The Friend Who Got Away

In listening to both intimates and acquaintances, I have noticed that often the most fraught ending in a woman's relationship is with a friend, not a lover.

Raw pain infuses a woman's face when she describes the end of a close friendship, and the loss is of different tenor than that of romance. 

In "The Friend Who Got Away", Jenny Offill and Elissa Schappell collected twenty essays by women who describe such losses. This is not light bedtime reading: betrayal, the weight of expectations, mental health issues, the strains of child-rearing and work, jealousy, or just garden-variety indifference summon suffering even decades after the woman no longer sees her friend. 

My view of friendships has changed over adult life. Once, I sought to replace the sister I lost when I was twenty-nine.

Now, I take a more flexible view. I see friends as plants in a garden: a few resilient, thirty and forty year-old willow trees amid a mix of perennials and annuals. (I've learned you can't make a perennial out of an annual, no matter how much you'd like.)

I enjoy magnificent dahlias and modest violets equally, nourish several seedlings and no longer count on everything to take root. Occasionally, I eradicate without regret. Sometimes a plant I thought was hardy vanishes.

The word that resonates is "tending"; what I don't nurture, withers. But winter comes to all gardens, and as my friends and I age, some blooms appear only in dreams, with their essences intact; I awaken suffused with love, sorrow, gratitude. (One acquaintance said grimly that she was interested in making new friends only if at least twenty years younger.) 

When we moved to Montréal four years ago, I knew my greatest loss would be cherished friends. However, I didn't realize how long it might take to meet sympatico local women and build relationships, for we are long beyond the schoolyard days of instant friendship. My great luck was to immediately connect with my son's fiancée's mother and her sister, vital, smart and fun-loving women who generously introduced me to their circle. As my mother would say, they "took me up".

Marina, another friend I've made here, is moving next week, from a minute's walk away to small town a two-hour drive from Montréal. 

I'll miss her; you can see her spirit in this photo, animated, good-natured, slightly daffy, yet bracingly direct.  I'll also miss her menagerie: a pet rabbit, Mr. Oreo, her albino cat Lili, Lili's sister Bhumi, and her shy turtle, Bubbles, big as a dinner plate, who bobs in a kiddie wading pool in the living room.

To say goodbye, she hosted an open house last weekend, to which I brought a parting gift. Mr. Oreo despises the cats; jealous of their sleeping rights on Marina's bed, he rebuffs their sweet-natured overtures with bites and leporine attitude.

In France, you can buy rabbit cat food. Guess who got a tin each?


 



12 comments

Janice Riggs said...

Your analogy of friends with plants is spot-on! I'm going to incorporate it into my own thinking about the people I know; I think it will help me with the changes inherent in knowing other people.
big grateful hug,
Janice

Madame Là-bas said...

I was just discussing the importance of friendship in my life yesterday. Friendships do require tending. Some wither from neglect and some just require too much maintenance. As lives change, friendships change. Monsieur is preparing for a 50th graduation reunion and asked me why I never have attend reunions. I guess that I am happy to let the past remain in the past. As we get older, it seems to me, that we need to have more "annuals" to fill some of the empty spaces. The ability to keep making new friends is important in later life. Studies show that friendships play an important role in the emotional and physical well-being of women. Thank you for presenting such an interesting topic for contemplation.

materfamilias said...

What a good analogy -- I've quite a few on the far edges of the garden, still within sight, but rarely watered or fed, to be honest. Not sure if that will change in retirement. And the patch that's been getting the most attention, my friends at work, that may well get straggly over the next few years. Proximity has been a huge factor for me in the past. I'm like Madame, above, have never been to a reunion, and I have relied quite a bit on the "annuals." Honestly, I'm a bit nervous about how these next few years will work. I'm very aware of having to leave my social nurturing aside in favour of work and family -- will I be able to revive my friendships or able to build new ones? Time will tell . . . (that book looks well worth picking up -- that's two you've put on my list in just a week!)

I'm sure that gift must have been a great conversation piece -- too funny!

LauraH said...

I like the plant analogy. It took me years to realize that there are varying levels of friendship and that friendships change over time.

During my late husband's illness and in the following years, many friends disappeared and I sought new friends. It was and is, difficult to make new friends as an older adult, people are more likely to have very full plates already. Once I retired, many work friends dropped off which I expected having gone through that process before. Without the ease of everyday contact, it takes a lot more work to tend those plants.

Susan said...

I like the plant analogy as well.

Seaside said...

You had me with the end tin food comment- I was in stitches!

Kristien62 said...

As the child of a military family who moved eight times, I never had long term childhood friendships. When I married and had children, it was important to me that my sons have that experience. Blessedly, they did and remain friends with those who were part of their young lives, even though all are spread throughout the country. I am happy for them and envious, too. I have many annuals and very few perennials, never having learned the proper cultivation of tender friendships. Yet, I have learned to cherish the very few great friends I have and attribute their staying power to their ability to nurture relationships.

Susan said...

I know that Facebook is an anathema to many, but I want to comment here about one of its benefits. I graduated from high school 45 years ago and my close friends scattered over the country. Many of us had those busy years of raising families and we lost touch. Then, came Facebook. Now, we have all reconnected and even plan our get togethers over FB. Now, I'm even closer to some of these friends than I was in our youth. Now, we recognize how precious our friendships are and we nurture them. Being able to keep up with each other on FB is a huge help. I think the trick to making FB work for you is to limit your "friends" to those you truly want to keep up with. I have 171 friends (many of them are family) on FB and fairly regularly check the list to make sure that they really are people that I want to know the daily doings of.

pomaw said...

Your garden analogy of friendship really resonates with me, though I winced too, having been "eradicated without regret" myself, a painful event that took me many years to get over. Often burned and twice/thrice shy, I am careful with women now, find their friendship tricky but still essential, and take none of them for granted. I have friends of all ages now and from all stripes, jurisdictions and interest groups but have learned resilience in solitude as well and I think that has made me a better friend. Great post.

Anonymous said...


Absolutely wonderful post, great analogy, and spot on - thanks so much!!

Beth said...

Only you would think of rabbit cat food! So funny and perfect!

This post made me wince, remembering some of those lost/ended/withered friendships and the pain they caused -- not only to me, but in thee case of two I can remember, to the other person who I had decided not to see so much anymore, for various reasons. I too value my friendships in this (relatively) new home and hope they'll continue but I agree, it takes work and care, just like tending a garden -- and some plants are fussier than others! Because of my own work and commitment to my marriage, I've found that super-high-maintenance friendships don't really work for me; some women (especially single women) just want more time together - and perhaps a different level of intensity and intimacy - than I can manage. It's taken me a long time and some heartache to realize this, and now I try to explain upfront and not build unreasonable expectations. Having said that, I hope I am a loyal and caring friend who gives full attention when I do see people in person. Thanks for writing about this tricky subject!

diverchic said...

Such a wise, brave and thoughtful post.