Jensen column: What a mother taught a daughter about friendship

Published 12:00 am Saturday, May 28, 2011

A year ago, my mother passed away. She would have turned 79 on Memorial Day. In her last weeks, she counted her many blessings. To my initial surprise, she expressed as her greatest blessing the constant presence of wonderful friends.
In addition to a nice circle of friends, she had always had a best friend who functioned more as a dear sister. The very best of those friends, in her entire 78 years of life, was Ruth. She and Ruthie were best friends from ages 11-14. Old enough to have a complex relationship and young enough that boys had not yet entered the picture. Ruth and my Mom walked home from school every day and then raced to the phone to talk to each other. They knew every detail of each other’s families. They spent all their free time together.
My mother reflected on a friendship that existed at a time (World War II) when people had real girlhoods. They called emergency meetings of the Miss America club to discuss the war time romances of their favorite older neighborhood girls. They collected metal for the war effort, spent all Saturday in the movie theaters, and had adventures in Manhattan at a time when children could safely ride public transportation on their own. Ruth moved to Norfolk, Virginia . Theirs was an era long before Facebook and email, when long distance calls and trips were prohibitively expensive. Over time, they lost touch.
At the end of her life, my mother expressed just two regrets. She wished she had thrown a party when my father ended their marriage, instead of mourning his departure. And she wished she had not lost touch with Ruth. “Do you think Ruthie still remembers me as fondly as I do her? Do you think she still regards me as the best friend she ever had?” my mother asked. I tried to track down Ruth, who had changed her name with a second marriage, and came up empty.
A month after my mother died, my brother received a letter from Ruth. “Are you the Sylvia I knew as a young girl?” began the letter. Ruth had indeed never forgotten my mother, though 65 years had passed since she had moved away from Brooklyn. She shared fond reminiscences with me about a friendship that was so sweet that its luster still shone in their memories, undimmed by time.
I got to hear about their adventures after the War was over, when they were 13. They took a train into Manhattan once to see a famous battleship but after waiting in line for hours, were turned away at the entrance because the tour had reached capacity. These two very pretty, young girls turned pleading eyes to a man in charge who got them in.
My Mom and Ruth were in the academically gifted program and wrote for their school papers. Often, they wrote about the war and what Ruth’s older brothers were experiencing overseas in battle.
Ruth and Mom were the first group of Americans to be called teenagers. Up until then, people graduated from childhood to adult responsibilities, including work and marriage. Their parents were at a slight loss as to how to cope with giggling teenage girls infatuated with Frank Sinatra. They waited many hours in line to see him sing once. The line was packed tight as there was no reserved seating. My mother dropped her ticket and could not move to pick it up. Ruth said “don’t worry” and stepped hard on the toe of the person standing on the ticket, and my mother scooped down and retrieved it.
Most children in their poor neighborhood had just a few articles of clothing. Both Ruth and my mother recalled one girl in their class who could only afford one outfit — and chose a pink sweater and green skirt. They thought that took guts.
Kids wore a winter coat for three years — the first year it was too big, the second it fit correctly and the third year it was too small. My mom spilled ink (no ballpoint pens back then, just inkwells) on her winter coat and still had to wear it for two years with that large stain. So Ruth would lend her coat to Mom for important occasions.
People could not afford to buy new gifts for birthdays so they would gift something they already owned. Ruth and my mother tried to give each other their very favorite possessions.
The wonderful thing about their friendship, and all good friendships, is that the joy they experienced together was not limited to the three years they were friends. They were able to savor those memories forever.
My mother had said she would try to send wonderful people into our lives to fill the gap of her passing. Knowing Ruth is almost like having my mother back —she has the same warmth, humor, optimism and intelligence. When we met recently, Ruth and her husband Norman looked like vibrant 60-year-olds. They were both longstanding vegans who exercised daily and took vitamins. They have begun to mentor my family along that path — another gift from my mother who always worried about all of our well being.
Friendship not only enriches our daily life, it is good for our health. Last week, I went online to one of those actuarial devices which gives you an approximation of your lifespan. They ask about your genetic history, lifestyle, medical problems, etc. It was very detailed–blood pressure, blood sugar, how much red meat /alcohol/cigarettes consumed. Most interestingly, it asked a lot of questions about social life. Had I made any new friends this year? Did I consider myself to have truly close friends I could “be myself” with? Did I find it enjoyable or stressful to spend time with others? How often did I see or speak to my close friends? When one added strong social support to the picture, it extended projected lifespan by 10 years.
I can understand that. Growing old “ain’t for sissies,” as Bette Davis once said. There are many losses: physical losses and the losses of dear friends and family, if you live long enough. The ongoing ability to make new social connections translates into a healthier and longer life.
Two wonderful, easy to read books about forging pleasant social connections are “Choosing Civility” and “The Civility Solution” by P.M. Forni.
Dr. Forni, who founded the Civility Institute at Johns Hopkins University, speaks movingly of the need for kind and considerate behavior between all of us human beings sharing planet earth at the same moment in time. He gives step-by-step, practical advice on how to be a considerate person and elicit that behavior from others. He describes how one goes about being a cherished friend.
My mother valued people more than any material pleasures and taught us to do the same. Dr Forni’s quote from Christopher Hansard, in “The Civility Solution,” is a wonderful summation of the powerful role of friendship in our lives:
“Relationships are the foundation of humanity. We derive our nourishment from them, learn from them, and thrive through them. Every human being wants to relate to other human beings; it is an essential part of who we are as individuals and as a species. And the way in which we relate to others determines how happy we are, how long we live, and the choices we make. Through our relationships we discover our place in the world and our reason for being here.”
Dr. Susan Jensen lives in Salisbury with her family.