One of the great benefits of The Middle Ages is being able to resume friendships put on hold while arranging kids’ play dates and driving them hither and yon. I’m sure there are parents who managed social lives during the hectic years of parenting and professional advancement; I wasn’t one of them.
Even as our children grew into independent adults, we leaned on them for our social life, attending their fund-raisers, performances, art openings, and graduations. We’d visit and take them out to dinner; they’d bring friends home to stack wood in exchange for a good feed.
We’ve had a great time getting to know the next generation, hearing their plans to fix the world where we failed, and catching a glimpse of a hopeful future. But the kids have all gone away, leaving us time again for old friends.
I do have friends in the here and now, and I don’t disparage my colleagues, neighbors, and buddies, upon whom I depend in the daily round of events, but there’s something entirely different about falling back into step with those people I’ve known longest and love strongest. And this has been a banner year for face-to-face visits with old friends I hadn’t seen in too long. I’ve also seen my far-flung brothers and several cousins, who are like siblings without the angst.
Jan, who lives in Alaska, stopped by on her way home from Italy. She was here for thirty hours; we talked for twenty-four. I visited Lois at the house in Brooklyn where she’s been living for over twenty years; it was the first time I’d ever been there. We talked for two days. A few months later, I met Laura for dinner in New Jersey. I don’t remember if we ate; we were too busy talking.
All this talk with old friends is not just catching up with each other, but also recapping our lost years of keeping our marriages intact, our kids in school and our bills paid. Conversation with these friends is so easy: they know my backstory and I know theirs. There’s so little need for explaining, and so much opportunity for seeing one’s life from a long view.
But it’s not just talk. Seeing each other also offers a chance to bear witness to each other’s dreams. Some have been shattered – divorce after a long marriage; other dreams come true – promotions and publications.
I roomed with Mary, a poet, at the Breadloaf Writers Conference in 1983; we’ve been good friends ever since. It was an extraordinary pleasure to attend the launch of her first book of poems in Boston, just as it had been important to have her among the audience when my first novel came out. We’ve been passing encouragement back and forth for so many years, these were sweet moments of dreams realized. Joy shared is doubled indeed.
Not everyone makes it to middle age; a girlhood friend passed away earlier this year. Our friendship had waned, but it’s a loss, nevertheless. During The Middle Ages, losses mount up.
It was partly due to loss that Tim and I traveled to reconnect with his cousins. We went first to Maine, where the ten first cousins spent magical childhood summers together: a pack of kids who entertained themselves scrambling along the rocky shore at a safe distance from their three sets of parents.
Tim and I have been married long enough that I consider these cousins my own. In truth, I’ve heard the story of the lobster flying into Tina’s milk so often, I forget I wasn’t actually there. So it was with some bittersweet feelings that we returned this year, the first summer after the last of the parents passed, leaving those of us in the first-cousin generation now in the lead. While ostensibly intended as a trip to memorialize and mourn, we couldn’t help from having a good time near, on, and in the water, as if we were children again.
We resumed the conversation with cousins in Virginia, where we
talked long into the night. After catching each other up on kids and work, we talked about how distance, divorce and death changed family life. We’d always tried to catch up at weddings or work-bees, which were usually a tumult of fun, but too hectic for more than snatches of adult conversation – just enough to update one another with an outline of our respective lives and rarely enough to plumb our souls.
But now, in the humid night air on a candlelit porch in Virginia, we had all the time we could stay awake for – and a little whiskey to encourage the deeper stories, to reveal the rivalries, hurts, and resentments, and to confess the thwarted dreams and the persistent desires. These conversations were no mere rattling off of achievements about which we’re so proud and so glib. These are the conversations made possible with the trusted friends of a lifetime.
Of course I had deep conversations and good friends in high school, college and beyond. But they didn’t become old friends until I became middle aged.
I’m invoking the old TV technique of Summer Reruns, republishing some of my past posts here while I’m off visiting one of these old friends. This essay originally posted in 2015.
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