The Sixty-Seventh Letter: A Tale of Two Friendships

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Dear Daughters,

So the thing is, once you’re a grown-up, and especially a mom, it’s really hard to make tried-and-true friends. Most conversations devolve into talking about your children: how big ya’ll are, how sick you are, quirky things you say and do.

I’ve never liked playdates for this very reason. I don’t like to sit and talk with other moms about being a mom.

Additionally, I don’t think that kind of chatter leads very often to friendship because there’s so much more to my life (to anyone’s life) than being a mom. For another thing, it’s plain old boring. Oh, and it’s also just annoying to walk that line between competition/judgement and appreciating one another’s experiences. Maybe that’s a mom thing, maybe that’s a woman thing, or maybe that’s a human nature thing, but it’s ridiculous. I think I was over that before you were even born.

Yes, it’s hard to make friends as a grown-up.

I have two close friends from childhood. Seriously, from elementary school! And we’re still good friends. I’ve actually texted with both of them multiple times today, believe it or not. Sure, we’ve had close seasons, and we’ve had seasons when we’re not that close, but when I finally emailed them to tell them I’d had a miscarriage but that I was now pregnant again and anxious and didn’t really want to talk on the phone about it but please pray for me, you know what they did? They said, “We’re coming.” And they came. Both of them. From different states. Because that’s what friends do.

And I have two other close friends from college. These women and I have shared quite a bit of grown-up life experience, and in the fifteen years since we’ve been friends, there has been some serious heartache and trauma in our lives. The change-your-life, knock-you-down, give-up-hope trauma that is hard to talk about, hard to witness your friends living through. But these are also the kinds of experiences that shape relationships and draw us into forced openness and vulnerability. This is how we heal, I think. And this is what friendship is: life through the dark hole of suffering, offering to shine in a flashlight when our friends are ready.

But since graduating from college and stepping outside the intensive relationship-building that can happen during that unique season, I got married and moved to two different states in twelve years. Two homes and new cities where we had to plant our own roots and make community and didn’t have family to flee to when we were lonely and wondering whether we would ever find anything in common with “these” people. (If you didn’t know this, people from Texas are really into Texas. People from Kentucky are really into Kentucky. So neither place felt like home.) I felt like a stranger.

But in both of those places, as my roots went down deeper and deeper, as we invested in our neighborhoods and churches and relationships, even as I felt alone, I grew friendships. It surprised me.

It’s hard for me to figure out how this happened. I would call up one of my old friends and feel like she really “got” me, and then look around at my relationships and think “nobody here gets me” and feel really, genuinely discouraged.

But I did grow friends. I still am growing them. And I think I’m getting pretty good at watering that soil and sprinkling on the MiracleGro or compost. (Let’s face it, sometimes you need the poop to get things growing.)

The more I’ve gotten to know women in my community, the more I’ve realized that lots of us are lonely and in need of true, deep, vulnerable relationships. It’s gotten me thinking a lot about friendship.

And I’ve decided adult friendships are hard for two reasons:

  • they take a lot of intentionality
  • they require longterm shared experience

What I mean by the first reason is that friendship does not grow by accident. If you aren’t working on a relationship (and by “working on,” I mean being intentional with keeping in touch, remembering what’s going on and following up, reaching out, showing emotional support, being transparent and vulnerable when you yourself are hurting and broken, and not being crabby when she doesn’t offer back what you think you deserve–there’s the rub), your friendship will not last. I’m not saying that if you do these things, this is friendship magic, but well, it kind of is magic. Be the friend want to have. That’s how grown-up friendships work.

What I mean by the second point—that friendships require longterm shared experience—is that you shouldn’t discount the value of staying put.

When I moved to the middle of small-town America eight years ago, I was planted (unwillingly!) right into the middle of a deep and long-lasting and multi-generational community. It was easy to feel sorry for myself as an outsider who didn’t understand all the inside references to major life events of folks I was living and worshipping alongside. But I stayed put. And I stayed put. And I stayed put. And soon I found myself living alongside an amazing community of women who, simply by being here in community with them, became my friends and support system and biggest cheerleaders.

Some of my closest friends in Kentucky have grown out of two separate groups I’m part of. One is a women’s small group at church that meets weekly, and usually at least one of us is crying at some point during our time together. (It’s also important, in growing friendships, to carry tissues.) We read books and study scripture together and talk about ideas together, but I think our sharing about real-life pain and being vulnerable when life is hard is why the soil has been so fertile for friendship.

