Girlfriend Magic

Emerald Isle North Carolina

Long, long ago, at the first hint of connection with someone interesting – someone of the opposite sex – I got a shivery, fluttery, electric feeling. Magical!

I still know that feeling. I felt it last spring when I reunited with an old friend.

At first it was awkward. We did the obligatory greeting thing: she told me I looked great, I said I loved her hair (gone silvery salt-and-pepper since the last time I’d seen her), she liked my perky metallic tennis shoes. I could tell she was a little worried about how I might view the changes she had undergone since I last saw her a decade before. I was, too. Even we confident women are a bit self-conscious about our aging appearances.

As we walked to her car, we glanced furtively in each other’s direction. Or maybe we were mentally pinching ourselves to say this is real, we are really together again.

I had made the trip east for an errand related to my parents’ burial arrangements, but I decided to stop first to see her. Happily, my visit coincided with the premiere of a documentary she produced after five long, hard years of work. I felt like I was watching Cinderella at the ball as she was appreciated by literati, family and friends. That was supposed to be the end of it, a quick weekend in town before I traveled north to Washington, D.C.

She knew that my trip to DC would be a pilgrimage. It wasn’t just an errand to secure a date for my father’s honor burial at Arlington. I was preparing the way for my mother and father’s final passage. It was the last thing that I would be able to do for them.

She insisted on coming with me. We stopped for two nights at Emerald Isle on the Crystal Coast of North Carolina, a place that factors large in her own history. Long talks, more than a little wine ensued. Then she drove me north through rural roads all the way to Washington.

Though we entered the Virginia side on a nondescript highway, I felt like I had passed through the gates of a mythical realm. I remember almost nothing from the years my family lived in the area, when my father served as Executive Officer at Marine Corps Barracks. But I knew of those years, the importance that they held in my mother’s memory and the long impact they had on my father.

Everything I saw, heard and felt over the next few days was amplified, like Dorothy finding herself in the technicolor world of Oz. I traced my father’s footsteps, imagined him leading the Evening Parade, even saw my Mom among the flowers at Washington National Cathedral.

It would have been hard to make the journey alone. But my friend knew that. She knew that before I did.

Back and forth. In conversation, we girlfriends have an unwritten code. We instinctively listen to our friends, who in turn draw us out, before we turn the conversation back to them. Back and forth.

But there is another pendulum in our lives. We bond, are pulled apart by the demands of our lives, and only later have the space in our lives to reconnect. Anna Quindlen writes brilliantly about the importance of girlfriends:

…(if) you push her on how she really makes it through her day, or more important, her months and years, how she stays steady when things get rocky, who she calls when the doctor says ‘I’d like to run a few more tests’ or when her son moves in with the girl she’s never much liked or trusted, she won’t mention any of those things. She will mention her girlfriends. The older we get, the more we understand that the women who know and love us — and love us despite what they know about us — are the joists that hold up the house of our existence. Everything depends on them….

When I think back, I realize that in my own life there was a girlfriend interregnum, a time during which I lost the knack for, the connection to, but never the need for close female friends…. Perhaps only when we’ve made our peace with our own selves can we really be the kind of friends who listen, advise, but don’t judge, or not too harshly. My friends now are more cheerleader than critic. They are as essential to my life as my work or my home, a kind of freely chosen family, connected by ties of affinity instead of ties of blood….

As we grow older the mythology has it that female friendships falter because we compete, for everything from the alpha job to the alpha male, but I didn’t find that to be true. What I did find was that a frantic existence left too little time for friendship as it ought to be configured, deep and consistent. For decades I was focused on my work, my kids, my routine….

…(I)n the end we wind up with the friends who really stick. Being female, we pride ourselves on doing for them, on listening to them complain or cry, on showing up with a cake or a casserole and taking charge when disaster strikes. But the measure of our real friends, our closest friends, is that we let them do the same for us. We’ve been taking charge for decades; to let go, to take help instead of charge, is the break point of friendship.” (from Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake)

I wrote this post in response to a request from my friend’s sister to send along a note in honor of her 60th birthday. Reuniting with my friend of 30 years ago has been one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received. So happy birthday, dear Sharon, I wish us many happy returns.

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