Make new friends but keep the old
One is silver, the other gold
Long ago I learned this little ditty. Maybe it was from Miss Alice at Dingdong School Days, one of the only children’s televisionshows available so many years ago. Along with the Story of Babar, The Little Train that Could and the poems of Robert Louis Stevenson, this particular chant has lodged itself in my head from childhood.
Friends feel so important to us. They provide us with a mirror so that we like ourselves better. They can be supportive, helpful but also destructive. Today with an emphasis on social media, fitting in, team and collaborative work, friends often substitute for family or rather, become our new families.
Let’s face it: no one loves their families 100% of the time. My mother would resentfully quote my Auntie Marion (who might close the door of her house in your face if you had not called first), “You can choose your friends but not your family”. Marion would pontificate and my mother would fume.
But it is true. However, over the years, when friends like seasons have changed, the enduring faces by your side are most likely your family’s. Like them or not.
No surprise that I had limited friends as a child. Living at the edge of Forest Hill behind our store, I did not belong to the country clubs, synagogues or in-groups where the girls with pearls and poodles on flaring skirts resided. Next door to me was a girl named Helena. We played together because we were ostracized by the others and it was convenient to have a friend who lived next door, especially one whose father was the owner of a drugstore where you could sit for hours undisturbed and devour the latest comic books and maybe be treated to an additional coke or bag of chips.
Helena was gawky, a good-hearted girl with raging untamable hair. But I don’t think we liked each other much. I recall one day making fun of her Hebrew name, Henya, laughing because the name reminded me of a horse’s laugh. She was nicknamed “giraffe” by the malevolent kids at West Prep Elementary because she was tall. In one of my less kindly moments, I too used her hated moniker that so upset her and she shot back at me by saying, “Well, your name ( in Hebrew) is Pessy” and she pointed between her legs to suggest…well, you know what she was saying. I felt betrayed, angry and decided no real friend would ever make such a horrible connection.
We trudged back and forth to school together for years and into high school, social outcasts. My mother suggested we join B’nai B’rith, a social organization for Jewish kids so Helena and I could spread our social circle. We did, and so we had a Saturday night outlet where we might meet boys from other Toronto schools such as Bathurst Heights or McKenzie. We hung together because of convenience, arguing, competing, at least having one friend each, just because it was easy and we had each other: both misfits from the popular crowd.
But in Grade 12, a miraculous thing occurred. One of the semi-popular girls, actually a prefect from high school, Sara began to talk to me. She was in my English class and I was a very good writer, and an acknowledged first rate student with serious thoughts to contribute to the teacher’s probing on books. I was occasionally asked to read my compositions, as they were then called, outloud to the class.
In spite of a quaking trembling, unsure voice, something in my story touched Sara( names have been changed) and she felt I might be worth knowing. I even recall the story that connected us and it concerned a handicapped boy, ostracized and resentful of his peers. He drags himself to a hill overlooking school and crushes bugs with a St. Christopher metal, obviously based on my myself, my father and his polio, however,the cruel remarks of the teacher, a Mr. Meeson, who announced that the reading of it did not do it justice seared and further embarrassed me. Yet Sara was undeterred.
So began a real friendship of sharing ideas, sitting outside school on the grass in the sun, and really talking about what mattered to us. I began to understand what it meant to have a friend: and it was worth much more than a free bag of fritos.
Bahtkin has written about dialectics and how we build conversations, listening to one another, as if creating the levels of a tower, joyously zigging and zagging upwards as we listen and add to our conversations as they grow sideways, broadening and deepening the topics that are brightened and made meaningful by the extensions added and queried. I felt valued, treasured as a friend. It made my heart soar. Our conversations opened up a new world; Sara’s experiences different, expanding my own.
I recall feeling that my parents were not fond of Sara and certainly her parents would not have chosen me as a confidant of their daughter, she, a prefect, top student at FHCI; me, a nobody who lived at the edge of the school’s boundary. Although I cannot fathom now what it actually was that made our choice unpalatable to both of our parents, I imagine it began because of difference in class, and later because of parent resentment : that too much time, too much kept from the scrutiny of parental eyes; fear that one’s offspring is being lead towards places and influences unacceptable or challenging to parental authority.
Maybe we did spend too much time together, confiding secrets, dreams and desires in one another too much, chortling and gossiping as teenage girls do when they feel they are insiders, parents the outsiders, to a new and magical world. Who knows? When I spent a summer in California a year before, American parents seemed to care little as their offspring like roving beachcombers checked in rarely, off day and night to do as they pleased, to watch sunrises, conglomerate at the shore at all hours,to just hang. Parents were blurry markers on a dim hillside, their voices far and intertwined in their own issues.
