The birthday card arrived, yellowed with age and ragged on the edges. I hold it tenderly. My childhood friend, Sharon, and I have exchanged the same birthday card since 1979. We only sign our name and the month and year. Still, every year we write smaller, hoping to leave room for many years to come.
As young girls living only blocks away from one another, Sharon and I spent carefree days playing with Tootie, her guinea pig, and my array of pet cats, dogs, and rabbits. We watched the ducks on the pond near my house go bottoms-up, their tails mooning us.
We celebrated birthdays together, and her parents, who thought of me as a second daughter, invited me along on their summer vacation. Sharon and I spent the week where we skied, fished, played cards, and boy watched. We doused ourselves with baby oil and sat out in the sun to tan, talking about school, friends, and our annoying brothers.
We read Nancy Drew mysteries, played Twister, and had Monopoly marathons. TV shows like Bewitched, That Girl, Lassie, and Gidget entertained us, and we sang along with the scandalous long-haired Beetles and Monkees. I’m tempted right now to blast out the lyrics to “I’m a Believer.”
Sharon and I also performed in a gymnastic club. When not preoccupied with the challenge of keeping our toes pointed while on the balance beam, we thought about mood rings, bell bottoms, fishnet stockings, and clothes. Our high school only allowed girls to wear jeans one day a week, on Fridays. “How times have changed” would be a fun topic the next time Sharon and I get together.
Schoolmates at Burbank Elementary, a rural two-room school in Racine, Sharon and I walked to school carrying our tin lunch boxes, decorated with a favorite cartoon or TV character. Our mothers often filled the matching thermos with hot soup such as Campbell’s chicken noodle. (These lunch box sets now sell for big, vintage prices.)
We had three recesses and played tetherball, baseball, or chased the pigs who broke through the fence, our squeals of delight as loud as theirs. It was during recess when we listened to a radio announcer report that an assassin had shot our beloved President Kennedy. Sharon, classmates, and I huddled together in horror and talked about the uncertain future.
We practiced nuclear disaster drills at school (duck and cover) and prepared basement rooms with essentials such as jars of water in case we needed to shelter. Sharing our fears with friends helped us get through these troubling times.
In true middle school fashion, Sharon and I also fought, argued, and worst of all, hurtfully ignored one another. We survived adolescence, thankfully, and continued our friendship, celebrating each other’s weddings and the births of our children. We also attended funerals for each other’s parents, most recently, her mother.
It was her mother, Janet, who made me reflect on the importance of long-term friends. Janet had lived alone in the same neighborhood house until well into her 90s. When the time came for her to move into an assisted living center, she didn’t adjust well. Her family and I hoped she’d enjoy the chance to be with people, but she longed for her old friends. She wanted to visit with people who knew about her neighborhood, friends, and family. People who remembered fun times spent with her husband at places such as the Fifth Street Yacht Club where they enjoyed Friday night fish fries and conversations.
I carefully put the yellowed card in a file folder. In April, Sharon’s birthday month, I’ll mail it to her.
Sharon’s mother seems to be hovering over my shoulder as I tuck it away. “Cherish your friends,” she seems to say to me, “especially those longtime bonds. They’ve made you who you are today.”