I just said my good-byes to one of my dearest friends who came for a visit on her way to points south. We shared laughter, memories, food, and philosophy (and, truth be told, a glass or two of Prosecco). It is always delightful for me to have visitors because it prompts me to look at how unconscious I have become in my “I-live-alone” routines.
In sharing my space I get a chance to look at it through my friend’s eyes. This re-awakens in me the memories accumulated through living in the same place for 20+ years. What is merely background for me most of the time, now comes into focus as visitors ask about artwork, or photographs, or the books on my shelves. My desire to make sure they feel comfortable highlights those nicks and knocks that I haven’t repaired or touched up.
And then there are the directives echoing from my childhood telling me to get the house clean and ready, and putting out the special towels for the guests. There is the newly awakened eye that picks up the dust bunnies and clutter that normally I ignore. And there is the anticipation of arrival and heart-warming reunion when my visitors are here.
What is most satisfying and truly satiating is having live, open-ended conversations. Living alone as I do, I find myself typically only exchanging pleasantries with store clerks, wait staff in restaurants, or other service folks. These conversations are brief, solution-focused, and rarely venture into personal philosophy. Conversation with friends typically takes place through texting or emails. To be able to sit for hours across from a friend in my living room and share ideas, thoughts, debates, observations, insights, and confidences feels indulgent.
One of the joys of having lifelong friends is the accumulation of shared events, familiar stories, and intimacies that contribute to a certain easy flow and soothing pace of conversation. With newer friends, I find myself at times being cautious with what I am saying. I will self-edit until I feel more sure of the receipt of my messages and let down some of my barriers in return.
With friends I have known for years, the conversations have a different pace, even though they may be covering familiar ground. Shared experiences from the past frequently veer off into stream of conscious accountings of newer events. Sometimes there is an assumption that someone from my college years knows and loves a friend from another period of my life even though they have never met. The occasional furrowed brow is all that clues me in to the fact that I am the common thread, and these other folks don’t know each other at all!
Stories shared multiple times are still enjoyed, even though the endings are known. Tolerance of these repetitions are easier with friends than with family members. “Have I told you this before?” is answered with, “Yes, but tell me again!” instead of saying, “Oh, please! Not that story again!”
I do admit to needing to learn ways of sharing my space with others. I was spoiled growing up. I grew up in a Catholic neighborhood, and many of my childhood friends came from families of 6 or 8 and even 9. I remember going to friends’ homes and seeing their shared rooms with bunk beds and shared closets. I was awestruck! As an only child, I had a room to myself and didn’t have to share my toys. I somehow was socialized successfully, but still have a preference for having my own things instead of sharing.
I have a small home and have come to see it as my sanctuary. It is spacious enough for one, but requires adaptations to include others. The irony of this is that for the majority of the time I have lived here, I shared it easily with my husband. And it seemed to magically expand when, at different times, two of his daughters and their children came to live with us.
In college I had roommates my first year, but subsequently I found ways to have a room of my own. Like many young adults, I shared space in the first few apartments I lived in to save money. It wasn’t until after a long marriage and becoming a widow that I lived again on my own. Now, I ponder what it would be like to have someone living with me, and frankly have a hard time envisioning it. This is why it is wonderful to have visitors. I get to practice sharing my space. I get to practice adapting to different schedules and preferences, and personalities.
I try to hold on to the preciousness of these relationships and the opportunities for staying in contact. There is a certain sweetness to the reunions and a bitter sweetness to the leave-takings. The older I get the more I appreciate that so many of these friendships were not coincidental or random. Each has provided a lesson or reinforced a belief that sustains me as I age.
I will always remember a conversation I had with my Auntie Glad. She wasn’t actually my aunt; rather she was a very close friend of our family. There was a story that she had been sweet on my grandfather at one time, but I don’t know that there was a whole lot of truth to that. Auntie Glad had led a remarkable life for a woman coming from a small town in Wisconsin. She had graduated from Vassar in the 1920’s, had enjoyed the social scene in New York, became a social worker during the Depression. She eventually returned to that small town in Wisconsin and became a pillar of the community. Our families stayed close throughout the decades, and my mother and I frequently visited with her in her older years.
We were having dinner one night in her beautiful home. I was in my 20s and she was in her 80s. Sitting among the beautiful antiques, the original artwork, and eating at a grand dining room table set with candles, china, crystal and silver, I asked her what gave her a sense of pleasure and satisfaction. I was imagining she would answer by telling me stories of the good old days or talking about her life as a social worker. Instead she looked me in the eye and said, “Friends”.