I grew up in New England, a Yankee. We Yankees have the reputation for being buttoned-up, hard to get to know. It’s always taken me a while to get to know people, really know them. I’m pretty good with the initial chitchat, but then it takes me a long time to feel comfortable. Since I became a mom of two, it’s become even harder for me to relax. For years, I’ve been waiting “until things calm down” to invite people over. I’ll think OK, I’ll ask them over as soon as I’m not so tired, as soon as the kids are sleeping through the night. Or I don’t know her very well. As soon as I get the house cleaned up, I’ll ask her over for coffee. The past couple of years, I’ve been thinking I’ll wait until the kids are fighting less before I invite any new people over. Why would I invite a stranger over only to have her see my kids attack one another? Because I was insecure, I was good at finding excuses.
Sometimes I felt sad that I didn’t know that many people. Why wasn’t I being invited to lots of places? I was ready to accept invitations, but I wasn’t ready to extend them.
And then the Welches moved in, five doors down from us. I never saw a moving truck, never knew we had new neighbors. But at afterschool pick-up at the beginning of the year, a blonde woman smiled at me. Not a controlled, sorry-to-have-made-eye-contact, go-back-to-checking-my-phone smile, but a great big smile. Did I know her?
Then she gave a little wave. I walked over and introduced myself. She told me her name (Kelly) and that she had just moved here. We compared ages of our kids (we each had a second-grader and each had a preschooler). We realized that we were virtually neighbors. Moments later, her second-grade son came bounding down the steps and jumped up on her, the same way my daughter did moments later. We introduced the kids to one another and all walked home together.
As we approached my house, she said, “Do you all want to come over and the kids can jump on the trampoline?” Looking at me, she said, “The kids can play, and we can chat and have iced tea.”
I was taken aback but in a wonderful way. That was it. That was how you make friends. No I’ll-wait-and-see-if-my-house-is-clean-and-my-kids-are-acting-normal before we get together.
“We’d love to!”
We walked a few houses further to their new home and went to the backyard where the kids scrambled onto the trampoline and began to play as if they’d know each other forever. We sat and talked. She told me they had just moved to our town because her husband would be going to school in Cambridge for a year, a program with the military. She asked me if I knew of a Catholic church. “Oh, I know of a great one,” I said. “As a matter of fact, it makes me wish I were Catholic because so many fun people go there!”
I then proceeded to tell her about how anxious my daughter had been the year before and how hard it had been for all of us. From there, I somehow ended up telling her that I had to go off Mirena because it had made me feel crazy. We didn’t stop talking until it was time for dinner.
When the kids and I got home, I told my husband that I had met “the nicest family” and that clearly, I had felt comfortable because I had talked about religion, birth control, and family issues without knowing her at all. “I even said that I wish I were Catholic, so I could hang out at that church. Geez. What if she’s super-religious and horrified by that?”
From there, we didn’t see each other as much because I suddenly needed back surgery. My husband was doing most of the drop-offs at school, and the kids had different activities going on. But what was this? Kelly was calling and texting all of the time, asking if I needed help picking up the kids or dropping them off. Did I need milk? Anything from the grocery store? Target? Before we had established ourselves as friends who had gotten to know each other and gone out, she was already ready to help at a moment’s notice. She didn’t stress about the logistics; she just knew she could make things work.
Once the surgery was over, we got into a system of carpooling where one of us would take “The Littles” to preschool and the other would walk “The Bigs” to elementary school. We switched each day for the rest of the year. Some days, we’d watch one another’s children and then switch later in the day. Our kids ran back and forth to each other’s houses. I thought nothing of asking her to take my kids at a moment’s notice. When my dad had heart surgery, she took them not even knowing when I would be back to get them. “Don’t worry,” she said. “They’ll be fine.” And I knew that they would be.
In the spring, Kelly found out that her family would be moving again and, in a crazy change of plans, it looked like my family would be moving, too. At the end of the school year, the Welches moved. Soon after, we moved, too. If I hadn’t met Kelly, I don’t know if I even would’ve been brave enough to move. I would’ve wanted to stay in my safe spot forever because it was what I knew. She showed me, though, that I could make new friends and make a new home without waiting years for it to happen. I could make it happen.
Kelly taught me to make the first move, to open my heart, to take a chance, to offer an invitation even when things aren’t perfect yet because chances are they never will be. And, in the past, while I waited for things to become perfect, I’ve probably missed out on a lot of great conversations and get-togethers. While I was scared to make the first move, there was probably someone just waiting for an invitation.
I’m no longer going to assume that everybody already has her posse of friends.
Military families don’t have the “luxury” of waiting a few years to get to know people, to acclimate to their new surroundings. The Welches were there for one year. If Kelly hadn’t been proactive, she wouldn’t have had a support system.
When I saw the network of friends she made in one year, I realized that I could do that, too, if I were just brave enough to do so.
We’ve been in our new house a month, and I am a different person than I was the last time we moved. I talk to everyone I meet, no matter how shy I am feeling. I offer for the neighborhood kids to come over, no matter how messy the house is. And I smile and wave without waiting for everyone else to smile first. And I know that Kelly, in her new neighborhood, has already started weaving her web of connections.