I’m very blessed to have several best friends living close by. We get together as often as we can, which is never often enough, and try to celebrate each other’s lives. Some of them I’ve only known for ten years or so, some for less than that—and a small handful for more than twenty years. These women enrich my life as we share the everyday moments.
Then there are my “Montezuma Friends,” as David likes to call them, even though they’re not all from Montezuma. These ladies are the ones I went to high school with and though I don’t see them very often, they remain a special presence in my life.
Today, because it’s her birthday, I’d like to tell you about my friend, Mary Ellen, who wasn’t even supposed to be my friend. She was THE ENEMY. She was the ex-girlfriend of a boy I was dating and she was scary. I mean scary.
It was the summer of 1982 and I was in Missouri visiting my sister and her husband for the summer. In those days, there were no cell phones or even cordless phones, no email, no Internet and barely any means of communication except telephone calls and the U.S. Postal Service. And so, way up in Missouri, I received a letter. This letter was from a girl I didn’t even know, although I knew who she was. She was letting me know that my boyfriend—her ex—really loved her and not me. And also, that he was actually dating someone else while I was gone. And I think there was some mention of death or dismemberment. So, I wrote her back and magnanimously said that while I was willing to sacrifice him to be with her, that other girl would have to go. And there it was—green-eyed common ground. We corresponded a few more times over the summer, mostly about how much we hated this other girl and how we would rather him end up with either of us, just not her.
Over the next few years of high school angst, my pen pal friend, who is much, much older than I, steered me through the rocky navigations of the adolescent world. We searched for trouble to get into, riding around our two-stoplight town in her Mercury Capri. At least until she taught me to drive it. Having never driven a stick shift before, I didn’t grasp the concept of changing gears. I went left to right, then back down to left and over to right. Shortly after I learned to drive the car, her father had to replace the clutch. I’m sure my driving and the clutch replacement were unrelated incidents. But just in case, I’m very sorry, Mr. Kenneth.
Many weekends I spent the night at her house. We would come in just seconds before curfew and sit in her mom’s warm, cozy kitchen and eat ham sandwiches and Doritos. And talk and laugh until the wee hours of the morning. Some days we would make strawberry daiquiris for her mom, mostly for the entertainment value (also because we got to share). Miss Theresa was Filipino and Catholic and not much of a drinker—she would get giggly and silly and shake her finger at us and say, “Now, Mary Ellen!” And we would just laugh and laugh.
On one occasion, we decided to be daring and we snuck out the bedroom window while Mary Ellen’s parents were sleeping soundly in the next room. We were safe, we assumed, because they never woke once they went to bed. No one would have a clue that we were out of the house. We snuck back in the window a couple of hours later to find her older brother, Bill, sitting on the side of her bed in the dark—which very nearly scared us to death. He somehow fancied himself our guardian angel and gave us a tongue lashing worthy of the strictest father. There’s no way the parents could have slept through that racket, but they must have decided Bill had us well in hand. And, I suppose he did because we certainly never snuck out the window again. Bill, by the way, grew up to pursue a career in law enforcement. I like to think we started him on that path.
We both married young—way too young. When she moved to Jacksonville, we cried and promised to write and call and visit. And we did. AT&T sends us thank you notes to this day. In those days, the era known as Before Kids, it was nothing for my husband and me to hop in the car after work on Friday and drive to Jacksonville for the weekend. Sometimes, on a particularly rousing Saturday evening, Mary Ellen and I read magazines while playing quarters with sweet tarts (she thought actual quarters might chip her shot glass).
When she became pregnant for the first time, I was terrified that our friendship would change. Six weeks later, I found out I was pregnant too. She went into labor in November and called me at 3am to say, “It hurts! Don’t do it!” A little late for that tidbit of wisdom, and a few weeks later I called her back and said, “Why didn’t you tell me it would hurt THIS BAD?!”
Four years later, I became pregnant again and in six months so did she. Twice, we somehow had babies close together and they were all boys. She is godmother to both my boys and I am godmother to hers, which means that we had Permission to Paddle. Our eldest sons are out of the house now and our babies are seniors in high school. Each time we talk, we marvel at how fast those years flew by.
When she and her family moved to Norfolk, Virginia, and couldn’t come home for Thanksgiving, my husband and I drove 14 hours (we had a one-year-old) to spend it with them. The first Thanksgiving away from home for all of us and the first for us to cook. We bought a 20 lb. turkey and put it in her apartment’s tiny oven at 8am. We made cement gravy. We finally ate at about 5 pm because the turkey took all day in that oven. But we had lots and lots of fun.
When the worst thing I could imagine happened to me, she held my hand and wept. She listened to me on the phone and in person for hours, days, weeks, months, years, never once saying that she was tired of hearing about my problems.
Just a few years later, late at night in a dark and silent funeral home, I held her hand as she touched her mother’s cheek for the last time. And I realized, the worst thing I could imagine had not happened to me after all. There is loss and there is grief. And then there is loss and there is grief.
When I fretted over dating and being a single mother, she told me I would be okay. Over and over. She laughed with me over the crazy experiences and cried over the bad. When I had no more tears to cry, she cried for me. That phase lasts to this day because she is a human watering-pot.
The expression “Friends help you move. Real friends help you move bodies,” applies to us. (Not that we have ever moved a body. But if the need ever arose, we would. Keep that in mind, James.) She knows every questionable choice I have ever made, every stupid thing I have ever done, every mistake I would like to take back—and she has never said a word in judgment. She has only ever said, “I understand. I would have done the same thing.” But she’s also not afraid to say what I need to hear even if I don’t want to hear it.
She knows the deep, dark family secrets—you know, those secrets most of us have that help shape us from innocent children into the adults we must become. She understands the whys behind the whats without a word ever having to be spoken.
I don’t see her nearly often enough, my unlikely friend. But for almost thirty years I have carried her in my heart and she has been my safe place to land. Every. Single. Time.
Happy Birthday, SEB. I love you.