When people are no longer present to each other, or able – in an unforced way – to walk in and out of each other’s days, the risk is that spatial distance will become psychic distance. That’s when measures of psychic exertion are necessary if the connection is to be kept alive.
In the small town in Downeast Maine where my parents owned a home, there lives a couple whom I’ve known since my high school days. I knew her first when she was my father’s philosophy student – the only one he ever had who went from an F to an A in one semester. She grew up on a midwestern farm and had never heard of Plato! Back then, I considered her the most beautiful girl in New York. In those days, her husband was a sports writer. His career came to a crashing halt after he wrote an expose of a football coach – very popular in his home town. The coach’s lawsuit was subsequently upheld by the home town jury.
My friends proved amazingly resilient. They relocated to Maine, where they continued as writers, but in a different field. Eventually, they made their own nationally admired contribution to that new field. It was they who encouraged my parents to rent a summer place in Maine, where eventually my parents would buy an antebellum house on the bay. My parents were assured that the old lady who owned it would soon be moving to an assisted care facility and they could move in as soon as that happened. Actually, it took another year before she moved. My mother said, “I bought the house with the old lady in it!”
My parents were liked in the town. Years later, a neighbor remarked to newcomers, “Too bad you missed the Rosenthals. They were beautiful people.” My mother was reckoned “almost a saint.” (The almost gives an idea of the precision with which judgments of character were rendered in that locale.)
After my parents died, I drove north from New York to unpack the furniture and possessions that had been sent by truck to the house, reopen accounts at the bank and the local stores, and reopen their friendships, now on my own. To the couple I’d known since girlhood, nothing had to be “reopened.” I could tell them whatever needed telling. Though I’d dreaded facing the silences in the now-empty house on the bay, in fact, to my surprise, I found the very silences friendly.
The house and the town became a great shelter and refuge in my life. It turned out to be the only place on God’s green earth where a certain purveyor of defamatory New York gossip was not believed. Only there were earlier chapters of my personal history framed in common memory. After my divorce from the first husband, the local cracker-barrel philosopher assured me, “There’s lots more fish in the sea.” (I think he meant for me to give the local boys a chance.)
The couple I’ve mentioned had been there to witness one story after another. When, after my seven-year job struggle, I was finally reinstated with tenure, they were the first we told in person. With my mother, I drove over to their place to do cartwheels (or Abbie’s facsimile thereof) on their green lawn.
The other day, we talked by phone long distance. I had to crank up the courage to call. Sometimes, longing itself can be a barrier. One puts certain emotional ties inside the steel brackets of memory, and only with an effort can the brackets still be pulled apart.
Nevertheless, as we talked, the fun and familiarity that can only be found in the present came storming back, stronger and fresher even than the bygone train of the remembered years had been.
It was almost painful, this transition from the achieved past, with its accompanying nostalgia, to the present and its quite different longing –
to be filled to the brim
with an unfinished friendship.