A Talent for Friendship

by Katie Campbell

My mother had a talent for friendship. Recently I read a quote
by Georgia O’Keefe, beneath a painting of an unfurling lily.
“Friendship, like flowers, takes time to unfold.”
My mother had time. She was in the last generation of women
brought up assuming that they wouldn’ t have jobs.

As a child, I wished she’d turn her talent to something more glamorous, more respected, more lucrative than mere friendship. I wished she’d use her literary gifts to write something more permanent than witty letters to amuse her friends. I wished she’d turn her culinary abilities to something more prestigious than three-course family dinners and special meals for weekend guests. I wished she’d employ her horticultural magic to cultivate a more public patch than the savage acre around our house.

When in my callous adolescence I asked my mother why she didn’t get a job, she replied: I do have a job — I look after my friends. She did, indeed, look after her friends: hers, ours, others’. The house was always full of people, despite my father’s random aggression. He was jealous of them, I realize now, jealous of the easy friendship of women: love without the complicating elements of family or sex.

“Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.”
Anais Nin, The Diary of Anias Nin, vol. 2, page 4

When the husband of one of Mum’s friend’s died mysteriously, and his wife found among his papers classified government documents, it was my mother who decided they would build a bonfire in the back field and incinerate the still-unopened envelopes. When another friend became obsessed with her 75-year-old boss and was terrified — in the way of those brought up with a punitive God — that she would be punished for her lust, Mum promised that if her friend died before her daughter was old enough to understand, Mum would explain the obsession to the girl … as much as it is possible to explain someone else’s obsessions. When another friend’s husband announced that he was leaving her for a younger man, Mum was the person who helped her reassess her past and confront her future. These are a few of the episodes in my mother’s friend-ships, episodes outside the normal run of infidelities, illnesses, redundancies, and addictions that cemented the friendships of women in Canada’s small towns in the 1960’s.

My own life has been blessed with many women friends. One of these is intense and essential. Several are casual but still enriching friendships to be tapped when time permits, when a common interest arises, when we find ourselves in the same city. Most are the quotidian friendships that punctuate daily life: the people with whom I share a gripe or a chat or a gossip or a geranium cutting or a quick cup of coffee on a stolen sunny morning — the mothers of my daughter’s friends, the neighbors, the people I ring up in an emergency or call up at the last minute when an extra pint of milk or a pair of free theatre tickets comes my way.

And yes, I do have male friends too. Most of these are gay. Some are former lovers. A few are such cherished members of my extended family that any hint of mutual attraction would feel like incest. The remaining ones elicit that delicious frisson of flirtation that I believe precludes them from the status of true friends. True, perhaps, but friends…?
“Friend” is an Anglo Saxon word evolved from the Teutonic verb ‘to love.’ It is also related to ‘free,’ meaning unrestricted, not confined; it is also related to the German freien:‘to woo.’The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines friend as “one joined to another in intimacy and mutual benevolence independent of sexual or familial love.”

Although my mother is my model as far as friendship is concerned, she certainly was not my friend; she was my mother, a much more complex relationship. She wasn’t my father’s friend either; those spousal obligations of responsibility, expectation, self-image, and the vow of “Till death do us part” do not impose themselves on friendship.

If I fall out with a friend my world does not shatter; society does not look askance; parents, offspring, and in-laws do not suffer. If my friends fail or misbehave I am not humiliated or condemned along with them. If my friends offend me I can shed them. Friendship is lighter than family. Friendship is a choice that can be repealed at any moment. Family is imposed on us; what’s more, it is forever and irrevocable. My two sisters and I all moved far from our rural upbringing — two of us to London, one to New York City. We all got real jobs, skilled professions: solicitor, paintings conservator, writer. We work long days and late nights and often weekends too to meet deadlines. We commute one, two, sometimes three hours a day across cities clogged with cars that move more slowly than horses and carts moved through them in the last century, the last millennium. We have little enough time for our partners and children, for our houses and gardens, for ourselves. So what chance have friendships in these modern, urban lives?

Unlike my mother, I have only one very close friend. My best friend. Even now the phrase slips easily off the tongue though it sounds so juvenile, more appropriate to my 7-year-old, who is apt to announce jubilantly, “Athena is my best friend!” or explain in genuine despair, “Athena isn’t my best friend anymore.” My own best friend has proved more faithful; we met in our first week at university, more than 25 years ago. She comes from a large Catholic family and taught me how to hug; more precisely, she taught me how to feel easy expressing physical affection. I come from a small Protestant family, and she claims that I — in fact my mother — taught her the value of domestic ritual, particularly the ritual of meals, skillfully prepared, served with a certain formality: polished silver, candlelight, and flowers. I feel I got the best of the bargain.

And now, two decades later, my best friend and I communicate largely through those ubiquitous devices: e-mail and message machines. I suppose I should be grateful for inventions that facilitate the exchange of infor-mation. But what of the subtleties? A change in tone of voice, a flicker of amusement/surprise/anger/delight in the eyes, a heaviness in the step: these intangibles convey the complexities, the undefinable, infinite degrees of emotion. These are what we lose between the precious annual visits when one of us—alone or with various combinations of partner and kids — makes the journey halfway around the globe. Yes, literally. We couldn’t live further apart and yet she — the best friend of my college years — is still the person I feel closest to in the world. That, perhaps, is one of the profound pleasures of friendship. Its solace and comfort transcends time and place. It exists even when the friend is absent. Aristotle defined a friend as a “second self.” He believed that through friendship we deepen our understanding of our friend, of ourselves, and of the whole of humanity. Friendship enhances us. I care about my friends. I inhabit their lives. And my own life is, in effect, multiplied.

I don’t know yet whether friendship’s comforts transcend death; I suspect they do not. It is one thing to know that your friend is out there and that sometime in the next year you are bound to meet up. To know that you will not see each other ever again this side of the grave, whatever your belief in the afterlife, would, I imagine, bring little but despair.

When my mother died, letters came from Tokyo and Marseilles, from Marrakesh and Mexico. Several of our ex-boyfriends turned up at her funeral; they had maintained independent friendships with my mother; she remained important to them even after we had excised them from our lives. My sisters and I were amazed at the range of people who responded to the news of Mum’s death. Suddenly the world seemed hugely diminished, not just the world of Mum’s husband and daughters, but the world in Morocco and France and Japan. Despite the sometimes glamourous, sometimes respected, sometimes lucrative careers we daughters have forged for ourselves, none of us will ever touch as many people in our lives, international and urban as they are—as Mum did through her small, private, unwaged days in a small, rural Canadian town. She had a basic curiosity about human nature; she had the compassion to sympathize, the flexibility to adjust to her friends’ changing situations, the imagination to respond to their crises, and the confidence to open herself up to them. She had the time, but, more importantly, she had the talent for friendship.

Katie Campbell lives London. She writes short stories, poetry, novels, and plays for stage and radio. Her second poetry collection, Marmalade Season, will be published next year. She has just returned from Nepal and is writing a series of articles about leprosy for the British Broadcasting Corporation.



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