At university Sara introduced me to her other friends, friends from fancy camps where rich kids go every summer; we took family car trips to Florida that at least got us out of the city and allowed my father a chance to drive the cars he loved.
Of all of Sara’s friends, I was drawn to Catherine. She seemed the more introverted, deep and unapproachable. I was being permitted to enter into the holy binds of a friendship club where The Little Prince by Antoine de St. Exupery was our mantra. I concurred as the little prince did, that what is essential is invisible to the eye: that only with the heart, does one see correctly.
In the social realm as well, life had improved although I would never understand why the taming of my own wild hair and the discrete application of eyeliner would open a whole new world for me, how fellows who had passed me in the hall with ridicule in high school, would now awaken to see me with new eyes. At university, they would literally beg for a date. It was my greatest thrill to permit them to take me for an expensive dinner and then I would dump them: retaliating for my former treatment in high school. “ What? You went to Forest Hill?”, they would intone in absolute surprise. I merely batted my newly-mascaraed eyelashes, smiled my rueful smile and refused to speak to them ever again.
How was it possible that they could not see I was the same person as in those dull high school years, only now better packaged? I proceeded to add their names to a long list of those dated and dispatched: A for Alan and Arnold, Alex; B is for Bob J, Bob C, Bill… It became a way to fall soundly asleep, counting the boys I had refused a second date.
But having girl-friends was like warming oneself in the glow of a fire. Every Friday noon, my friends and I would dash to hold court at The Coffee Mill, on Yorkville at the edge of U of T’s campus, delightedly languishing over lunches and coffee. And one incredible year, my friends treated me to celebrate my birthday in a cosy corner at the Benvenuto restaurant. I can still taste the incredible onion soup, softly candle lit, a welcoming banquette but more so, the comfort of acceptance, love and reassurance of being surrounded by people who not only “get you” but share the same appreciation of books and art. You are the marshmallow in the hot chocolate and you want that experience to last forever, feeling more of yourself to be amplified and made better by those surrounding you.
But life changes, people may grow apart and so did all of us.
Today I have accumulated new friends, easily. From my Pilates class, there is Julie and Ralph whose various interests and travel have lead us into new areas of exploration. Their excitement for travelling to Africa, especially the gorillas in Ruanda, triggered our own safaris to Botswana and South Africa. Previously I taught about Africa , but never dreamed that I would ever go there. Their excursions made me pursue it as a reality.
And Bailey approached me in a painting class. Still unspeaking, introverted, I did not reach out to her and yet, somehow we connected. We share similar conflicts and her comprehension and support have overwhelmed me.
Sandra is my mentor. She has children maybe 10 years younger than me, but her intelligence in knitting, sewing and quilting have resulted in out trips to Haliburton to further pursue our craft interests. I see her as a Renaissance woman, wise in areas beyond the crafts, thoughtful and interesting. She is also a business woman.
Andrea is a former teacher with whom I once taught, our relationship surviving where others did not. We spend more time together than when we were colleagues.Her insight and friendship substantiate one of the most important corner stones in my life.
Emma and I share a love of art history and interest in medical issues. We both love figure drawing.
Lately Mandy introduced me to the lunchtime concerts at the Richard Bradshaw where I am transported and opened to a new level of musical magic. We lunch over at the AGO and talk for hours.
Laurel from my old work position offers me new work opportunities. She made me feel valuable as a capable employee and a friend with whom I can enjoy a leisurely and long discussion at a professional level.
There are others too, and I think we add to each others’ lives in diverse and intriguing ways.
When my mother passed away, I heard from two former friends and to thank them , I arranged lunch. Careful not to revisit reasons for the parting of ways, we sat for an hour or so, reconnected, relaxed and I could recall why our relationships had endured for years. But interestingly after the lunches, neither former friend nor I hurried to set up another meeting. It was pleasant, a lovely sojourn but unlike the meetings with present friends, I ( and they, obviosuly) did not burn- as in the old days to see one other again.
Maybe people grow and harden into the people they always were meant to be, in spite of accruing experiences: children, parental issues, spousal upheavals and work situations.
Life is flux, change, adaptability, sadness and occasional moments of happiness. Even if our first friends do not last, we carry with us the memories of those encounters, and we treasure them as we move on.