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The Ethel to My Lucy, The Thelma to My Louise

my-other-exIn the first semester of seventh grade, my parents ripped me from what was a comfortable Berkeley, California childhood. I had already left New England when I was six years old to begin a new life in Northern California. In this next move, however, I was in junior high where it was supposed to be a new, cool adventure. Yet in mid-October, our family moved twenty miles away to the boring suburbs. Worse yet, I was plunked back in elementary school where, in 1964, the neighborhood school included kindergarten through the 8th grade.

My Berkeley pals had been my best friends since first grade and they now lived 20 miles away. It might have been hundreds of miles, though, in an era when families had one car and the breadwinner and father of the family took it to work and back each day, leaving us stranded. For a few weeks, I watched as the neighborhood girls walked to school together, some of them shyly smiling but making little effort to include the new girl.

Those middle years are tough enough and moving made it all the harder. I spent afternoons outside my house at my favorite pastime: roller skating on the sidewalk. The Berkeley sidewalks had been flat and easy to navigate. The sidewalks in my new foothills town neighborhood were steep and scary. Within days, I had fallen backwards on those skates and broken my arm. I was now the new girl – in a cast.

But as kids always do, I made friends at school and in the neighborhood. Families were larger then and siblings and their own neighborhood friendships eventually made the transition easier. Over time, memories of my Berkeley years melted into the new story of my childhood.

Soon my newest best friend was the girl living next door. Although she was one year behind me in school. I had three brothers and she had two. We bonded over our single-daughterhood as the only girls in the family with our own frilly girl rooms. Over the years and through high school graduation, we were more like sisters than neighbors or friends. I squeezed into her sweaters and shoes; she adopted my mother as her own. We had constant sleepovers and listened to her 78s and 33s on her record player. My mother taught us how to cook or make multi-colored Jello molds. Our youngest brothers were buddies, too, playing cops and robbers around our fenced yards, exploring the golden California foothills, or navigating the steep streets on skateboards.

There were other friends, of course. Both of us had circles of friends that both included and excluded each other just by their very nature. Yet, when we graduated from high school and into the various phases of life, we remained the closest of sister-friends. We married only a week apart, taking the major role in each other’s wedding as maid and matrons of honor. I was living in New England at this time and it was with wonder that months before our weddings, we realized we had chosen the same exact fabric for bridesmaids’ dresses. Less than a decade later, we would give our firstborn daughters our respective names.

We rarely disagreed. There were moments in high school when feelings were hurt. Like sisters, however, we managed to move on, often forgetting all the reasons for our differences. The one-year difference in age had always allowed for easy transitions from closeness to an easy and comfortable distance. Together we held on to each other through losses: the deaths of her father and of both of our mothers, the loss of my child to heart disease, and of her newborn nephew to SIDS.

Yet, somehow in the early years of motherhood, we both allowed a small disagreement to grow and create an irreparable rift. A year later, I had moved back to New England and the thousands of miles of physical distance made it oh-too easy to allow the chasm to remain so and we never spoke. Our children started school, played soccer and baseball, danced, excelled in school and made their own best friends. We remained, sadly, as distant as the coastlines 3000 miles from each other.

Luckily, after 15 interminable years, both of us realized that the loss we shared, the years missed, the bond that was torn was redeemable and we found each other together again. The fire had simply gone out of the quarrel and while it had left scarred, cold wood in its place, it took little forgiveness and much strength to regain what we had lost. Somehow, those old wounds had healed and we are stronger in the broken places.

Over the past 16 years, we see each other at least once a year although we still live 3000 miles apart. Sometimes, as many as 8 other girlfriends join us – friendships going back a half-century or more. My best friend and I celebrate each other every year either here in New England or in California because we realize we wasted too much time in the past.

Many of us, particularly women, have lost friendships – a loss that leaves us bewildered. Sometimes we know what happened, sometimes we don’t. Most of the time, we never get it back.

Twenty-six women have written of their stories of lost friendships in The Friend Who Got Away (2006) edited by Jenny Offill and Elissa Schappell. Writers Francine Prose and Katie Morris and among others, describe the loss they felt and still feel. Twenty other women wrote stories in Dumped: Stories of Women Unfriending Women (2015) edited by Nina Gaby. Jacquelyn Mitchard and Ann Hood are contributors.

In My Other Ex: Women’s True Stories of Leaving and Losing Friends (2014), edited by Stephanie Sprenger, there is evidence that perhaps not all friendships are lifelong ones. There are 35 essays that share stories of these friendships that were so important at the time, yet were not meant to last forever.

In 2011, Good Morning America received 15,000 applications for a new Dear GMA advice guru, and Liz Pryor got the job. In 2006, Liz Pryor wrote the first edition of What Did I Do Wrong?: What to Do When You Don’t Know Why the Friendship is Over. The book was updated in 2011 and it has plenty of advice if “your Thelma to your Louise”, “the Ethel to your Lucy” ends your friendship with no or little warning.

Losing your best friend, or even just one of your closest confidants, is heartbreaking. Other girlfriends might not understand and your husband may lack a sympathetic shoulder. The history you shared may disappear in thin air.

I’m thankful every day that my sister-friend and I were able to find each other again. At the same time, these essays and the advice are good to read to heal the hurt, or lead you to reconciliation. They are all available in the Minuteman Library Network libraries.

Charlotte Canelli is the library director of the Morrill Memorial Library in Norwood, Massachusetts. Read Charlotte’s column in the November 3, 2016 issue of the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin.


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