The other group is my community of creative friends. (Some women overlap these two groups.) I meet monthly with a group of women who share our writing and our lives. It goes hand-in-hand, because we write what we know and experience. In the years we’ve been meeting, there have been losses of love and family, serious illness, empty-nesting, and both of your births. We’ve been through a lot, and we write about a lot, and we continue to gather even when we haven’t written anything because that is what friendship is.

Let me tell you two quick stories of friendship as examples of the surprising ways it can grow.

The first is relatively recent, but one that feels like a soul-mate friendship. A woman visited our church the Easter before I was about to have baby girl number 2, literally the Sunday before I went into labor. I must have been huge and uncomfortable. I saw her and her family across the aisle from me and took note of her little girl’s hair because it was so cute. A few weeks after my delivery, I ran into this woman at the library, which I had braved because my mom was in town. We chatted briefly. But then, you know, I had two kids at home and didn’t leave the house for months. Nearly a year later, I ran into her again at the library and mentioned church to her but she said she was going elsewhere, and I didn’t push it. A few weeks after that, I was about to start a new women’s ministry at my church and was pretty sure the Spirit was nudging me to tell her about it. I’m pretty good at ignoring those nudges, though, so I did. But then she came over to me and asked me straight up about church, that she was looking for a community. So I told her about the ministry after all. That was more than two years ago. She’s now active in our community, one of my closest soulmate friends, your Sunday school teacher, and part of my weekly women’s group. Her daughter is one of your sweet friends. As it turns out, she confessed to me after we’d been friends for awhile, that whole year when I was MIA and not going to the library very often, she was trying to track me down. She was feeling in need of community, and remembered my funky glasses, short hair, and Keen boots, and thought I might be someone she wanted to get to know. I say all of that, girls, to to point out that you never know how the Spirit will nudge you, and you never know how much the folks around you need a community until you reach out.

This second story is one of friendship that grew between me and an older woman in my church over many years. She is one of my close friends now. The first time I saw her was while she was giving a children’s sermon at church about recycling paper bags. She struck me as quirky but not someone I’d have much in common with. She wore fancy hats to church. She was a science and nature teacher and made funky art. (This makes it sound like we would be fast friends, but you’ll have to trust me that we weren’t.) At some point, she joined the monthly writing group I was part of, and I slowly began to get to know her. She loved the gentle stories and poems I wrote about my family, especially about my maternal grandmother who suffered from Alzheimers and had failing health, and my friend always encouraged my “sacrilegious religious” poetry. When Grandma passed, before you were born, I was touched at a card my friend sent me about the special bond between grandparents and grandchildren. She remembered losing her own grandmother, and knew the pain I was feeling. Then, after you two were born, she showered me with support, with handmedown gifts, with love, with encouragement to write my own story for your sake. It was through those interactions that our friendship really grew roots. I credit her with my writing to you so regularly, though she denies it has much to do with her. In the years I have known her and lived life alongside her, we have shared loss and illness and brokenheartedness, but we have also shared stories and hope and the healing that comes through articulating grief and pain. I also got my first pimento cheese recipe from her. We’ve organized public combined poetry readings and I love the way our stories intertwine so well. And that can all be traced back, I think, to her reaching out to me when I felt such a deep loss after my grandma died.

So I’ll say it again: grown-up friendship is hard. It takes lots of work. But when we have the courage to cultivate it, it is worth it.

I guess what I’m saying is that this is my prayer for you:

May you have soul-friends. May you have old friends. May you make new friends. May you have friends who have walked through your season of life before you. May you have friends you can pull along on the journey. And may you have flash-light holding friends when you need them.

Because you will need them

You will need all of them.

Love,

Your Momma

The Fortieth Letter: Intergenerational Friendship

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Dear Daughters,

When I lived in Waco, one of the first native Texans to befriend me at church was an older woman named Katy. The first Sunday she met us, she shook our hands and made us repeat our last name a few times until she realized that what we were saying was a double last name, and then she said she loved that young people were doing that these days.

As my friendship with Katy developed, I stood next to her in choir and kept her looking in the right place in the music, as we jumped around during practice, with the point of a pencil. She invited me over to her house for tea, and we ate her top secret cookie recipe off depression glasswear alongside embroidered cloth napkins. She lit a tealight candle under a stand to keep her teapot warm. I always felt at home in her house.

