she rang the bell last night for the first time in weeks. but that’s because she’s been gone all summer. putting up walls, pounding down roofs in mexico. trekking canoes practically in canada. cooking for a camp filled with kids from deep in the heart of poverty, kids on holiday far from the inner city, up in the woods way north in michigan’s upper peninsula.
she came because i asked her to. she came because i missed her, missed the moments we steal to bridge the years and the lives that keep us apart sometimes.
she’s 17. i’m three times that, pretty much on the nose, at 51 and change, now that the year’s more than half over. she’ll be going off to college a year from now; i left college a hundred years ago.
she’s not my daughter, i don’t have one of those. but she is my very good friend. and i have loved growing up right beside her, these last five-plus years since we moved here and she was the girl next to next door.
she came to my door last night with a tub filled with cookies. oatmeal-chocolate-chip, two dozen or more. she’d baked them, brought them along because she’s the sort of kid who understands not showing up empty-handed.
she had her backpack slung over her shoulder, and beads wrapping her ankle. and, so she could show me her pictures, she had her dad’s laptop, too. he made her swear on her life she wouldn’t leave it alone for a second, so we hauled it along when we ran out on a quick errand.
but once home, we settled into the room with the screens, the room where the garden grows all around, and the night sounds creep in, louder and louder, till finally, suddenly, you notice it’s quiet. so quiet you could hear a lightning bug blink. or at least you think so.
she showed me her whole summer, my friend did. and we washed it down with lemonade and lemony water, both drinks doused with mint we plucked from the garden on the way into the screened-in room we still call the summer house, but only because the realtors did, and we haven’t quite shaken the label despite its overwrought pretensions, despite the fact that it’s a room with cracks in the concrete floor and a tear in the screen and paint that flakes off the old hutch that holds the flower pots, and the supper when we bring it outside on nights when inside is missing the whole point of summer.
we only started to catch up in the few hours we had, before her dad called, beckoned her and the laptop home.
heck, her whole life had changed, she told me, though she wasn’t sure quite where it happened. might have been in mexico, she thought, where she’s been going for years, because she’s the kind of kid who falls in love with a dream, and won’t let it go, not till every man, woman and child in a poor mountain village has a roof to sleep under, and running water besides.
maybe it was up at the camp where the kids from the inner city couldn’t get over the trees and the more trees.
or maybe, she thought, it was being the only girl on a canoe trip through the boundary waters, where she found out just how far she could keep a canoe up over her head, while not stumbling on rocks and tree roots.
it’s a beautiful thing being friends with a kid who’s not your own. i never worry about the fact that her room can sometimes look like a war zone (and a bloody messy one at that). i’m not there at the end of the day, when she comes home cranky and stressed from saying yes to too many folks who expect that’s what she’ll say, being a girl who always digs deep, never wants to disappoint.
i just get to be her friend. i don’t have to be her mama. with me, she doesn’t have to explain or defend. she can gush with the sort of excitement that makes her cheeks all flushed, and her voice nearly squeal. i don’t have to ask how the heck she’s going to find the money to fly back to mexico for her dear friend’s quincinerra at the end of the summer. i just get to love her for wanting to be there.
in the world i inhabit, one that’s decidedly two parts wishful thinking and one part cockeyed dreamer, people make a point of seeking out friends who share few to no demographics. we aren’t the same age, not even close. we check off different boxes when asked to declare race and/or ethnicity. we aren’t the same occupation. don’t even dwell in the same sort of surroundings.
in my version of heaven on earth, i’m friends with a midwest farmer who bounds down the lane in her old green pickup, and an octogenarian gardener who can’t get down on her knees anymore but has a thing or 10 to teach me. and i count among my nearest and dearest a fancy-pants new yorker who sends me dispatches from the front, there where fifth ave. bumps into the park.
i swap tales with an acupuncturist who learned all about herbs back in china, and i rock in a creaky old chair on the porch of the a.m.e. baptist church, keeping time with my friend the ever-wise preacher.
and on a long summer’s eve, i sip holy waters with a long-legged teen who’s learning the ways of the faraway world.
it’s one thing, i think, to tell the mama of the girl down the block how charming her child is. it’s a whole other thing, maybe, to invite said child to dinner, to venture downtown to the symphony, bumping along side-by-side in the same “el” car.
it’s the difference between a pat on the head, and a real true journey to the core of each other. it is teaching her she’s worth my time, and my heart.
the journey, like all the best, runs two ways. my friend with the long, long legs reminds me there’s a world far beyond my screened-in porch, where children can’t afford no. 2 pencils for school, and their mamas and papas would give anything for a shower at home, even one with unheated water.
she quells the parts of me, too, that worry about the way this planet is wobbling. she makes me breathe easier knowing she’s in line to inherit her piece of it.
she’ll take very good care of what’s handed to her. but that’s only part of why i so love her.
mostly, she is, like any one of my friends, someone who sees and hears and seeks the beautiful. and that’s why, on a long summer’s eve, she and i sat side-by-side in a screened-in room in a slumbering garden, sipping lemon-charged waters, as the off-year cicadas hummed in the darkness their scritch-scratchety lullabyes.
do you find friends far beyond your own personal demographics? do you have a friend far younger or older who teaches you how to see the world, how to sing a new tune, or a trick to planting your petunias?