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The Evolution of a Fabulous Long Friendship

When your best friend is nothing like you.

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Collage, friendship,women
Selman Hoşgör
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The 2020 school closings and openings take me back to 1953 to first grade and a life-changing experience.

At my dentist’s office for a checkup, I saw a picture of his cute, smiling daughter, Sally. He said she also would start first grade at PS #66 in Mrs. Miller’s class. Fearful of sitting at a desk all day — and not knowing which of my kindergarten classmates, if any, would be there — I rejoiced.

Arriving early and recognizing Sally when she appeared, I motioned her to the desk I saved across from mine. “Are you Dr. Berman’s little girl?”

She smiled easily, maybe because she also wanted to meet me, and possibly because my calling her a little girl amused her. We laughed at something Mrs. Miller said. We were the only ones. At recess we went to the playground together, and virtually everywhere else for years, sometimes in identical clothing — including blue and white middy blouses and black pedal pushers to perform “Side by Side” at our charity carnival at her house.

Our classmates labeled us “the twins.”

I knew we were not exactly alike. Relatives and unrelated grownups called Sally “cute” and “pretty” and me “good in math.” I swallowed that. I loved our performances, imaginary worlds, made-up words and mischief. The day after Mary Martin flew across television screens as Peter Pan, Sally and I dragged her family’s housekeeper to the rec room, stood her on an expensive chair and attached a rope to the ceiling, tying the other end around her waist. She did not fly. The chair we broke was unfixable.

At day camp, I overheard a male counselor tell ours that Sally was adorable. I pushed “little adorable” into the lake. By accident, I claimed. At age 11, when she came to my overnight camp, boys who had ignored me suddenly surrounded me the first night, wanting to meet my friend. My friend. What possessed me to share My Camp? Why, back home, did boys at dancing school race across the floor to Sally?

Our distance widened in high school, as boys flocked to carry her books while I had lots of books to carry, and she became a cheerleader and loved partying. I did neither. In college, New York City and I became a fit. Sally became a Hare Krishna. Her boyfriend became her husband and a Krishna leader.

“The music’s pretty. No meat is fine, but no sex?” my father said. “Imagine others’ rules governing your life.”

I couldn’t. Not communal living, either. At age 38, Sally abandoned the orange robe. Divorced, still a Krishna, still exuding warmth and eager to get together — as was I, she visited. We picked up some pieces, not all. As a divorced single mother, teacher, writer, veteran of psychotherapy and happy with the life I created, I felt older. It irked me that she dallied dressing to go out, seemingly unaware of time and my waiting. It irked me, too, that she wanted to attend my class and did not understand my refusal and the confidentiality and trust with my students, whose personal writing and struggles were not to be shared. But our reminiscing, giggling and mainly not mincing words made me feel close to her. Bonded.

After a brief time unattached, Sally dated Ben, who had loved her at camp. She moved to his Portland home with her children and married him. When I mentioned I visit my college roommate, Helen, in Portland yearly, she said, “Stay with me.”

“No. We’ll play.” I reminded her she dawdled, and I wanted meals at a reasonable hour. Sally wore diamond stud earrings and looked very put-together when she and her family had dinner at Helen’s. We performed “Side by Side,” and laughed at things no one else found funny.

“Mom talks about the great times you had together,” her daughter said. “You bring out each other’s spirit.”

Years later, at a Portland bookstore event for my book Writing from Personal Experience, Sally —  without asking — plopped herself beside me at the front table. Huh? “Go sit in the audience.”

“I’ve known you forever. I should be up here,” she said. I told her to keep quiet during my presentation, then help me sell my book. She did. And I say nothing whenever she repeats a story. And nothing about the gap in our looks no longer existing. Or at least not in my eyes.

In New York for our friend’s 50th birthday bash, Sally stayed with me and listened while I rehearsed the speech I was nervous to give. Walking up Park Avenue to the party backward like we used to walk to PS #66, sitting there together and seeing Sally smile when I spoke made me feel at home.

When my father died, I called Sally right away. Her Krishna belief in an afterlife comforted me. So did her late-night reminders that “he’s in a better place” — knowing the challenges he had faced with my cognitively impaired mother. I asked her to help me clean out my father’s Florida closet, arranging a time when she would be at her mother’s nearby.

When we finished, she accompanied me to the nursing home to see my mother. “Remember me?” Sally asked, bending over the wheelchair with a long, warm hug. “Remember you?” Mom said. “You two play together.” We do. We do.

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