She recited poetry. She hung modern art paintings right next to old black-and-white photographs on her walls. She had different locations in her house for praying for different people.

She told stories. Such great stories.

We shared a birthday, only separated by 57 years.

When I moved away from Texas, Katy and I wrote letters for a few years, even as her health began to decline and she could no longer live independently. Her words became confused, but she was still so vibrant, such a character, so sweet in spirit. She always praised my penmanship.

I got news that she had passed away when I returned home from a women’s retreat just before the eldest was born.

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My friend Gwen, a retired college professor, came to visit me after that birth. I knew Gwen from my monthly creative writing group. We didn’t go to the same church but she was an active member and deacon in her congregation, and she was very involved in our local town. Everyone knew her.

She brought you a little piano toy that, I’ll confess, sang a very annoying  and repetitive song, and she also brought you these little pink and purple socks that were patterned to look like ballet slippers. When she held you for the first time, she said, and I distinctly remember this, “I don’t remember the last time it was that I held a baby.”

Before that moment, I hadn’t thought much about the fact that my tendency toward intergenerational friendship might be an anomaly. Maybe it wasn’t a typical thing for women in their twenties or thirties to be friends, at least close friends, with women in their sixties and seventies.

At that particular time in my life–and maybe even now, I’m not sure–the majority of women I knew well in our small town were quite a bit older than I was. Through a weekly women’s group at our church, and my writing group, I’d gotten to listen to so many voices, so many stories, so much love, forgiveness, sadness, and hope. These women became part of my life without me even realizing it. They became my friends, my community.

Most were at least ten years my senior, and many of them had children my age. In fact, at my baby shower, most of the hand-me-downs I got were being offered because their grandchildren had already grown out of them. Score for me.

My older women friends are also excellent yardsalers.

I stopped in at Gwen’s house one day to drop off my chapbook, and she invited me in for tea. I guess tea is a trend in my stories. Gwen had some British ‘digestives’ to go along with the tea, and we visited for quite some time. It was the first time I’d heard her story, the life events that made her into the person others in my town knew her to be. I had the eldest with me–you were still in cloth diapers and quickly filled one, long before I was ready to leave–and we talked about her career, her family, her writing, the big wooden table in her dining room, and where you can find the authentic British biscuits.

Gwen passed away suddenly the next year, before the youngest was born.

It’s been important to me as a mom to have friends who are not treading water in the season of motherhood.

I appreciate especially those older women who don’t look back through rose-colored glasses, those who can commiserate with me–and say to me that, yes, this mothering business is the most mind-numbing thing I will ever do–but then say, with confidence, that I can survive it because they survived it.

That’s a message I’ve needed to hear at times.

I have many wonderful women in my life who have lived amazing stories. They’ve lived through traumatic life events and losses and broken marriages and straying children, but they’re also walking testimonies of faith and courage and wisdom and grace. They inspire me with their conviction.

And they shower love on me and on you.

Sometimes I feel spoiled about it all, actually, that I have these people who love me, that you have these people who love you.

But a few months ago, it became clear to me that these friendships aren’t just about what I receive, the support our family receives, but about what we give. Because that’s what true friendship is. It’s both.

At Wednesday-night dinner at church, the eldest ran over to one of my closest friends, a semi-retired science teacher who probably has the most interesting stories of anyone I know. She frequently comes over to read books to you and pass us hand-me-down toys. She’s a recent widow. You ran over to her and gave her a hug on your own, without my prompting. And you know what she said? She said, at 5:15 pm, “That’s the first hug I’ve had today!”

You offered her a hug because that is what four-year-old’s have on offer, and it was exactly what she needed.

Intergenerational friendships are important, girls. I’m pretty sure that for most people they take a lot of work, a lot of intentionality, because we naturally coast into friendships with people like us.

Even I’ve realized that it’s easiest, as a mom, to be friends with other moms. Other moms will be sympathetic to the chaos that is life with children, and other moms will have baby-proofed homes, and other moms understand the need for quiet time. That’s all true. But the easiest path isn’t typically the most rewarding path.

Being friends with women from other generations–my mother’s generation, my grandmother’s generation–and learning from them as I live life alongside them has made me a better human being.

It’s made me a better friend.

It’s made me a better mom.

Love,

Your Momma