Old friends

By Caitlin Kelly

“Old friends cannot be created out of hand. Nothing can match the treasure of common memories, of trials endured together, of quarrels and reconciliations and generous emotions. It is idle, having planted an acorn in the morning, to expect that afternoon to sit in the shade of the oak.”

— Antoine de Saint-Exupery, “Wind, Sand and Stars” (1939)



Every year, at least once and sometimes several times, I head north to Toronto and to a cottage on a lake near Peterborough, Ontario, to visit my friends I’ve known for decades.

I left Toronto in 1986, afire with ambition, ready to marry. I met my first husband, an American, in Montreal and followed him to rural New Hampshire; neither took.

By 1994, I was a divorcee (no children) living in a pretty lonely suburb of New York City. Moving back to Canada felt like a retreat. I liked New York. I had yet to satisfy my professional ambitions.

And so I stayed.

In the decades I’ve lived in the U.S. I’ve made friends.

But they’ve come and gone, sometimes with a stunning rapidity. I arrived in New York at the age of 30 — long past the traditional ages when the powerful emotional glue of shared schools, colleges and/or post-graduate training seem to create lifelong bonds for many Americans, some of whom are still pals with their freshman room-mate.

Many of my friends now live very far away...
Many of my friends now live very far away…

So I’ve found my American friends through other means — a work colleague (briefly), my freelance life, serving on several boards and attending/speaking at conferences, several colleagues of my husband’s from the newspaper he worked at for 31 years and for whom I freelance as well.

Luckily, I have a friend now living directly across the street from me — we met (yes, really) through a local man we both dislike heartily. But, a new pal!

Without children or hobbies or many non-work passions I’ve found it challenging to find people with whom I can create new deep ties. The world is full of friendly acquaintances, “Heyyyyyy!” — but less filled with people with the time, inclination or interest to start a new chapter with a stranger.

One of the best weeks of my life, working in rural Nicaragua -- now still friends with these three
One of the best weeks of my life, working in rural Nicaragua — now still friends with these three

So when I see my long-time friends in Canada, we’re also revisiting our earlier selves:

P., once a curly redhead, is now gray, long-married to his husband. We met on a rooftop in Colombia, and still laugh at the same things but our last conversation also included our spouses’ searches for new employment and the struggle over a parent’s estate.

M., also a decade older than I, has known me since I was in my early 20s. We both visited New York City together when I appeared on stage as an extra in the ballet Sleeping Beauty for a story. I’ve stayed in her home many times since then and belatedly realized she’s more family than much of my own.

Victoria College, University of Toronto, where I met M in freshman English class
Victoria College, University of Toronto, where I met M in freshman English class

M, who I met in freshman English class when we eye-rolled at one another. A teacher and college administrator, she came all the way to N.Y. from the northern wilds of British Columbia for my first wedding to be my maid of honor; (my last, fateful words as I headed down the aisle: “Just be my friend if this doesn’t work out”. Thank heaven she did), and all the way to Toronto for my second. We still talk every few months from her home in B.C. and I still use the battered, stained cookbook she gave me in 1986.

L, a fellow journalist, whose home brims with beauty: hand-made pottery, drawings and oil paintings and colorful rugs. Her cooking, and hospitality, is astounding. We met in the 1980s, covering the same story for competing newspapers and re-met decades later on a fellowship in Florida.

S, 20 years my junior, a fellow ferocious jock and adventurous traveler. We’ve set new records for unbroken conversation — on my most recent trip, last week, we sat down in a restaurant for lunch at noon. We got up again at 5:30.

S, my age, who I’ve known since high school when we were both mad about J. — all of us now long since married. Like me, she’s artistic, creative, a free spirit with no children but who shares a deep love of the natural world and travel.

I learned how to canoe at camp -- useful when we went to Nicaragua
On assignment in rural Nicaragua — we’d never met and had a blast!

I find it comforting to know people over time, to be loved and valued and accepted and forgiven through the jobs, (and losses of same), the husbands, (and loss/gain of same), through illnesses and surgeries.

Fatter, thinner, happier or broken-hearted, lustily single or placidly married, they’ve seen me through it all, and vice versa.

You can safely fight and make up with these emotional distance runners — while others slink away or keep conversations perky, polished and politely, always, distant.

You know these friends’ partners and pets, (including the dead ones), their parents and siblings. Also, perhaps, their children and grand-children.

You know about the grant they didn’t win or the dream they never tried. They know why your brother hates you, and don’t care.

They know what makes you cry, even if they haven’t seen you  — or seen you do it — in years.

They see us through the rapids!
They see us through the rapids!

We hold one another to a high standard, knowing, sometimes far better than a late-arriving partner or spouse, what lies beneath our bravado and bluster.

We are witnesses to one another’s lives.

(Longtime readers of Broadside know that my family is not especially close or loving, so these long-lasting friendships mean the world to me.)

Here’s what I definitely do not want — “ambient intimacy”.

