This year I let Liza have an Instagram account as a first tentative foray into seeing how she would manage the big bad world of social media. I have her account access on my phone and daily check in to make sure nothing objectionable is going on. Fortunately the Instagram accounts of thirteen year old girls and their friends consist of endless self portraits in their OODs (Outfits of the Day), quotes from One Direction songs, and lengthy homages to their ‘besties.’ Liza herself posted such a tribute to her best friend complete with the requisite “I would be lost without you” language and photo of them posing wackily in a local restaurant. I love seeing Liza so happy, and her best friend – a lovely and hysterically funny young theater pal — is a delight to have around. They truly adore each other and support each other in the way best friends should. They of course truly believe with the fervor possible only in young teen girls that they will be friends forever. And, they might. But as I watch them do their favorite things – shop, watch movies, do their makeup, talk about boys, run their lines, – I know that for each of them life will bring more than one ‘bestie’ as the years go by and that’s ok. Life is long and when friends, especially best friends, wander into our lives, it’s truly something to be grateful for.
When I was five years old my best friend was a girl named Janet. She is inseparable from my early childhood memories of fort building, sleepovers, lake swimming, movies, and playground drama. Janet was brilliant and a natural athlete. I felt safe in her orbit on the playground, knowing that the other athletic kids wouldn’t pick on her fat best friend out of respect for her. When I think of Janet I think of pickup games of “HORSE” in her driveway, sleeping in the cold of her lake cottage basement during the summer, climbing the huge snow banks of Falmouth in bulky snow-pants and hats, and later, in high school, tutoring each other in our strengths (mine=English, hers=anything math or science) to help the other along in her weak spots. As we grew into teenagers our interests were wildly different and we spent less time together but we never stopped having the connection that comes with having been each other’s first, best friend.
When I was in third grade I met the girl who would become my best friend through most of elementary school, junior high, and high school. Anne was more sarcastic at nine than some adults are their entire lives and I loved her instantly. Over the years we’d lose track of how many times we heard “Katie! Anne! Separate!” from harried teachers frustrated with our inability to keep quiet in each other’s company. We staged elaborate pranks on my uptight older sister, practiced haughty irritation with her pesky younger sister, got in trouble together, (including the one and only thing I never ever told my parents about. No I’m not telling you either), experienced teenage rites of passage together, and spent so much time together it felt strange to be apart. When I think of Annie, one special memory stands out — her mom taking us out of school to go to the Fryeburg fair and stopping on the way to eat a picnic lunch on the shores of Sebago Lake. Sitting together in the abandoned lifeguard chair watching the autumn leaves reflected in the clear surface of the lake, I remember feeling so safe and comfortable in the overwhelming feeling of belonging that came with being with her. So secure in being part of that “best friend” package that is so important to life when you’re 12. Annie and I drifted a bit our last year of high school when the boys we’d known our whole lives suddenly realized she was skinny, athletic, funny, and a catch and her social life exploded leaving me with my Saturday nights of Love Boat and Fantasy Island. We went our separate ways to college and stayed in “Christmas-card” touch for years until Facebook reunited us. I can’t think of Annie without smiling. She is the keeper of the best memories of my Falmouth years and I will never ever forget her.
I traveled to college with a combination of excitement at leaving behind a town where your social status was pretty much set by the time you left kindergarten and the fear that comes with wondering if I’d find any friends waiting for me. Of course I did –Meghan, Dana, Margaret, Ar, Christine, Maureen, Katie and so many others. But it wasn’t until my sophomore year that I met the person who would change my life. Joe and I fell for each other on sight and a best friendship was forged from study dates over Cranberry Cove tea and the Camelot soundtrack, constant quoting of 1970s sitcoms, typing each other’s papers, cavorting backstage and in the costume shop of the Theater Department and wandering around campus looking for new places to sit always exclaiming “we’ve never sat HERE before!” In the years after graduation, before social media, email and texting, we sent each other long letters often covered with cut out photos of sitcom icons Bea Arthur or Isabel Sanford (What? Weezie Jefferson that’s who!). For over twenty-seven years now, there has never been a week we didn’t talk or ‘check in,” a life event (happy or otherwise) we haven’t gone through together, or confidences we haven’t shared. I can count on one hand and not use all my fingers the number of times we’ve ever been upset with or angry at each other, and we’ve never exchanged harsh words. I’m one that chafes at too much overt “support” in tough times but Joe always strikes the right balance. When my sister died after a sudden a brutal cancer battle, Joe’s was one of the first calls I got. “Just remember”, he said, “we will ALWAYS have those FABULOUS stories about how horrible your sister could be.” Perfection. And exactly what I needed to hear at that complicated, difficult time. To say Joe is my best friend is like saying New York is a city in America. It simply doesn’t do it justice, and it can’t come close to conveying all that it truly is.
