I am defined by my friends.
I am reminded of this every opportunity that we have to extend the leaves of our french farmhouse table from a usual set for just the two of us to accommodate more seating around the table for others.
Having recently moved as an older adult, from a community surrounded by both newer and childhood friends carried through the decades to a city more diverse each day with newcomers from regions as far away as the West Coast (might as well be another continent!) to nearby coastal regions (not yet explored by me), my fear was I would be leaving behind treasured friendships and unable to create new, trusting, and valuable connections once again. Yet, I have had the experience too many times of “starting over” and losing friendships: moving 1,900 miles away from home to college and forging amazing lifelong friends, experiencing my first death event when my very best childhood friend passed away during our early 20’s to that awful thing we had never heard of before (often called by name: cancer), living in a large city where oftentimes finding your niche can be challenging, moving to smaller neighborhood pockets with already formed friend groups, and even watching those I’ve come to know and love flee Hurricane Katrina to never return instead splattered geographically and haphazardly.
I can do this, I thought aloud. But, internally, the struggle was doubt. I shared with my husband my inner voice that screamed the fear, “but, what if we move here and I make no friends?” Without laughing out loudly (because he knows my far reaching personality) and in his usual “I’ve got your back” calmness, he assured me: we have each other and we are friends, we can do this. Two years later, my vulnerable story is often the butt of jovial conversation around a table spilled over in fullness of new, trusting, and valuable connections with others. My husband and I recently celebrated another year of marital happiness and traded a romantic dinner out for two for a Friendsgiving table set for 17, hosting our community of personal connections. The conversation began with the curiosity of how we became known to one another in these two short years. The love that spills over through these verbal exchanges brings a skip to my heart and springs forth dampness to my eyes, as I am told, it is the powerful commitment, fierce genuineness, and naked vulnerability that we give to others that draws them so near and equally desiring our companionship.
How did I get here, I wonder, reminding myself of the abbreviated version of my historical timeline of a couple of my most exposed friendships:
Fierce fighter, but hold my hand….
I met my BFF when we were 8 years old. We rallied the push/pull of young girfriendship through the years. We even rode in the backseat of a crammed family car all the way across the border to Mexico (who does this, btw!) racing through the reading of Charlotte’s Web together. My BFF even beat me up one night during a sleepover! I was knocked to the ground. And, I don’t remember what we could have possibly fought about! But, it hurt! She was fierce. Evidently, not fierce enough to beat up her cancer. But, we did manage to enjoy exploring the Ronald McDonald House, making balloons out of medical latex gloves, “stealing” Qtips from their sterile containers, and making paper airplanes out of waiting room brochures. I hated that I had to cover my ears running down the hallway of MD Anderson and away from her painful screams during bone marrow extractions like a coward as she bucked up to the trauma of what chemo was doing to damage her small body. To cope, we’d eat entire packages of Oreos, one row at a time. At one sitting. (How is that even possible?!) Then one night, I held her hand tightly as she requested, until we parted ways on this earth. I secretly vowed, I will never love again. I closed myself off, shut the doors, turned out the lights, and didn’t let anyone in for a VERY long time.
Unloveable, but intriguing….
My best college buddy saw me first. From what I thought, it was love at first sight! She later disclosed: I had walked into the room with an “air of arrogance”; her initial thinking that I was an unloveable creature. Rather than giving up, she delved further, loved harder and learned my responses were of self preservation from earlier pain and so very patiently waited until I unfolded and accepted our friendship. She is my academic equal, my cerebral other half. We pulled all nighters studying, writing thesis papers, and devouring family size bags of Cheetos (because after all, we were/are family). Despite our vast geographic distance, we maintain our close friendship over the decades, sometimes without actually speaking for months at a time. She reports this happens because of my effort. I say it’s because she makes it easy to love again. Besides, she holds the box of meticulously handprinted letters of several pages front and back that I have mailed to her over the years - so I have to keep her close until I get my hands on that sacred box of secrets!
You know I love you….
One of my first adult best girlfriends whom we’ve been attached for a couple of decades now, still prefaces difficult conversations with “you know I love you….”
Her: “No, you know I REALLY love you….”
Me: “Yes, okay, I’m ready, tell me….”
And, I know she has something quite meaningful to relay to me with much thought and passion deplete of malice. Perhaps even something that I may not desire to hear, but need to hear. I am so thankful that she is the chosen messenger, because I DO know she loves me. We created a weekly ritual of decluttering closets and pantries (waaaayyy before it was a thing), combining our young children, creating a village of sorts, and cooking full family meals to exchange and share before departing each other’s company. We speak at length almost every other day as if we hadn’t spoken in years with always so much more to say even when we say “goodbye”.
It is because of our value for relationships, that we extend ourselves over and over again, risking loss, rejection, natural disasters, and yes, even death. To become vulnerable risk takers in life to explore the possibility of what is and what can become, in the context of relating with others. Yes, I have learned, I CAN do this!
Oh, how much richer my life has become by opening space in my heart, mind, and around our table! It is in these almost spontaneous moments that I am my Italian grandmother’s granddaughter and my mother’s daughter - as food becomes the artery, connecting us to the other parts of our selves. In retrospect, my friendships all involve the love of crafted (and bagged!) food that reminds me how I remain connected to the people I’ve been gifted to love, even when we are not physically yoked. It is the reach into the Cheeto’s bag, the crunch of a crisp Oreo, and the repeated recipes, my memories remain vibrantly alive.
I will have leaves on hand to extend our farmhouse table to set a place, always welcoming new and old friends that have now become more known to us as “family”.
I AM defined by my friends.