It happens once a year. And usually only for a day. The past collides with the present as I reunite with the people who know the earliest chapters of my story best. They know it because it’s their story too. We experienced it side by side. They are my childhood people.
My very first friends.
We’ll go for months and months without speaking, but our friendships are like the lyrics to an old favorite song. We think we’ve long forgotten them, yet we find ourselves harmonizing in no time. They lie just beneath our embrace, which we hold a few seconds longer to honor the history that bonds us. The 364 days that have passed since our last visit are a mere blink. The decades fall away, and we are 10 years young again.
Hello, old friends.
She is 5 and I am 4. We are in ballet class, and the teacher scolds me for doing a curtsy instead of a plié. I blink back tears. She catches my eye and sticks out her tongue behind the teacher’s back. A show of solidarity. It’s just enough to make me smile instead of cry.
We catch up in pieces throughout the day. In a staccato-like conversation over the heads of our squealing children as we heave them above wave after wave until our shoulders are sore and our wrists ache. Side by side in chairs as the youngest ones demand we blow on freshly baked birthday cakes made of sand. In unseasonably cold waist-deep ocean water as we yell over the surf to our oldest kids, “Not so deep!”
I am 5 and she is 6, and every time I arrive at her door she greets me with her beloved clogs. She hands them over and lets me walk around in them–even though they are two sizes too big– because she knows how desperately I want a pair…and that my mom won’t allow me to have them.
We talk books, diagnoses, and relationships. The concern is genuine as we speak in hushed tones of parents who are suddenly old, others who have cancer, and those we worry continue to drink too much. We gaze out over the ocean to keep from crying as we relay the most recent updates from our children’s specialists. The place we hold in our hearts for one another opens just a little bigger when we admit that the word “chronic” in reference to our kids’ conditions has been the hardest of pills to swallow.
She is 9 and I am 8. We are back to back on her bike. I clutch the back of the banana seat and stretch my growing legs out on either side of me while she pumps the pedals to deliver me back home before dinner. “Hang on, I’ve got you,” she calls over her shoulder. And I don’t worry. Because I know she does.
The friendship among us is as sure as the tide that ebbs and flows around our sandy beach chairs. It is as old as we are. It is a living breathing thing. It needs no “remember when’s”. I know their faces as well as my own. The creases that frame their eyes are the same creases I have. They wouldn’t be so deep had it not been for our shared fits of laughter, which are undeniably at the root of their very existence.
I am 10 and she is 11. We are sledding across a frozen pond. The ice cracks beneath my sled, and I am suddenly–frighteningly–chest deep. She laughs with the others at the sight of me as I scramble out of the ice cold water. But she gasps and wraps her arms protectively around me as soon as she sees how scared I am.
My heart understands that the children of these friends occupy an immediate and precious place. I see them only once a year but I’ve loved them from the moment their Mothers shared the news of their pregnancies. Long before that even. Perhaps from the time we sat side by side, holding our dolls, pretending they were our babies. I don’t know their favorite colors, I’m not sure who prefers chicken to pizza; but their Mothers are a part of every meaningful childhood memory I have. When I look into their faces, I see the young girls we once were, and I am transported back to a lifetime ago…when our days were spent playing dress up and paper dolls, putting on talent shows for our big brothers, picking blackberries off the bushes in the woods behind our neighborhood. When the world was big. A summer was a lifetime. Our parents knew everything. And our stories were chapter upon chapter of empty pages waiting to be filled.
She is 17 and I am 16. She is tugging on my hair, weaving the locks into a french braid. “Do you love him?” I ask, peeking over my shoulder at her. As hard as she tries, she cannot deny the smile that plays at the corner of her lips. “I do,” she replies, as the smile lights up her face. I clap my hands together in delight. “Well, did you tell him?” I demand. “I did!” she exclaims, and we laugh and reach for each other’s hands, the french braid abandoned in our excitement.
Our kids are tentative around one another at first.
“Do you play baseball?”
“Join me in the water?”
“You like chipwiches? Me too.”
“Are those Zotz? Do they taste like pop rocks?”
They get slowly reacquainted. And by evening, their faces are a sea of smiles. Their laughter echoes across the surf. And they chase one another through the cool sand under a night sky that is lit by the most brilliant fireworks. Our visit draws near its end, and it’s no longer my child on my lap…it’s hers.
I am 24 and she is 25. She smiles brightly as my Dad walks me down the aisle in the church by our childhood homes. A few months later, my eyes are brimming with tears as her Dad ushers her down the aisle in the church by the ocean where we spent our summers.
The fireworks are over, and each of the 200 sparklers has burned out. Our goodbyes are hurried because it’s late, and the dreaded bedtime routine still awaits. This year I’m able to make my way up the dunes behind my family before the tears begin to roll down my cheeks.
“Wait!” I tiny voice calls out behind me, “Wait!”
I turn to see the littlest of the littles running towards me with her arms outstretched. She is blond and blue-eyed. Like a real life Cindy Lou Who.
We wrap our arms around each other in a heartfelt farewell. I kiss the top of her blond head and continue my climb up the dunes.
“Wait!” she yells once more. I turn to find her arms open again, so I lean down to lift her up. She lays her head on my shoulder and exclaims, “I love you!”
She must be Cindy Lou Who. Because my heart grows 3 sizes in her tiny embrace.
“I love you too, baby girl.”
I place her delicately in the sand, and she races back to her Mom, to her aunt, to her sister, to her cousins. She races back to a world that’s big, to a summer that lasts a lifetime, to parents who know everything, and to a story that is chapter upon chapter of empty pages waiting to be filled.
She races back to my very first friends.
“Goodbye, old friends,” I whisper. “See you next year.”
And the first tear slides down my cheek.