My life is richer for best friends like these, and so many other dear friends who have chosen to share their lives with me. Adult friendships can be hard. They require care and feeding and mutual respect, and most of all time and attention when life pulls us in so many directions. And as often as I think I’ve succeeded at being a friend I have also failed. And failing a friend is just about one of the worst feelings there is. I remember once my mother receiving a letter from a friend who felt my mom had let her down, not been there, and even went so far as telling my mother she “didn’t have the corner on pain in life.” The words devastated her because she couldn’t believe she had let a friend down in such a great way. I’ve walked that path myself a time or two, (having inherited more than my prematurely gray hair from my mother), and it doesn’t feel good. When I look at Liza and her ‘bestie,’ in the full glorious midst of best friendship I wish for her what my best friends have given me: unconditional love, acceptance, forgiveness, laughter, support, and guidance. And I wish for her that someday she truly understands that being a friend, especially a best friend, is a gift that should never be squandered.
Christmas, 2006 started out promisingly enough. We had attended our usual gathering at a friend’s house on Christmas Eve while Liza enjoyed time with her dad’s family, returning home to us to sleep the excited sleep of a 7 year old waiting for Santa to come. All was calm, all was bright. Until about 3 am, when I was awakened by the unmistakable sound of a child in distress, a child on the verge of getting violently ill. Hoping the incident was simply the result of too many sweets at Grammy’s house she was safely tucked back into bed only to get sick an hour later. By the third time we realized this was the dreaded stomach bug. It proceeded to strike like clockwork every 30-60 minutes for the next fifteen hours. Merry Christmas indeed.
Christmas Day dawned cold and bright and, although we were bleary eyed from the long night we tried to interest Liza in opening a gift or two. But it was no go. Our plans to travel to Massachusetts for Christmas dinner at Kelly’s sisters house were impossible. I sent Kelly on her way with my love to her family and hunkered down for a long quiet day with my sick girl. Her dad came over bearing Gatorade, ginger ale and popsicles courtesy of the gas station convenience store. But even they were no match for this particular strain of stomach bug. The only presents I could entice her to open were some new pajamas (much needed at this point) and an American Girl Doll movie about “Molly, girl detective.” For the next six hours she lay near me while I read and we watched Molly solve the mystery of the Depression-era boarding house over and over and over. Six years later I could probably still recite that movie word for word. I felt sorry for her and sorry for myself. For I knew that under the tree was a present I had scrimped and saved for and carefully packaged to surprise her – tickets to “High School Musical: Live in Concert,” which for a seven year old in 2006 would have been like being in the audience at the Ed Sullivan Show when the Beatles took the stage. In other words, it was BIG. All I wanted was to see her face when she opened that gift and yet my “do you want to open some presents?” question was only greeted with muffled groans and a shake of her head as she burrowed deeper under her blanket.
Eventually later that night Kelly arrived bearing a plate of food from her family holiday dinner. (Can we pause here to thank my then girlfriend for driving 5 hours round trip just to make sure I had a holiday meal?) The stomach flu eventually gave up the ghost, and I tucked Liza into bed thankful for the long ordeal to be over. Christmas had always been my favorite day of the year and I felt sorry for myself, sorry for Liza and cheated out of a day I had anticipated for weeks. “Worst Christmas ever,” I thought. But I was wrong. You see, every year at Christmas Liza and I remember that year of her stomach flu. She remembers being sad, but safe and cuddled up with mom, and the excitement of a Christmas that came on December 26th. (Yes, the High School Musical tickets were a big hit and my eardrums have almost recovered from the experience). I remember a Christmas Day so quiet and so still, when my role was distilled down to the bare bones of motherhood – caring for a sick child – at a time when I daily doubted my ability to effectively parent my complicated girl. I remember the endless loop of that American Girl movie, the way I read the new book Kelly had given me while Liza slept, and the way the plate of turkey and stuffing from her sister’s kitchen felt like the best food I had ever tasted.
