“Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind. "Pooh?" he whispered.
"Nothing," said Piglet, taking Pooh's hand. "I just wanted to be sure of you.”
A. Milne: Winnie the Pooh
It seems a sudden occurrence that I am in my 77th year on the planet. And, quite naturally, I think, I find myself musing upon a great many things for which I am grateful. The usual things, of course: my health and family, my creative work. But, mostly I have been thinking about the value of friendship. This writing is a paean to a friend of 74 of those years.
Our friendship began in Shupak’s butcher shop on Chester Avenue, in Irvington, NJ. We were three years old. Wrapped around our mothers legs as they stood in front of the meat counter buying dinner, we eyed each other suspiciously, cautiously. It was a prophetic meeting; more like a remembrance of things past, or lives past, than a first sighting, I truly believe.
As we grew, the suspicion and caution turned into friendship and deep love for each other. Marlene and I were the same height. We wore our dark brown hair in the same style…bangs and a pageboy. We were mistaken for each other, and sometimes sat in each other’s seat in science class to confuse Mr. Brown, our teacher, who was oblivious to the deception. We had the same sense of humor and laughed at things no one else thought funny. We still do.
We often conversed in a ridiculous language of our own concoction: gibberish. Mostly we did it in the privacy of her bedroom or mine, gesticulating wildly, trying out different postures and attitudes; anger, joy, stupidity. But, one Saturday afternoon, we were moved to speak it loudly on the 52 Parker Bus, on the way home from Irvington Center, where we had gone to buy movie star coloring books and Crayolas. When several people asked us what language we were speaking, we looked at them, quizzically, and said, in broken English, that we didn’t understand them. We fell off the bus, convulsed in laughter. Yes, we were rude. But we were in a world of our own, and didn’t much care. We can still talk the gibberish, and it still produces the happiness and laughter. And I think, if we were in the same city, we would do it on the bus!
As we grew, we had the same love of the piano, and of language study. We studied with the same teachers and there were the usual jealousies if one got ahead of the other, or was praised for work well done. We had squabbles and moved apart as children do, but always made our way back to each other. We tried other best friends. They never took. We had something so special, so unique, that no one else could ever equal. We never imagined that anything would come between us.
But, when we were in the third grade, my family decided to move a bit north to Maplewood. I did without Marlene until her family made the same move at the end of that year. We were ecstatic, once again together in school and all our classes. We went to Hebrew school together, eating pickles and b-b-bats before class, until I was thrown out for talking back to the teacher. We had back that joyful feeling of being best friends. We went to the same summer camp, were in the same bunk, learned to swim in the same slimy, leech-infested lake. Learned how to release the uncomfortable gas caused by the awful camp food, by racing noisily down the hill to our bunks, to the delight of no one but ourselves.
We didn’t want anyone else or need anyone else. And that is what, we believe, made our mothers jealous of what we had. One of them, we still don’t know which one, went to the principal of our school and asked that we not be put in the same classes any more. And we weren’t. And it infuriated us. And we lost something precious - each other. We went to different colleges, kept in touch by letters, married. She was my matron of honor only a week after she gave birth to her first child. We went in separate directions after that.
Her marriage ended in divorce. She married again and moved to California, had a second child and divorced when her children were grown. I stayed with the same husband, had three children and moved around the country. But never to California. We kept in touch more and more when she was out on her own. We visited each other sporadically, and though we could not enjoy each other’s physical presence regularly, we were once again, best buddies.
We are different from each other in many ways. Our styles of dress are not alike. We do not enjoy the same foods. I’m still angry at her for throwing her black raspberry ice cream cone in the street and not giving it to me when we were 7 years old. She loves green peppers. Ugh. She is passive. I am assertive. Even as a child, I fought her fights. I am still prone to urge her to be more pro active. She is super intelligent, and, strangely, has become a Tea Party Republican. We try not to discuss it.
We have aged separately, but together, qvetching about our various infirmities, laughing at ourselves, soothing each other’s fears, sharing healthy recipes, potions and unguents, and getting by, the better for the sharing and comparing, and the sound of each other’s voice.
Marlene has just completed several months of chemotherapy for Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. Her daughter lives across the country. Her son and daughter-in-law, an hour away, have helped by driving her to her appointments. But for all the in-between days and nights, she, living alone, has taken care of her own needs, calmed her anxieties, felt ill and feverish and driven herself to the emergency room and home again and has never once complained. She has lost her hair, but not her beauty or dignity.
We talk daily. I hear her voice, her fatigue, her breathlessness. But I also hear her courage, her strong will to survive, her sweet, good nature that takes it all in stride. And I still find myself wanting to be just like her, that beautiful shining spirit of hers touching my heart.
Explain the glue that has held us together, no matter the distance or the differences, or the years apart? I can: unconditional love.
And this is what I want to say to her: My sister, my beloved friend…“If you live to be a hundred, I want to live to be a hundred minus one day so I never have to live without you.”― A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh