The other day I was glancing through my grammar school graduation album, the one with the multi-colored pages that your friends wrote witty sayings in like "2 good 2 be 4 gotten" and "Remember A, Remember B, but most of all, remember me". A mixture of fun and melancholy came over me as I flipped through the pages. I smiled at the silly things my buddies wrote, and despite the slippage in my memory for things current, the faces of each boy immediately came into clear focus as I read what they wrote; I can picture them exactly as they looked some 56 years ago. Well-wishes from my parents and family members, including a page of squiggly lines from my two-year old brother, flood my brain with memories. I read touching notes from teachers, whose impact on my life I would never realize until years later.
At the time, I was close to a lot of my classmates, having spent eight years with them at Our Lady of Lourdes. We also played on the same school teams and many of them lived in my neighborhood. As I read their names and look at their faces, I realize that virtually all of them, with few exceptions, are no longer in my life. The Fifties was kind of the beginning of the great migration out of the old neighborhoods and into the suburbs. Up until then people were much more inclined to live out their lives not far from where their parents grew up. Growing up back then, you were far more likely to run into those with whom you went to school...whether at church, in the supermarket, or on the subway platform. As people moved away from their childhood residences, all that changed. People you thought were friends no longer kept in touch; the few you took the trouble to remain close to, despite being physically apart, were your real friends.
If we're lucky, we make a few close friends in our lifetime. There are many impediments to continuing relationships begun in childhood. Besides moving away from the neighborhood, there is the spouse issue. Sometimes friends drift apart when their spouses can't get along. People whose views in adulthood about politics or religion are markedly different find it hard to see past these differences and gradually lose contact. Sometimes gender gets in the way. Men tend to be good friends with other men and women with women. There is no earthly reason that should be the case, but there it is. I certainly count my wife as my best friend because although she knows my faults better than anyone, she still chooses to be my friend, and that means the world to me.
My two other closest friends, Rich and Phil, I have known since first grade. Considering we are all reaching the 70 and over club, that is a long time. I can't remember my life without these two special people in it. Our families were close growing up and we all hung out together. Phil became a Franciscan Brother as a young man, and then left the order to marry and have a family. Rich introduced me to my wife and we were best men at each other's weddings; Godfathers to each other's children. In our adult years we have lived in different places, Rich in Connecticut/Florida, Phil in Arizona and me in New York, but there has been unbroken communication by phone and e-mail all those years in addition to periodic get-togethers. When we talk, it is as if we spoke yesterday. I think of these guys as brothers who would do anything for me if I asked.
Friendship should not be confused with acquaintance. I have made many friends over the years at work and in my social life. I have genuine affection for these people and I hope they have for me, but it is not the same. I am basically a gregarious person who enjoys meeting new people. Sometimes when you meet someone, there is an immediate connection. On the Internet a few years ago I met Joe, a guy who grew up around the corner from me in my old neighborhood, and went to the same school. Joe moved with his family in the exodus to the suburbs so we never actually met as kids, but because of his East New York - Brooklyn DNA, and the fact that he grew up in similar circumstances as me, I feel as though I have known Joe all my life and consider him a friend.
Friendship is hard to define. It's not about how long you know someone, but more I think about how you both see the world. While it might be possible to form lasting friendships with those whose ideas are diametrically opposed to yours, I think too much work would be required to sustain such a relationship. I found a quote by author Richard Bach (Jonathan Livingston Seagull) that sums up friendship well enough for me:
“Your friends will know you better in the first minute you meet than your acquaintances will know you in a thousand years.”
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