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Second Chance Family

November 29, 2011

Someone once put it to me this way: We have no power over what happens to us in this life, but every power over our response. Therefore it could be said that family is what happens to us; friends (and lovers) are our response.

After this past Thanksgiving, I’m taking to wondering about friendships.

Often friends are our desperate attempts at binding our family-inflicted wounds. They’re the second chance family we create to heal from the fallout from our nuclear family.

My friends are so.

When I left house at age 19, it was for just such a desperate attempt. My mom was dead, and my dad and I were locked in a showdown at generation gap. When he told me I could no longer have Judi and Oded, who were my dearest friends at the time, over the house anymore because they were just too affectionate with each other and he didn’t want my 13 year old brother to see this, I knew the place was no longer my home. And that I had to create one for myself and my friends, as they were giving me far more love and acceptance at the time than he.

I’ve been about trying to create my own family of friends ever since. And I’ve done only too good a job: These people are now the golden handcuffs keeping me under city arrest. How can I leave those most dear to me, and start fresh somewhere else at this stage of my life?

And what of my original family of aunts and uncles and cousins? We followed the modern American ethic of Leave Me Alone (a/k/a don’t-bother-me-and-I-won’t-bother-you). We got thrown from the market-driven merry-go-round, off the family horse and scattered to the four winds of our own desires. Now, except for a brother and a cousin, the family I was born into is for all intents and purposes gone.

So back to friendship. Let’s face it: No less than with a lover, it takes work. Eternal vigilance is the price we must pay. Because for the most part, we’re not stuck with a friend, and so he or she can fall off our map if we allow hurt, guilt or resentment to accumulate.

One of my oldest and dearest friendships is in the ER because I allowed slights and resentments, along with my judgments, to build over time. By the time I mustered the wherewithal to talk to him, it was almost too late.

Another old and dear friend made what I thought to be foolish choices. But how can you tell this to a friend, even if it’s out of love, without offending or losing him?

Indeed, unsolicited advice sours or sinks friendships all the time.

I in particular have to be careful with this because the DNA or template passed down from my father is worrisome and dangerous: As the years closed in around him, he drew the wagons tighter and tighter. One by one, I watched him judge his friends out of his life. This one wasn’t “a real man”; that one ripped him off; the other one was a bigot (which seems like a justifiable reason, right?); this one never called. Until, at the end, there was only family (and he wasn’t really close to any of them either except for his wife and two kids). After 76 years of living, when the time came, we didn’t even know who else to call. 

I know I can let this happen to me, but I mustn’t, and for the sake of my marriage as well. You don’t know how many couples I see who wonder why their relationship is collapsing in on itself because they have no support system. For ten thousand years couples were sustained by not only the larger family but the community at large. Now couples think all they need is each other. Good for my business, though.

So I try to continue to grow my friendships.  These days, I have new friends and old, and young ones and old; people I see only once every couple of years, and others I stay connected with only through these postings.

Speaking of which, I discovered what an old friendship could do back in 1991. It was a bad year. My first marriage was dying a slow, sexless death, and I was feeling old and washed up. I don’t recall whether Rosemarie from up there in Newfoundland reached out to me at the time, or vice versa. She was a friend from twenty years before, from college and Pad Six days. We had been hippies together. She, as they say, knew me when.

I confided my plight, and with phone calls and letters she took it upon herself to remind me what a vital, alive person I had been to her as well as others, and why. She stirred up precious memories that woke me out of my funk. It was like magic how an old friend could appear out of nowhere and revitalize me simply by helping me remember who I really was.

I’ve been known to hold onto memories, and memories of friendships, late into life. When I turned 50, I used the occasion to reach out to Arthur, my best friend from early childhood, which had been a special time for me. Arthur and I had been stuck like glue until age seven, when my family moved away.

I found what seemed to be his address, and wrote him a long, warm and sentimental letter, detailing all the things I still could recall, though I hadn’t seen or spoken to him for 43 years. I remembered his piano lessons,  the names of his parents, the club we started, our first day going to the first grade together, the games we played. I even believed I recalled his birthday falling on May 1st, just two weeks after mine, and so I took the opportunity to wish him a happy 50th as well.

I waited eagerly for his reply. A month later, a letter arrived. “How do you remember all this stuff?” he asked. “Yes – those were my parent’s names; yes I played the piano; yes May 1st is my birthday.

“But I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t remember you.”

Maybe that’s just the chances one takes when one goes mucking around in the past. But it’s hard for me to forget, or ever completely let go of, my deepest connections. As Stephen King noted in Stand By Me, the friendships we form as kids are often the most dear and intimate bonds we’ll ever know.  

I can relate to that, but the friends I presently have are really the dearest in my life,  because they are my friends now.  


4 Comments leave one →
  1. Laurie Yankowitz permalink
    November 29, 2011 12:09 pm

    A poignant meditation on friendship, Charley… friendships were delightfully simpler in youth – formed by a passionate shared interest, funny bones that got tickled by the same things, or pure chemistry. I’m finding now in later middle-age the affection I have for friends of my youth, even deeper and more valuable with the patina of longevity, is compromised by the advent of discerning convictions. I choose to severely limit time spent with a friend I adore because she is in dire circumstances of her own making, takes no responsibility for them, playing the victim in every conversation we have. She seeks sympathy and affirmation, provoking in me disdain and a terrible desire to tell her off. I have both unconsciously and deliberately decided to avoid inviting chronically victim-minded people into my orbit, and so a my friend who I love is now a distant star in my universe–still a source of light, but not of warmth.

  2. gary telfer permalink
    November 29, 2011 4:36 pm

    now i’ve learned two things that in the psychology field would be considered basic, but since they mirror my relationship with my brother and only sibling, they ring true for me:

    1) siblings 5 years apart consider themselves to be only children. heard that in a poetry science talk, and it instantly clarified what i could never quite put my finger on with my relationship to my brother

    2) my brother tends to pick best friends 5 years younger than him. another insight that came to me after reading this

    thanks charley

  3. Richard permalink
    November 29, 2011 7:33 pm

    You say “Another old and dear friend made what I thought to be foolish choices. But how can you tell this to a friend, even if it’s out of love, without offending or losing him?

    Indeed, unsolicited advice sours or sinks friendships all the time.”

    If you are a true friend, musn’t you tell them how you feel? Wouldn’t you be selling them out by not? Can you express how you feel without offering advice (which, to me, is the lowest form of support)? If they are offended or end the relationship because you express how you feel, how strong is the friendship really?

    If you have a “gentleman’s agreement” with that friend that basically says, “I won’t call you on your shit if you don’t call me on mine,” is that a true friendship?

    • December 1, 2011 6:14 am

      Good point, but…

      …As long as by telling them how you feel you’re being honest. “I feel like you’re doing this all wrong” is not a feeling, but an opinion disguised as a feeling. “I feel scared for your well being because of what you’re doing” is a feeling.

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