From New York magazine:

The British user-experience researcher Leisa Reichelt coined the term “ambient intimacy” in 2007 to describe the unfocused closeness we maintain by following friends’ day-to-day on platforms like Twitter. Soon, though, the signals that we continuously broadcast to our friends and followers promise to get more … not intimate, perhaps, but certainly creepy by today’s standards.

The Apple Watch’s ability to stream one user’s heartbeat to another through vibrations is one example of this closeness. As is Meerkat, the suddenly popular live-streaming app that lets users send live video to their followers, turning the previously static culture of webcams into a mobile, always-on experience. Soon enough, we’ll be able to live vicariously alongside anyone we choose at any moment of their life — the ultimate future of the selfie stick is a system that can photograph or record you from any angle and any distance at any time.

No, thanks.

I want to sit at a table, or side by side by the fireplace or lazing on the dock, and talk for hours to someone whose face I can see, and vice versa.

Someone I can hug.

Do you have friends you’ve cherished for decades?




28 thoughts on “Old friends

  1. I’ve only been around for a little over two decades, so I can’t say I have. Though there are non-family members I’ve known for years, so I guess you could count them. And there are people I’ve known since elementary school that I’m still friendly with, even if I don’t see or hear from them too much.

  2. I’m lucky enough to have one friend who’s been around almost 40 years now and our children are almost getting to that age.He travels quite a distance most weekends to stay here and take me shopping since I don’t leave the house alone. Another great friend I met at work some 16 years ago. We never socialised while in work but got on well enough. Since she retire 5 years ago we’ve seen each other every couple of months and she’s a star.She helped me through my wife’s illness and death often taking us to appointments. Very huggable. I also have one young friend who was a colleague at work who makes a point of still visiting every Christmas eve with a fun gift of some kind to see how I am and let me know how he’s doing .
    My brother and young nephew(s) come round every Wednesday evening for a games night which invariable raises a laugh with Balderdash. We’ve become much closer than we were years ago.

    xxx Huge Hugs Caitlin xxx

  3. this is wonderful. there is nothing the like thread connecting long-time friends. there is something about the shared history and acceptance that is hard to match. i do have a small group of long-time friends, and they are irreplaceable.

  4. I envy your collection of close friends. Im still in the first quarer of my life, but after I left college a few years ago I realized that many friends were really just acquaintances that appeared closer than they were because of the forced proximity. A few of us have continued to keep in touch, having occasional dinners and long meet-ups. But most people seem to prefer the safe distance of that ambient intimacy you refer to, unfortunately.

    1. Sorry to hear that!

      These are people I met, mostly, in my late teens or early 20s. I also think Canadians have a slightly different notion of friendship; we are often much slower to open up, but once someone has made the cut, we keep them for a long time. 🙂

  5. One or two, yes. I feel very blessed to be able to have them in this time, where my peers have young families, and everyone struggles not to be undone by the pressure of the chaos.

    1. It’s true that you can really lose touch at that point. Now in my 50s, as people with children see them off to college or beyond (i.e. empty nest) they actually want to be social again.

  6. You’re talking about the keepers. I have these and cherish them–but have found that even some of the keepers desert in prolonged hard times. I have learned to trust my gut when drawn to new people. I have found keepers, even now, in midlife–and it’s lovely.

  7. I’m with you–the sitting side-by-side at the table sentiment. A reason lately I haven’t been such a good online reader or writer, trying to focus more offline and figure out the balance of both. I wondered sometimes when I wrote more often if I never heard from long-time friends because they thought they knew what I was up to, through what I wrote about, but as you know, what you write about is only one little part of who you really are. I love reading social media for news and keeping up to date, but seeing what my “friends” are up to via social media? Leaves me cold because of the supposedly “perfect” life everyone projects. Sitting side-by-side, you can really know what’s going on, the good and not-so-great, and somehow we all feel more human. I have some good long-time friends who I truly miss–seems like during the kid years, and with many of us in different states, friendships end up last priority, I have been working on resurrecting that though in the last few years. After reading this, think I’m going to pick up the phone this week 🙂

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  9. I do have those people, and I am incredibly thankful for them. They’re amazing, and from a surprisingly varied set of backgrounds and they have all expanded my world in amazing ways.

  10. Cindy

    My best friends for a decade were my neighbors..both sides. It was a coincidental and harmonious combination of personalities, ages, interests and beliefs. I didn’t realize how precious and unique that was until I moved.

    1. Indeed!

      Back in the mid 1980s I made very good friends with a woman across the street in Toronto who was living with room-mates there and with both of my house neighbors, even though I rented. Same thing in Montreal in my downtown apt. bldg. rental. Sometimes we get lucky! 🙂

  11. tm

    I am lucky enough to have a friend who has been with me ( but rarely in the same country) for 16 years. Over three continents and 8-9 relationships between us, we have always been there for each other. We have cried and laughed over the phone in some strange and remote places. If your family isn’t close, those kind of friends are priceless.

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