First impressions, and fertile friend-making periods

Matt and I were talking about first impressions last week.  We met 14 years ago, but the first things we thought of each other – and of other people we’ve met since – remain vivid.  We talked about the major categories of impressions, the things that carry weight when you are first getting to know someone.

“Your friends,” he started, with a smile.  “Well, your friends were, from the very first, awesome.”  I’ve written before about how even if he got rid of me, I’m pretty sure Matt would insist on continuing to go to my college reunions.  He loves those women almost as devoutly as I do (and with good reason).

“Yes, they are.”

“I think you can tell a lot – maybe the most of all – about someone by who their best friends are.”

And I agree with him.  My closest friends are a small group of people for whom I feel fierce loyalty and untrammeled pride.  I feel lucky every single time I think of this handful of people who have, for some mysterious reason, decided to bestow their love on me.  Matt’s and my conversation got me thinking, again, about which friends have stuck with me through life’s unanticipated perambulations, about how some grow nearer even as others ebb away.

There have been three fertile periods of friend-making in my life. The first was my childhood friends, my “family friends,”who really functioned more as siblings than anything else in my early life. These friends flanked me through those first important years, though the relationships were driven as much by our parents’ friendships as by anything individual to us. I am not in daily touch with any of those friend-siblings these days, but they remain close to me in the way of people who have shared formative life experiences. Like, perhaps, people who went through trench warfare together. I also had dear friends from my grade school (one of whom I saw last week and realized that Grace is about to be the age we were when we met – holy holy holy!).

The second was college. High school, fractured as it was between England and New Hampshire, was quite fraught for me. I had some good friends in London but we have dropped out of touch, proving to me that the weight of different cultures and the ocean was too heavy for the fragile bonds we shared. At boarding school I pulled into myself for a variety of reasons, and I remember those two years as some of the loneliest of my life. Yes, I had friends, and people with whom I shared the long cold days; one of my very best friends now I met there though it was really in college that our friendship blossomed into what it is now. But I spent a lot of time alone, too, running endless miles in the snowy woods, black trees silhouetted against gray sky, and writing essays and reading books in my tiny bedroom.

College changed all of that. I arrived at Princeton desperately lonely, full of insecurities and fears (yes, believe it, even more than now). I don’t think I had realized the extent to which those two years in New Hampshire saddened me. I was desperate for a place to call home, a group of friends into whose embrace I could relax. Oh, and how I found it. To this day, Princeton remains the place I was happiest. There was standard college drama, of course: sadness, frustration, embarassment, heartbreak. But oh, my friends. I was and am still surprised that such extraordinary women wanted to be my friends. Some of this was, of course, in reaction to the cold years at Exeter. For sure. But it mostly just my lonely heart gratefully opening to the warmth of Princeton, to the spring sky riotously full of magnolia blossoms, to orange tee shirts and mardi gras beads, to young women singing “oh what a night” at the top of their lungs at a dive Chinese restaurant.

Those four years were healing, and the friends I made there will always be the dearest of my life. Anne Patchett writes about how true friends are “native speakers,” and I find myself recalling how at Princeton we basically invented our own language. We were teased for abbreviating everything, and indeed, we did. Abbrevs, T and a P, TDF, the chalice, DTR … I could go on. Those of you who know what all of those things mean know who you are. And you speak my language.

And many of these college friendships have endured, grown thicker and stronger and more sustaining even as we move further away from Princeton. We have passed through early professional choices, graduate school, weddings, divorces, more weddings, babies. I’m not sure I can say it better than I did, in a letter addressed to these wonderful women, several years ago:

“There will be and are other incredibly special friends, but as a community you all are ground zero: yardstick and safe haven, the people who knew me when I was becoming who I am.”

The third rich period of friendship in my life was around pregnancy, delivery, and the transition into motherhood. This passage is so complex, the particular dilemmas and issues of life with a newborn so detailed and specific, that the people I shared it with have become dear friends. These friendships developed in the context of family and children, and the women I have grown close to in that fecund place full of abundant concerns and anxious questions are deeply special to me.

It strikes me that it is not an accident that our truest and most lasting friendships are forged during times of life transition; we are closest to those who have shared experiences that changed who we are. Whether it was childhood, college, or becoming mothers, this is true for me. There are other examples, individuals who have shared things with me that contributed indelibly to who I am. In this way, a very few other people have become a part of my own self, their voices permanently embedded into my private narrative.

There are a few sustaining threads in my life, people whose story I know will always run next to mine, friendships whose sturdy support I lean on routinely.  And how fortunate I am that these people were impressive enough to my husband when he met them that he decided, too, to stick around.

Do you agree that people’s close friends are a significant indicator of who they are?  Are there phases in your life that have yielded particularly close or lasting friendships?  What did you think the first time you met your spouse?