Liza is now a lovely young woman of thirteen who has surpassed me in height. The fleecy pajamas she got for Christmas that year have long seen been outgrown and replaced by shorty shorts and tank tops from “Pink.” Tomorrow morning the gifts she opens will come from trendy stores and cosmetic counters as I haven’t entered a Toys R Us to Christmas shop in a few years now, and we no longer set out cookies for Santa (although Mrs. Claus does miss them, truth be told). But every year at Christmas I hold her a little tighter and she permits my embrace a little longer, because every year that sick little girl on the couch is further and further in the past and promise of a young woman heading off to a bright future is a few years closer. And we remember that Christmas that wasn’t about presents or big family dinners. But simply about a mom and her girl.
It’s hardly original to think that the real start of the New Year comes every September when kids go back to school and life shifts from the slower rhythm of summer to the more hectic pace of autumn. I realize that I’m roughly the eleventy billionth writer to use this concept as the theme for an essay. Forgive me, my mind has been dulled by weekend after weekend of sun exposure, coolers full of diet lemon Snapple, five beach novels (3 set on Nantucket and one set on a fictional island that clearly was Nantucket), alfresco dinners, morning walks, and nights spent being grateful for the brilliant invention that is central air conditioning. But the remaining August days are few, and morning sun takes longer and longer to shine, and night sky darkens earlier and earlier. Autumn approaches and with it my seasonal battle with a condition my friend Kath used to call “weltschmerz,” or “world pain.” It starts with a dull ache in my chest as I grapple with the end of another perfect summer, the pit of anxiety in my stomach as I contemplate the schedule-juggling, and heightened work-load that arrives like clockwork after Labor Day, and an inescapable, unnameable sadness that dances at the edges of every day.
Now, as any good native New Englander should, I do love Autumn and its bursts of color, its crisp days, cider donuts, and trips to Mack’s Apples for Cortlands, and the chance to pull my jeans out after they’ve lain forgotten in my bottom drawer all summer. My sadness isn’t even tied to Liza being yet another year older, (although next year when she starts high school perhaps I will recant this declaration), for I love the way each September brings challenges for her in the form of higher levels of dance classes, more advanced classes, new opportunities, and the joy that is watching her bloom into an extraordinary young woman. Rather my “weltschmerz,” is rooted in closing the door on another summer – the season I love most of all – with its slower pace, reduced expectations for productivity, and precious, precious time with my family. I’ve written before about my lack of ambition, and my inability to jump on the workaholic train with any sense of authenticity. Summer fits me perfectly. People slow down, take time off, vanish to summer homes on lakes and beaches, they take lunch hours to stroll downtown or sit at sidewalk tables a bit longer, even at work they are tan, rested, relaxed, happy, as if the burden of work becomes lighter and more bearable between Father’s Day and Labor Day. This is heaven for someone like me, who sees the work day as a major obstacle between me and my time with family and friends. But come the Tuesday after Labor Day and it’s as if a switch has been thrown sending everyone back into “high gear,” (a phrase I particularly loathe).
I cling to my summer the way Liza used to cling to her pacifier as a baby – greedily, angrily, and with the completely certain knowledge that it was going to be taken away at any second. But my petulance is futile. For just as ripping those first red leaves off the Swamp Maples will not slow the steady march of Fall, nor will stomping my feet and pouting stop those around me from changing, and growing and moving on with the business of life, leaving me stuck in “summer mode.”
Yesterday, on our last long-weekend outing of the summer, I noticed the creeping tide of color on the hills over Lake Sunapee, and for a moment I felt that ache in my chest again and wanted to freeze time so we could always stay happy, tanned, relaxed and with a big bag of sour cream and onion potato chips and stacks of good books at our side. But then, as I contemplated the excitement that awaited Liza as the top dog 8th grader at her junior high, the opportunities that awaited Kelly in her new studies, and the (almost terrifying) giddiness I felt at having a new show to rehearse with a completely new company of people, I took a deep breath, said a silent thanks for an absolutely perfect summer, and exhaled. I let summer go. After all, I’m reasonably sure it will be back… someday.
Happy autumn. Happy New Year.