From Chicken Soup for the Girlfriend's Soul

I Found My Best Friend After Forty Years

There are three things that grow more precious with age: old wood to burn, old books to read and old friends to enjoy.

Henry Ford

Joyce Duffey and I grew up in a small Arizona mining town during the 1930s and 1940s. She was my best friend and the sister I never had. When we weren’t watching Shirley Temple movies at the theater, we were taking piano and dancing lessons. After swims at the city pool in the summer, we’d split an ice-cold Popsicle down the middle. At my house, we’d play with dolls for hours on end and sneak cookie dough my mother had left in the refrigerator. I went horseback riding with Joyce and her dad, and she came on my family’s picnics. Joyce’s mother had died when she was six, so when we reached adolescence, we both learned the facts of life from my mother. And together, we discovered what was really important: makeup, hairstyles and clothes!

So it was difficult for us to part in 1944, when my family moved 350 miles away. Wartime gas rationing made travel unlikely, and we could only write letters from the time we were separated, at fourteen, through our college years— until we finally were reunited at my wedding, when Joyce, of course, was one of my bridesmaids. After her own marriage, I saw her one more time, when I went to California in the 1950s for my grandmother’s funeral.

I never dreamed I would lose touch with her completely. But we both had small children and were so busy with our growing families and many moves across the country that we let our letter-writing lapse. Finally, a Christmas card I sent to Joyce was returned with “address unknown” stamped across the envelope. Her father, too, had died by then, and I had no idea how to find her.

My family and I eventually settled back in Arizona, and as the years went by, I thought of Joyce often. I wanted to share with her my joy and pride as my children grew up, married and made me a grandmother. And I needed, so much, to share my sorrow when I had to put my mother in a nursing home and when first my brother, and then my father, died. Those milestones made me aware of the importance of old ties—and the gap in my heart that only a friend like Joyce could fill.

One day, as I sat reading the newspaper in the spring of 1992, I saw an article about teenage gangs. Next to it was the photo of a social worker named Kevin Starrs. That’s a coincidence, I thought. Joyce’s married name was Starrs, and her husband was a social worker. The young man in the photo did resemble Joyce and her dad. Then I chided myself for jumping to conclusions: There must be thousands of people named Starrs. Still, I decided it wouldn’t hurt to write Kevin a letter, telling him about my childhood friend and how those coincidences compelled me to contact him.

He phoned me the minute he heard from me. “Mrs. Conder,” he said, “Joyce Duffey Starrs is my mother!” I must have yelled loudly enough to be heard in South Dakota—where, Kevin told me, Joyce was living. He was as excited as I was, and I could hear in his voice his love for his mother. After he gave me her phone number and I gave him mine, he added, “You know, three of us children live nearby. My mother visited us here in Phoenix several months ago.”

My eyes welled up with tears. “She was here—only a few miles from me—and I didn’t even know it?”

I promised Kevin I’d call Joyce that very evening. I didn’t have to wait that long. Ten minutes later my phone rang.

“Margie?” Even after forty years, I recognized the voice instantly. As soon as Kevin had hung up from our conversation, he’d called his sister, who’d telephoned their mother and gave her my number.

We laughed and cried, and got caught up on each other’s lives. It turned out that Joyce had lived in northern Arizona—so close to me—for a number of the years when we each thought we would never hear from the other again. In the weeks that followed, we talked frequently on the phone and exchanged long letters with photos of our spouses, our children, our grandchildren and ourselves. There were so many things to tell each other!

That summer Joyce flew to Phoenix. When she called me from her daughter’s home, I hurried there, excited and nervous. Would we have that same feeling, that bond, we’d had as children? But there was no need to worry. She was waiting for me at the front door, and I could still see that fourteen-year-old in her sweet grin.

“You look just the same!” we said simultaneously, as if we both were blind to wrinkles, added pounds and gray hair. We fell into each other’s arms.

The next week was filled with hours of catching up, reminiscing and sharing confidences. We giggled like little girls as we pored over old photos. Together, we revisited our hometown, which now looked so small, and other favorite spots where we’d spent time together. The best part of our reunion, though, was meeting each other’s children and grandchildren. Joyce had an emotional reunion at the nursing home with my mother, who, though she can no longer speak, smiled with such happiness that we knew she recognized my long-lost playmate.

The empty place I’d had in my heart for forty years has been filled to overflowing with our renewed friendship. Old friends really are the best friends. And there’s one more thing Joyce and I now know for sure: We won’t lose each other again!

Marjorie Conder

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