(parts of this are reposted from September 2009)

11 thoughts on “First impressions, and fertile friend-making periods”

  1. This is all so true. I just wrote something so similiar (much shorter and less eloquent, but you get the idea!) about our recent trip to Richmond. I spent time with college friends and the friends I met when the girls were tiny. I’m pretty sure there will never be anything quite like these women again…

  2. Maikael and I also met 14 years ago (go 1998!). I was a freshman in college who had no interest in ever — EVER — getting married or having children. He was a sophomore who showed up at my dorm room with his roommate, who was keen on getting to know MY roommate. That never went anywhere, but the rest is history. I thought Maikael was flat-out weird. He has just returned from living four years in Costa Rica and, while a native English speaker who was primarily raised in the US, he was still forgetting the English word for “cornbread” when we ate together at the dining hall. I thought he lived in Puerto Rico, not Costa Rica, which I couldn’t have identified on a map at the time (embarrassing). The whole thing was very confusing to me, and our initial meeting felt like a comedy of errors. I’m amazed that we ended up together!

  3. “It strikes me that it is not an accident that our truest and most lasting friendships are forged during times of life transition; we are closest to those who have shared experiences that changed who we are.”

    Yes. Indeed.

    I love this post because I have been pondering friendship a lot lately, and particularly what are friends say about who we are and who we are becoming.

  4. I love this reflection on friendship and absolutely agree that some of the most important relationships are forged in seasons of transition.

    As much as I always enjoy reading about your close female friendships, I often do so with a sense of wistfulness. My favorite friends are scattered far and wide and none are in my day-to-day life now. I wonder what that might say about me and my need to take better care of my friendships.

  5. This is such a thoughtful post. I had a minor meltdown last week when I realized that I have zero mom friends in DC. However, it made me get in touch of all my good friends who have known me for years and I felt so blessed to have that posse of 4 and secure in that love.

  6. Two thoughts on this.

    1) You are right that new motherhood is a fertile time. Did you read the NYT Mag piece on Target and marketing? They know new moms are vulnerable to new “relationships” and target them (pun intended). Female friendships seem better than shopping– though, of course, they may go hand in hand. 🙂

    2) As a new mommy, I find myself not really seeking out new mom friends. Why? I am so grateful for any time to myself that I either want to connect with existing friends (usually on phone or computer, as most don’t live close-by) or read or write. I still need my “me time” I guess. Does this make me strange? (Also, in Boston, it seems like Isis is such a big thing and I just.can’t. I was at the Natick Mall today though and it was OVERRUN with strollers. I considered Mom flirting, but then had to get home to feed him… Maybe next time I’ll hit on a potential mom friend?! ;))

  7. Lindsey, sitting here in Naples, FL with my sister and her family, my parents, and a host of cherished “friend-siblings”. Oh I get that concept so well (can you imagine vacationing for one week every year with your parents, your husband and kids, your sibling’s family, and 5 other unrelated families with the same set up? The same people vacationing together for almost 40 years???!!!) I have always been blessed with incredible friends and friendships, and I believe I have usually chosen wisely and carefully after a bad experience I had as a 6-7 year-old, where I had a real “bully” for a friend. I luckily moved away to a lovely town and communtity, where I vowed to myself, even at that young tender age, never to let myself be friends with a bully again. Instead, I went in the opposite direction and forged strong and loving bonds, some of the strongest of which started in 3rd and 5th grades! I work with one of those 5th graders, who helped me to get my current job almost 17 years ago. Another is also like a sister to me, I am her son’s Godmother, we live 15 minutes apart from each other, and our children are great pals too. Another dear “sister” I traveled to Switzerland with for the baptism of her first child, my Godchild. I feel so fortunate that I could go on and on. Close circle of friends from elementary-high school. Close circle of friends from college (my whole family visited a dear college friend and her family last April in London, our last chance as they were preparing to move back to the States)…I am also lucky enough to have forged strong friendships in my current hometown, filled with women who are strong, smart, savvy, stylish, fun, thoughtful, considerate, helpful and engaging. However, I find this time of my life trickier when it comes to the friend department. I have been in a place in my life for the past 7 months or so where I need a lot of solitude and space, and between my job and family and solitude, there’s little time left for relaxing with friends. I crave the friendship and companionship of my town friends, yet find it hard to carve out the time – and find many of my friends to be in the same boat. It is a time fraught with insecurity on many levels and I now tend to depend more on those friends who have known me for at least 20+ years as I climb up and sink down into this mud that I can not seem to clear from my path right now…My husband and kids are simply the center of my universe, but life without my friends is simply unimaginable at the same time…I truly feel blessed and give gratitude every day for my incredible friends. Thank you for the friendship post!! Simply beautiful, as always. Just love your way with words!!

  8. I’m in love with this post for many reasons (always so love your vivd descriptions of place and time) butto answer your question yes. So much is said by the company we keep. It matters greatly (as I remind my kids as they choose friends) and the deepest friends come during the darkest times, or the transition times, or the lonely times.

  9. I relate to this 100% and I’d say my “fertile” periods of friendship-making were the same. I definitely have an extra special connection with my college friends. there’s that certain self-selection that begins by all choosing to attend that particular school. It’s hard to beat that! (I read the follow-up “lonely” post too and totally get it. It is absolutely possible to be rich with friends and family but lonely in ways too.)

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