My daughter recently graduated from high school. She's ready to move on. The limited amusements of the suburbs – movies and frozen yogurt – have lost some of their charm.
She is ready to choose her own course of study and travel and meet new people. But at the same time, I notice that there are moments of reflection. She'll turn to me and say, “It will never be the same with my friends. Everything that I have known here will be different.”
And as I assure her that she will maintain the relationships she has had since she was a tiny girl even as she moves away from home, I know that she's right. But, as her mother, I know other truths that she can’t yet comprehend.
I turned fifty in January. The number – and yes, as I heard so many times from older, well-meaning friends, it is just a number – should not have inspired such apprehension. My life is full of many blessings, most critically, a loving husband and two wonderful teenage children. I have good health, and, it appears, time to enjoy both established pleasures and new pursuits. Why, then, the angst over this particular milestone?
Part of it, for me, is that I still cannot envision myself being that age. When I see myself in my mind’s eye, I am, at most, 20 or 21, wandering around my college campus at night, on the way to the ice cream store or home from the library, nothing more serious on my mind than whether I will go to the concert on Saturday night or the movies.
The disparity between the reality and how I think about myself is so stark that it cannot be reconciled – even though I know that my oldest child is almost the age that I inhabit in my alternate reality.
When I started to seriously contemplate the birthday, about a month before it, I had a sudden inspiration that what might help me transition was to see the friends from my childhood. These are the people who will always remain, on some magical level, the ages at which I met them –somewhere between five and 15 years old.
My logic, though undoubtedly clouded by emotion, was that if I could see them getting physically older but mirroring the youth that I feel in my soul, the accumulation of years wouldn't be so daunting.
So I sent out feeler emails to four of my oldest friends. If I were to throw a collective 50th birthday party for all of us, would you come? When I was certain that the idea had legs, I emailed a group of over thirty friends – many who had known each other since elementary school, and others who had joined the group in junior high school. Would they come even if it meant flying into New York from Georgia, or driving in from Massachusetts and New Jersey?
The positive potential of social media had never been clearer to me. How many of these people would I have still been in contact with had it not been for Facebook? As the RSVPs came in, it became harder and harder to wait until the date that I had set for the get-together, hoping for a pretty spring day.
Finally, on the first Sunday in April, the day arrived. It was unseasonably cold and wet, so the house felt all the more warm and inviting.
I have a particular passion for the friends of my youth that is simply on a different order than my feelings for the friends I've made as an adult. I don’t mean that I don’t have great affection for my “new” friends, some of whom I have known for twenty years – but the relationships are not infused with nostalgia for home that can never be replicated.
As each of the 20 guys and girls stepped out of 2016 and back into the early 1980s, many accompanied by spouses and children who are also now familiar to me, we enveloped each other in long hugs that merged past and present.
I press myself to understand what it is about these particular friends that moves me so uniquely, even though I do not keep in touch on a very regular basis with most of them. Indeed, even at the party that I hosted, I had only one real substantive conversation, spending most of the time monitoring the food and drinks. But, for a few hours, I was blissfully happy just to have them close.
As a starting point, it amazes me that these people, with whom I was largely randomly thrown together as a child, have turned out to be intelligent, curious, accomplished, and generous in ways that I could not have imagined.
They've pursued careers as teachers, journalists, in business, physicians, attorneys, writers. They continue to spend their free time on the artistic endeavors in music and art that we spent so many hours together collaborating on as teenagers. In other words, these are all individuals that I would choose again as friends at 50.
But there is something much less tangible going on here, and it is this insight that is the gift I gave myself on my “big” birthday. I was different at that time of my life, and so were all of my friends. It's not just that we were younger, it's that for a certain period of time, we were carefree. We laughed and wept with abandon. We were open to our emotions and to the world; later, we would learn to be far more circumspect. We had not experienced loss – we had not lost parents or siblings, or health, or marriages, or jobs, or career aspirations.
That innocence didn’t last long. One friend in the group lost her father when we were 15, and another lost his mother when we were 19. As a group, we lost a beloved mentor when we were 17. We grew up together and we grew up fast. But for a number of years, we held each other in a state of hope that allowed for bonds to form, tying us to a time before grief and heartache and disappointment.
So is it just a hearkening back to a simpler time that holds this group together? I don’t think so. It starts there, for sure, at least for me. Maybe especially for me, as I married a man whom I met when he was a boy of 15, and so the reminder of those days is always with me.
At the core, there is a reverence for my younger, naive self that I see reflected in these faces and that I yearn to grasp, even if just for an afternoon. But the miracle is that we have grown up, and whatever experiences that have shattered each of us to some degree – because who at fifty has been completely spared? – are also the experiences that have deepened us. And those very experiences have allowed us to sustain happy marriages and raise wonderful, exuberant children.
Now those children have made friends in this stage of their lives whom they will cherish in a very specific way, forever.
It takes a village!
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