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To All the Friends I’ve Loved Before

     The New York Times recently featured a full page ad announcing the summer schedule of concerts and performances for Tanglewood 2019.  Located in the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts near Lenox, Tanglewood is the summer home of the Boston Symphony. It is also one of the premier music festivals in the Country, and in the world. Since 1937 Tanglewood has offered audiences a mix of symphonic, chamber, choral, jazz, and popular music at a reasonable price in a beautiful setting (you can attend “on the lawn” or “in the shed”). This year’s line-up includes cellist Yo-Yo Ma, soprano Renée Fleming, the James Taylor band, and of course, the Boston Pops.

     Just reading about it brought me memories of my dear, departed friend Harriet, who so loved music and theatre and film — all the arts, really. She also loved the Berkshires, in winter as well as summer, and often rented cabins there for a rejuvenating “Thoreau experience” in the woods. I gathered this was an updated, more sophisticated re-enactment of those Grossinger vacations in the Catskills from her own childhood, though when she first started talking about the Borscht Belt and the Berkshires, I hadn’t a clue where or what any of this was.  

     Harriet and I met in the late 1970s when we were both substitute teachers in Connecticut. She was returning to the classroom after a “twenty-year maternity leave,” as she was fond of saying, and I was hoping to get a teaching position in Stamford where I had just moved. Even with multiple assignments among different schools, we encountered each other regularly enough to become fast friends, especially once we discovered that we lived within walking distance of each other in the same neighborhood! Within six months, we had both gotten positions as English teachers in the same high school; within the year, we were already BFFs, working together every day and talking on the phone every night. Our husbands and families became friends. They came to our house for Christmas dinner and we went to their’s for Passover Seder. Ours was an unexpected, but remarkably loving and abiding friendship, and it remained so even after Harriet retired to Florida. “Who would think,” she’d always comment, shaking her head full of curls, “that a little Jewish girl from Brooklyn and a little blond Texas cheerleader would find themselves as soul sisters?”

     Actually, I would have. Harriet was just enough older than I to have grown up in the 1950s when conformity and homogeneity were valued and religious and racial discrimination was commonplace. People, even members of the dominant WASP population, self-segregated into closed communities based on where they lived or worked or worshipped; they rarely engaged socially with others outside their own immediate circles.

     I, on the other hand, came of age in the ‘60s.  As the daughter of a single working mother, AND a cheerleader, I certainly fought my share of gender stereotypes in South Texas, but there were not the same rigid ethnic and racial demarkations in Victoria as there were in big industrial cities. Ours was a farm and ranch town settled mostly by German and Czech immigrants; residents were predominantly descendants of those settlers, along with the descendants of Mexicans, who had worked the land in this area since before Texas was even a state, and African American “freedmen,” who had come (or stayed) to grow cotton after the Civil War. Everybody pretty much knew everybody else in town and knew where they had come from.

     I don’t mean to imply that I grew up in this utopia where everyone got along famously and there was no prejudice of any kind, but the segregation that existed was more social than it was racial or religious. By the time I was in high school, I already had friends, good friends, who were different from me, at least in external ways (age, gender, nationality, race, religion), if not so different in the basic lifestyle of Victoria. When new people moved into town, I was always one of the first to meet them and check them out. Even then, consciously or not, I gravitated toward the unfamiliar, toward those who could help me grow and expand my own experience. I am proud to say that several of my early young friendships still endure today.

      I have written before about how much I love my friends and how I strive to maintain those relationships over time and distance, basically “till death do us part.” Sadly, though, death has parted many far too soon. Just last month I/we lost our first early-marriage friend who got us our apartment as newlyweds in New York 50 years ago. As a matter of fact, he was supposed to have been here for New Year’s this year, but had to cancel due to an unexplained illness. And then he died. And now he, like my earliest childhood friend, my former editor and mentor, one of my closest college friends, my dearest Harriet, and so many others, will exist in memory, with a sudden presence conjured by a familiar phrase overheard, or a favorite dish served at dinner, or an unexpected phone call from a grown-up child. Such occurrences help keep my cherished friends alive and help me pay grateful tribute “to all the friends I’ve loved before” (if I may paraphrase the title of a Willie Nelson song). 

     Loss becomes more predictable as one gets older.  All the more reason, then, to write those letters, make those calls, and plan those visits with all the friends we’ve loved before and whom we still love now. Which is why I’m going to Florida this week to spend a few days with two of my best bests friends of  40 years. We too taught English together, but we are not alike, unless you count the way in which we swirl our wine in our glasses as we talk, or the way we contentedly roam a museum for hours, or the way we tease each other with inside quips and jibes. 

     But, then again, maybe those are the ways that really count.


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