bed, terrified of threats that my brother and sister would slip into my room while I slept and cut off my waist-length hair. So, so many tears because they called me “Bucky Beaver,” the mascot of Ipana toothpaste, and taunted me by singing the advertising jingle – all because I had an overbite from sucking my thumb.
My brother recently unearthed a few home movies, so I now have documentation to confirm that I did not imagine the abuse.
One installment shows him and my sister putting me – at about six or seven months old – into a cradle and rocking it maniacally while my head bobbles on its tender stalk.
I understand now that it was all a gift.
I am deeply indebted to my siblings for making me resilient.
At the time, though, I didn’t appreciate the blessing in disguise.
(No upside, alas, for Lissa.)
Junior high school offered a much larger pool of potential friends and some hope that I would have more luck. But as nearly everyone except the top .05 percent of you who enjoyed adolescent glitterati status knows – grades 7 through 9 are living hell, one the cruelest crucibles in human experience.
I quickly attached myself to Judy, a bright girl who at first seemed to enjoy hanging out with me.
Until she got popular.
It took me awhile to figure out she had dumped me. The crushing moment finally came when I was talking to her on the phone one evening and realized that at some point during the conversation she had put down the phone and walked away.
She did not hang up. She just left the receiver dangling and left. Metaphorically, it makes sense. When you no longer want to be friends with someone, especially if they have done nothing despicable, it’s hard to make a clean break. Few of us have the courage to come out and say, “It’s over.” So we make excuses. Avoid. And hope that the relationship gently topples off a cliff.
In high school, I had one true girl friend, Caren, who will always hold a tender place in my memory and my heart. But I found that boys could be better, and less emotionally complicated, friends.
I ended up marrying one of them and he remains my best, lifelong friend.
It was not until I left home that I met the woman who became the equivalent of “The One.” Jane and I lived across the hall from one another freshman year in college and it is no exaggeration to say she changed my life.
When I was at my worst, she tolerated my crippling insecurity. Later on, she opened my world. Inspired me. Challenged me. And persuaded me to hitchhike across the Sahara. We have not lived in the same city since 1980.
We only talk every few months or so. See each other once a year, if that. Still, we remain close and I suspect, always will.
As an adult, like most of us, I have made great friends with some of the parents of my kids’ friends.
They are like arranged marriages. Your kids choose for you. Sometimes those friendships endure even after your children no longer hang out together. (Judy E., xoxo.) But during the years when you are overwhelmed by work and kids and don’t sleep and the only time you and your husband have alone together is when one or both of you is comatose – a lot of friendships drift. (Glad we have reconnected, Karen.)
Work friends, too, come and go with circumstance.
I met one of my dearest when I interviewed her for a story about dog walkers in the city. (Wendy, kindred spirit.) Another defended me when I was sued for libel. We won, but I would have loved her even if we hadn’t. (We’re overdue for dinner, Katherine!)
My job as a journalist made forming friendships among colleagues easy in some respects. Our assignments together could be intense. Spend two weeks in Haiti with a photographer covering the aftermath of a cataclysmic earthquake and you form a special bond. (Miss you David.) Stay up until 2 a.m. with an editor, reorganizing ideas and fine-tuning sentences in a magazine piece that took months to report and write, and you share a piece of one another’s soul. (Love you Avery.)
But journalists are peripatetic (Miss you, Deb.) And an endangered species, especially at newspapers where layoffs and buy-outs have turned the workplace social life into one long good-bye party. (Miss you Loretta and Karl and Miriam and Jeff…. I’ll spare you. It would be longer than the list of thank-you’s at an Oscar acceptance speech, not including my mother and God.)
Which brings me to the present.
Having retired, but taken up full-time work as a grandmother, I have less free time than I’d expected.
And I’ve grown pickier about how and with whom I spend that time.
So the hour I spend every two weeks or so with my therapist has become more precious than ever. She has advised, supported, reality-checked and empathized with me along every bump in the road since my kids were born. And, within limits, I have been a friend to her, too.
Over time, I am sure my daughter Ariel will form this kind of relationship as well with some of her clients.
From long and sometimes excruciating experience, I know that forming friendships with other women is a lot like dating. And just as weirdly confounding.
You meet some potential candidates and know right away that the chemistry is there, despite your differences.
I had a good friend in college who was a born-again Christian. We would debate religion endlessly and never agree, but enjoyed each other’s company and cared about each other nonetheless.
Others just don’t spark the je ne sais quoi.
They might have everything in common with you – they run with dogs and bake blueberry pies, loved reading Atonement and disdain the trickle down theory. You have absolutely no reason not to be friends with them, and cannot explain why you just don’t want to accept their repeated invitations to come over and hang out.
One of the stickiest situations is when you start out thinking you’ve found your new best friend, and after a few months, find you’d rather a rare free afternoon spooning with your dogs than going out for coffee with her. (Unfair, I realize. Who can compete with a bud like this?)
What confounds is that this friend may not have committed any crime of amity. Never insinuated that your artist son should get a real job or brought regifted junk wine to dinner or kept a stash of bump stock in her pantry. You don’t dislike her. You don’t want to hurt her feelings. You just don’t want to invest your time and energy in this relationship.
There is no way to exit gracefully.
Which allows you to forgive the really-not-so-mean girl who got tired of listening to you pour your heart out, and quietly, furtively, walked away. The friendships that last over decades and distance have a remarkable, latent pliability and strength. When life’s inevitable spears of pain pierce one of us, we know we can count on one another. We know we will not have to suffer alone through chemo or widowhood or, god help us, the rest of the stable genius’s term in office.
I am lucky to have a few of these keepers.
And I am comforted beyond words that my children do too.
As they have grown up, we have become friends to one another – the truest kind. I did not have this kind of bond with my parents. It was an unexpected gift.
But when I exit – don’t worry kids, it’s not imminent – I know that all three of them will have people who will remember their birthdays, tell them honestly when they are acting like idiots and give them safe harbor in this bomb cyclone of life.
By Melissa Dribben
Melissa is the mother of Ariel Stern and a professional journalist. She and Ariel contribute to our blog by writing posts that mirror each other – one from the perspective of her mother and the other from Ariel’s therapeutic lens.