When I was 6 years old, my family moved from Connecticut to California. A few days after settling in to our new house, my mother and I set out to explore the neighborhood. As we came up a steep and winding road lined with eucalyptus trees, a small girl came whooshing past us on a red scooter. She had a round face, a plaid dress and a Buster Brown haircut. When I saw her, my heart did a little flip in my chest and my mother said, “What a cute girl!”
Though I didn’t actually meet this little girl until school began nearly two months later, that first glimpse of her was a moment of true premonition – one of the few I’ve ever had in my life. Debbie and I quickly became inseparable, and though it’s now more than 50 years later, we’ve never lost touch for more than a week at a time. We’ve stayed in connection through cross-continental moves; we’ve seen each other through adolescence, college, marriage, the birth of children and the loss of parents. When it comes to friendship, this primal experience set the bar very high. For me, the word friend is not something I take lightly.
Is it any wonder, then, that I find it hard to navigate the brave new world of cyber-friendship? The other day, for example, I was surprised to get a request from a certain man to be my friend on Facebook. I was surprised because just a few days earlier he’d barely said hello to me when we were in the same room together. We’d both been asked to participate in a benefit reading for a local agency, and when he read his poems, I listened intently. When it was my turn to read, he fell asleep and his wine glass came crashing to the floor. And now he was asking to be my “friend”? Perhaps there was a kind of apology folded inside that request – but if so, it was too subtle for me.
I was also perplexed when, not long ago, I got the e-mail notification: “Jane C. is offering you a mocha frappuccino….” I was perplexed because several months previously, I’d had Jane C. and her husband for dinner at my house. I’d spent an entire day cleaning my house, raking my yard, cooking a meal of chicken with kalamata olives, apricots and capers. When they arrived, we sat on my deck in the late summer light, eating, conversing and drinking wine. It was my attempt to forge a new friendship, and the atmosphere among us was vibrant, witty and warm. Jane sent me an enthusiastic email the next day, confirming the lovely time we’d had – but then she vanished into thin air. Months went by, and then I got the offer (conveyed in third person) of a mocha frappuccino. I still don’t know how to interpret it.
As I see it, to be a true friend implies a rather heavy responsibility – and I mean that in the root sense of the word. When I look up the word responsibility, I see that it’s derived from three Latin words that mean again, promise and ability. I’m moved by this discovery because it confirms what I feel about friendship. To be a friend means to be able, again and again, to stay true to a promise.
What is this promise? As I see it, it’s the promise to maintain a certain level of presence, responsiveness, attunement. It means being genuinely curious about one another’s unfolding lives; staying abreast of the important milestones; celebrating the big and small triumphs; remembering what makes the other laugh; offering support in times of sorrow. And it seems to me that with each passing year, the weight of friendship grows heavier as one’s circle of peers grows older, and thus ever more vulnerable to the gathering force of life’s lurches and losses.
A few years ago, my mother, who was then in her late seventies, flew from Italy where she lived to visit me in California. We went to San Francisco to see the opening of an exhibit of abstract paintings. The artist was someone with whom she had taken classes at the Art Students League in New York City in the 1950s. Through all the years, they’d never lost track of each other – and in the gallery there were other former classmates, too, whom my mother remembered from 50 years previously and 3,000 miles away. The artist himself looked frail; as it turned out, he died not long after. But that evening his paintings were vibrating with color on the walls, and the mood in the big room was both festive and elegiac. In the car, on the way back, my mother – who was quite the talker – grew uncharacteristically quiet. When I asked her what she was thinking about, she said: “I just had this image that when we come into the world, it’s as though we’re on a little boat with a certain crew of people. Those people are your lifelong friends – and though the years go by and you move all over the globe – you always stay connected. Somehow you belong together, on that little boat.”
Through all the years of elementary school, my friend Debbie and I sat side by side on our little boat, performing mild pranks on our neighbors, slipping treasures into one another’s desks: folded notes, jujubes, rubber animals made in Japan. Every now and again, teachers would go on a rampage to separate the various pairs of best friends. Irritated by the secret language of glances, whispers, scribbles and doodles, they’d split up William and Michael, Berit and Sarah – but never, ever Noelle and Debbie. Even the most unsympathetic teachers seemed to feel that we belonged together – and if any of them are still alive, I think they’d be amused to hear that next month the two of us are going side by side to the island of Kauai to celebrate our 60th birthdays.
And though I don’t, I really don’t, believe that all friendships need to feel this meant-to-be, I do believe that every time we’re tempted to give or receive some casual gesture of friendship, it’s good to pause for a moment and ask oneself: Can my boat really carry this weight? It was St. Augustine who declared, “My love is my weight,” and by this I think he meant that when we hold something dear, we bear a burden of responsibility. We make the promise: To the best of my ability, I will be here for you, in this little boat, again and again and again.Noelle Oxenhandler’s essays have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Vogue, Tricycle and elsewhere. Her most recent book is a memoir, The Wishing Year.