Ways of Seeing by Kate Gridley: Companionship over the decades
After attending a memorial service where I ran into childhood classmates, and hosting another childhood friend and his family for a weekend, I have been thinking about friendship lately. Why is that with childhood friends, we are able to pick up where we left off, even when years have gone by?
Recently my oldest friend came through Middlebury from San Francisco, with his wife and two youngest children, to witness and celebrate the graduation of his oldest child from Middlebury College.
When I say my oldest friend I mean I have known him all my life. I have friends who are older in years, but I haven’t known them very long. My oldest friend certainly wasn’t my best friend. In fact, if anything, especially when we were adolescents, we were more like siblings: we competed, we bickered, there was laughter, and there was drama. But he was cool, while I was not.
Our mothers met at the playground sixty-two years ago, while we — two fat infants, freckled, with heads sporting red curly hair — were strapped into those old fashioned prams. Children are the ticket to forging friendships among their young adult parents. That chance playground meeting was the beginning of several generations of life-long friendships.
Of course, the red hair was an embarrassment. As teenagers, we were the same height, same shape, and had the same hair. We both simmered.
But the families were tight. His mother divorced and my parents stayed close to her. We spent most New Year’s Eves together, we cross-country skied together, I got drunk for the first time in front of him and in the summer, our mothers took us to rock concerts. My family picked raspberries in his mother’s berry patch, and my brother and I jumped on their trampoline (the kind with no protective nets, out of sight from the house). I took guitar lessons from one of his older brothers, and I had a secret crush on his oldest brother.
Then the peripatetic years: we went off to college, he moved to Colorado, then Texas, then California, got married, got divorced, got married again and started a family. I studied painting abroad, moved to Boston, moved to Connecticut, got married, started a family, and moved to Vermont where John and I have built a life.
Our mothers stayed connected, and perhaps connected with each of us more than we did ourselves. But Christmas cards and news flowed back and forth. His wife asked me to draw their three children as a surprise for his 50th birthday. We got better at connecting when he was east visiting his mother. No more teenaged angst.
His hair was mostly gone — and what was left turned gray, while mine was no longer red or curly. But the friendship born out of a life of shared stories, successes and setbacks, set inside a history of common reference points was comfortable and steady.
Then his mother died. It was his weekend to be by her bed as he and his two brothers managed her care at home from three points across the country taking turns being present. As it happened, we were visiting my mother who lived in the building next door, who was unwell that weekend, and something — I cannot tell you what — compelled me to give him a call and ask if John and I could drop by.
His mother was in her own bed, flanked to her right by one of her oldest friends, who quietly sat and held her hand. We crossed to the other side of the bed and settled in on her left side. Breathing softly, eyes shut, her sunken face clean and moisturized, her hair under a pretty scarf, she was beautiful, peaceful. And almost gone.
“Is it really okay that we are here?”
“Of course,” he nodded, “She would love that. I love it.”
We settled into the slowing rhythm of her breathing, and then quietly reminisced about a summer cookout when all of our children had run up and down the stairs onto her porch and back onto the grass while his brothers grilled hamburgers. Our mothers sat together on a sofa, deep in conversation, surrounded by their children and their children’s children.
And she slipped away inside the cushion of our shared memory in the company of her youngest son, her oldest friend, and two younger friends.
How was it we were there?
This past weekend, as our families shared our home together while his daughter made a different kind of life transition, college graduation, we thought back over morning coffee to sitting with his mother as she died. The miracle of being together at her passage and our long seemingly random connection. The joy and pride of witnessing his daughter move forward into the world.
In hospice, we talk about “companioning.” I looked up the word companion, because much of friendship is about companionship. Derived from two roots, “with” and “bread,” a companion is someone with whom you break bread — literally and metaphorically. In our family, it’s someone you DO things with, which can include curling up and reading a book, or sitting outside watching bugs, skiing in the woods, going to the movies and arguing afterwards, cooking for someone when they are sick or weeding their garden, and holding someone’s hand while they pass.
I have come to believe that what we do and share with friends over time is what matters.
Dare to share. Invite people in.
Kate Gridley is an artist residing in Middlebury. She is currently working on a new series of paintings, “An Iconography of Memory.”
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