If you really want to incur my wrath, call me Howie. I really don’t like my name much, but I hate its diminutive more. It reminds me of a dysfunctional and detestable childhood. I like to say there’s only one woman who can call me Howie, and she’s dead.
Except there are also the girls from my elementary school (Kit, Sara, Francie – you know who you are) who can’t seem to make the transition to my adult name. And yet, I have come to cherish them for it. Knowing someone for 55 years gives you that kind of privilege, the kind of privilege that’s usually only afforded to mothers.
But the privilege is not one-sided. I feel privileged as well. There is something about old friends. It’s not just the idea of having grown up in the same time and place, the bond that helps us relate to classmates at reunions (events which I previously and erroneously defined as “periodic gatherings of people who had nothing in common to confirm they still had nothing in common”).
No, old friends bring a consistency and constancy to our lives. My friend Barbara and I were close friends during my first year of college, and for a few years even after I transferred to Stanford. A decades-long hiatus followed, until we reconnected. We spent a day at Disneyland last month (she lives in Anaheim and is a longtime Disneyphile) and it was like having one foot in the past and one in the present. We brought the perspective of dealing with our difficult parents and of overcoming marital difficulties, but leavened it with the joy being in a magical place that we both loved.
Brian is perhaps my oldest friend. We walk on the beach below Santa Cruz frequently on Saturday mornings (a ritual my father-in-law initiated). We grew up next door to each other and while – like Barbara and me – there have been hiatuses in our relationship, when we see each other now, it’s as if the flow of friendship has been long and unbroken. We laugh about how much our mothers disliked each other when we were four, knowing now that it was because they were so similar in temperament.
Over Thanksgiving, we visited my friend Andrew in Seattle. From our college days onward, we’ve been through a lot together. We’ve vacationed from Massachusetts to Hawaii. We’ve battled each other on the Scrabble board more times than we can count, and he still cheerfully takes my ribbing for the time he chose to study instead of joining the fraternity at the opening night of Star Wars in 1977. We’ve known each other so long, we supply each other’s punch lines. We laugh until we’ve forgotten what we’re laughing about.
But it’s not just laughter with old friends. We know their life stories, share the same memories. There’s the pain that goes unspoken – of those first, long-forgotten marriages, sulky siblings, family rifts, layoffs, all the vagaries of life. All those things are like the faint remnants of glue between the pieces of a vase that’s been mended. If we look closely, we can see the cracks.
But we choose not to. We ignore all that. We choose instead to feel privileged for all the beauty our friends have brought into our lives over the years. Like all natural beauty, they are priceless.