Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Deborah Paul on Friendship

In a new community, I have made more friends than I ever imagined.
As a kid, I was always a little homesick. I went to pre-kindergarten on a bus, which my mother followed all the way to the school. I’m pretty sure most mornings I cried.
When you have your mind on your mommy, it’s hard to make friends. I hung back then, and continued my solo path into elementary school. Occasionally, a nice classmate would invite me over after school, and I’d accept, but then I was sad all day, knowing that I wouldn’t be going straight home. They had grandmas living there, and their kitchens smelled like boiling chickens. Mom would say, “They are somebody’s little girl,” as much to reassure herself as to encourage me.

As I grew into adolescence, I latched onto one or two close buddies, following Mom’s primary decree: You only really need one friend. Jackie was it. We slept at each other’s houses, setting our hair on wire rollers and giggling into the wee hours. She offered what I needed: someone with whom to confide private thoughts and laugh uproariously about nonsensical things nobody else would find funny.

Later, I stuck to my college roommate like glue. We shared every detail about our Saturday night dates, traded miniskirts, and cried when we went our separate ways. Then came marriage, and my new husband and I palled around with other young couples who had everything in common: apartment living, skintight budgets, and in-laws with whom to acclimate. During our working years, we let old relationships slide. Office mates easily filled the friendship void; long hours spent in common purpose supplied the bond.

If geography is destiny, then the maxim explains why, in early retirement, I have made more friends than I ever imagined. My husband and I spent last winter in a Florida neighborhood filled with folks just like us, with kids married and gone, grandkids with whom we FaceTime, and more dinners out than at home. The houses sit close together, and we neighbors met by happenstance. The climate allowed for time outdoors, and others were just as much in need of breezy, sun-washed days as we. It didn’t take long for get-togethers to follow, where we gathered around restaurant tables or on street corners.

These new friends knew us for who we are now, not who we were then, when busy careers defined us. I was not so much the writer, editor, and boss as just another mature woman enjoying her newfound leisure time. The playing field was as level as the sidewalks we traversed on our morning strolls, stopping to chat on our way to nowhere in particular. We exchanged book recommendations and names of window washers, where to purchase a proper trash cart, how to set the water heater. They brought fresh bialys from the farmers market or home-baked muffins to our door. We all had time to fill, so why not be generous and kind? There were no pressures to impress or lifelong wounds to heal. Even at our age, everything was new. When environments and circumstances change, “we must find other tribes,” as author Gail Sheehy recently said in an interview.

Every stage of life provides a needed kind of friendship, and these feel right, right now.

Our social calendar filled as full as an ingenue’s dance card; some weeks, barely an evening went by where we dined—just the two of us—at home. These good acquaintances of ours were quick to confide, I discovered. They are childless, and not by choice; gave up a successful medical practice due to a debilitating back problem; were in a tragic car accident that took the life of the other driver; lost their fortune through bad investments; suffered suicide in the family; are battling a degenerative vision loss. They are widows or breast-cancer survivors, and have jobless adult kids about whom they worry. As new comrades with age and life stage in common, they spilled it all, and so did we. Bottled-up secrets flowed freely; we forged an odd but comforting trust. When family is scattered, you cleave to whomever is close.

Most are making the best of whatever life has brought. They have come out the other side of illness and loss, and wish to enjoy what time is left. They are oenophiles, bird watchers, golfers, runners, readers, history buffs, world travelers, bucket-list composers (racing dogsleds, for one!), and gourmet cooks. With their varied interests, there was always something to learn. Every stage of life provides a needed kind of friendship, and these feel right, right now. Being back here at home, I find I miss them, and long to share news, complaints, or even funny texts.

Some of the new relationships will no doubt fade, as people move away, or worse. Still, I look forward to a promised girls’ get-together this summer, and to next winter, when, if all is well, our seasonal sojourn plays out again.


Email Deborah Paul here.

Illustration by Elvis Swift