The first song I remember learning is the one about making new friends, but keeping the old, one being silver and the other gold.
I now appreciate the song’s intent with a depth unavailable to me in preschool. I would add another verse with more colors of the rainbow, though.
For so much of my early life, I was like a starving hoarder when it came to friends. I wanted them all around me, even if I did not know what to do with them or why I was holding on to them. I believed I could prove something about myself, to myself, if I could stock the cupboards of my social life to overflowing.
I couldn’t. I was too bookish, too shy, too still wearing clothes and hairstyles my mother picked out for me. Girls who read on the bus and dressed like Julie Andrews did not have to preserve time in their schedules for talking on the phone.
Outside the safety of reliable family friendships, I was lost. Worse, I made a lousy friend. I equated friendship to an affiliation with popularity.
In third grade, a new girl moved to town and was assigned to my classroom. Let’s call her Laura Ingalls Wilder. She was also the oldest of four girls, played the violin to my piano, and was only allowed to watch one hour of television a week. We were made for each other.
Except she wasn’t popular. The popular girl had an older brother and a terrific pair of jeans. She knew how to make people laugh at someone else’s expense. She played dodgeball with the boys during recess.
I successfully lobbied my mother to buy me a “best friends” necklace. To the uninitiated, these cheap strips of thin metal are shaped in a heart that is broken down the middle in a jagged cut. That dramatic demilitarized zone divides two unequal portions of the words “Best Friends.”
I gave the other half of my best friends necklace to the popular girl. She quickly dropped it under a bench. Laura Ingalls Wilder cried for most of that day, stopping once to decline my necklace offer after I’d rescued it from the ground and dusted off the dirt.
Her refusal to accept my sloppy seconds became one of the things I liked most about her, and taught me one of the things I liked least about myself. I was a conniving friendship fiend marauding in the blouses and corduroys of a nice-looking child nun. I was panhandling for friends to win a sense of belonging, at the expense of being a friend to win a sense of self.
That young lesson stuck with me, and I worked on adjusting my mindset and behavior in response. It was an evolution that spanned years, featuring highlights and disasters. I spent summers at camp embracing sisterhood with a fervor that would make a radical feminist blush; I spent middle school dances whispering behind backs.
Over that time, I learned who a friend is, and what makes me a friend in return. In many ways, I am still a lousy friend. I don’t plan girls’ weekends, I don’t send thank-you notes, I don’t always remember birthdays and anniversaries, I never make time for phone calls.
It seems that doesn’t matter. It seems my friends are my friends even though sometimes I am lousy. It seems genuine friendship is forgiving, and it is flexible.
There are childhood friends I go for months, even years, without seeing, but who I reunite with as if we’re just waking up from a sleepover. I communicate with my college roommate exclusively via text and Facebook, but I think about her several times a day. Women I have met through our children now count among my grittiest, truest, most hilarious friendships. My sisters are the cement in between.
We are Mainers and not Mainers, we are world travelers and homebodies, we are older and younger, we are mothers and we are unburdened by thoughts of child care, we are all working at something. We are a patchwork quilt whose seams stretch without tearing. We are warmth and comfort.
And just like that, my cupboards overflow.