From Chicken Soup for the Girlfriend's Soul

A Good Connection

If I had a single flower for every time I think of you, I could walk forever in my garden.

Claudia Grandi

Whenever I heard “A-yuh-n,” it had to be Karen calling. No one else ever drew my name out to three syllables. Never stopping to identify herself, she just leapt in. I would answer the phone, hear my name elongated and know Karen had something to share.

For two years, hers was the voice that made me stop and sit down. Her soft, slow drawl always held love. Whether the subject was frivolous or fraught with urgency, I reveled in the warmth of that voice. How glad I am now that I treasured those calls.

Not that the conversation was anything but predictable “mommy chat.” She’d relate a funny incident that had occurred at the grocery store, commiserate about our pubescent daughters’ temperaments or fuss over what type of dog to get for her three rambunctious kids. Nothing earth-shattering, just day-to-day experiences aired and shared.

Then she was gone, snatched away by leukemia, which came out of nowhere and disappeared with her as quickly and mercilessly as it had come.

Her absence was palpable. My hair began to fall out by the brush-full, and unless I stayed constantly on guard, tears overwhelmed me at unpredictable moments— stopped at a traffic light or standing in a warm shower. My dearest friend was gone.

A few years before we met, I was a young professional nearly always in the company of men. The ratio at work was often 1 to 10 in their favor. I aped male-bonding techniques and enjoyed blending in with the guys. Like other ambitious young women in the seventies, I tailored my business dress toward men’s styles, and felt that everything worthwhile in life happened outside the home.

We baby-boomer girls, who came of age in the era of Women’s Lib, didn’t much value housewives and mommies. When I met Karen during my mid-thirties, I’d had no real “girlfriends” since my college days. The birth of my first child didn’t change that. Wouldn’t it be frivolous to take more than work hours away from my family just to make friends for myself? So when we moved to the suburbs, in the typical city-for-good-schools trade-off, I had plenty of attitude concerning the identity of local mommies.

You’re probably way ahead of me here, but I found it a stunning revelation that the “gals” of my narrow-minded stereotype did not exist.

All around me, women were improvising and recreating the world to suit themselves: women at a variety of life stages and ages, stitching individual patchwork quilts of parenting and life.

The mommies I met turned out to be psychologists, corporate trainers, artists, designers, teachers, office managers, writers, singers, actors . . . and on and on.

They were also alchemists: mixing various proportions of employment and home, in order to plow huge stores of energy into family and community. On the playground or volunteering at school, I discovered creative, purposeful, powerful women.

Karen had chosen to be a full-time mom during the years we were friends, so it was ironic that she was the one who opened my eyes to the joy of spending time one-on-one with my new peers. A gracious woman who had grown up in rural America, her rhythm was slower than my city-girl pulse. She took time with interactions.

Afternoon phone calls over cups of coffee became a nurturing ritual, which helped me balance the emotional juggling act of job/kids/home.

She gave me license to rehash worries or troubles until solutions were found or at least my spirits were calmed. Better still, she could get me to laugh at myself, just as she laughed at herself. She could even laugh about toilet training.

Try that topic on a male coworker.

Her friendship was a precious gift. My sadness at her death was so deep because I felt I’d lost that gift forever.

I was mistaken. I soon discovered that Karen’s gift to me had not simply been her friendship. It was the joy of having women friends. That is a legacy that remains with me.

I rediscovered it in the face of one friend who eased my sorrow when Karen died. I continue to find it in her Fourth of July picnics. It’s in another friend’s patient smile when our sons get overly adventurous, and another’s invitations to join her in political activism.

When my phone rings now, I know in a moment who it is. “Want to hear something funny?” means Kim has a tale to tell; the rising pitch of “Anne?” means Paula has a grin on her face; a clipped “Hi, Anne,” means Maria wants to make plans.

They don’t need to introduce themselves; their voices are as much a part of the fabric of my week as Karen’s voice is of the fabric of my memory. For them, I stop in my tracks and listen, knowing that they’re each giving me their own gifts, for which my life is richer.

Of course, none of them is likely to turn my name back into a multisyllabic wonder. I have Karen to thank for that . . . and also for a lifetime of good connections.

Anne Merle

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