IMG_0939Designing a friendship is easy. You move to an area where people are of a same ambition, life-style, religious persuasion or a financial bracket. You can join clubs, causes and charity works where people have a bottom rung on which to build friendships. I’ve had a few of these friendships which lasted till the cause ran it’s course and there was nothing left to talk about. Some of my most valuable friendships were completely lacking in design. They just happened.

One in particular stands out. She lived next door. We were not of the same religious or political mind. Our lives were not going in the same direction. I was a young mother and she was seventy-six years old when we moved in next door. In fact, we were as different as two people can be and still speak the same language. She grew up in Canada, riding horses, gardening and being educated when most girls back then were being courted. She was married at the ripe old age of twenty-five. They moved into a small rural town in Michigan, he an accountant, she a housewife, collector of paper weights, a raft for lost teenagers, a church member, a mother of two, and in the late years a mother to her twin grandsons. In spite of outward appearances, we became best friends.

Our first encounter was when we were unloading the moving truck and she came rushing over. She pushed me aside, saying, “Here, you’re too fragile to do this!” and squared her shoulder underneath our mattress, pushing the thing up the narrow staircase, my husband nearly running backwards as she exploded upwards, strands of long braided hair coming loose from the temples in joyous victory as the mattress was placed squarely on the box spring in one fell swoop. She was at the time, seventy-six years old.

For the next twelve years, she popped in and out of our house, all times of the day, never sitting, only there to see that things were going according to the universal laws that said, “Hard work never killed anybody.” In the long winter days before Christmas, she would call me and say, “Look out your window.” With the phone in my hand, I pulled back the curtain as she would proudly hold up her Apple Blossom Amaryllis that she had forced from a bulb.

It was always an occasion to run over and celebrate with coffee and cookies. One time she had made tomato aspic with peas. I loved her enough to gush over it and actually put a small bit in my mouth, which I held until my reflexes allowed me to swallow. I admired it again before I left but she didn’t send me home with the recipe.

She would dance in the side yard in her faded print house dress, bare feet, grey hair wrapping around her body like willow branches, arms waving overhead with a smile of freedom and joy-some for her, some for me. She scolded me for opening my home to most of the neighborhood kids, explaining that my loyalties should be for my family and I was spreading myself too thin. I forgave her and kept on spreading myself.

I loved her old timey advice. It made me feel connected to women throughout time and space. She gave advice on making strawberry jam-let the berries sit overnight in their juices so they plump and it must be done on a cookie sheet; hold a pat of butter under your tongue when peeling onions and you will have no tears {I never tried that one}; let the baby eat something off the floor-some germs are good for him; never mind the neighbors, life takes care of itself.

At times, I would get busy with my life and miss a day or two of visits at her house. She would call and beg me to come over, forgiving me whenever I showed up, even if I couldn’t stay for Folger’s coffee and Eietman’s oatmeal cookies, which mostly I did. Her house was too stuffy but I stayed for up to an hour. Mine was too difficult for her to traverse because of the steps, but she came often and said it was no problem. I would knit a sweater and she would tell me it was wrong then rip it out. We would sit for hours, side by side on the edge of her bed, in the front room and remake it. We both knew it had been fine in the first place.

We would talk on the phone, wave out our windows, lean over the fence and rock on her porch, gossiping, comforting or sometimes just listening to the crickets chirp. Then one day in the late afternoon, I ran over to show her our last completed knitting project. She wasn’t there but her dear husband was on the couch ringing his hands with tears streaming down his face. I knelt beside him not understanding what happened. He wouldn’t answer my questions, as I was becoming more terrified of the situation I couldn’t or wouldn’t understand. He finally said, “Catherine’s dead.” I still said, “Where’s Catherine?” Thinking if I could find her she would explain what was wrong with Jim. Finally, the mist became more clear. Ruth, their daughter who lived with them came down the stairs and said, “Mother died this morning.” I simply turned around and walked out of the house, tears blinding my eyes, tears that didn’t stop for three days. I felt a crack in my heart that made it hard to breathe.

Time, of course mends all things and in the mending I forever became stitched to her heart.  She was eighty-six years old if chronicled, but she was thirty-two in reality. Now, I look out my window and watch the shadows of her lilac bush wave back at me.

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