Sunday, December 11, 2011

First Friendships

Walking out of her classroom at my mother’s school, Sophia hands me the 12th birthday invitation she has received since September. I slit it open. It’s from her friend Marie. She’s turning five.

“Please can I go mommy?” Sophie pleads, her brows knitted together hopefully, worried that I’ll say no. To be fair, Sophia rarely asks me to attend a party. If she doesn’t know the child well, she’s the one to suggest that we decline.

But Maria is special. Each week, at school, she greets Sophia effusively. Their faces light up when they see each other. They embrace and head straight for the trunk of dress-up clothes. Unchecked, they would play in the housekeeping all morning, dressed in discarded evening gowns, Maria cooking, Sophia serving plastic facsimiles of food.

I hesitate. “I don’t know sweetie. It’s not on a school day when we’re already up here. Marie lives really far away.” Four hours round trip, to be exact.

Sophie, dejected, instantly reacts with anger, “You aren’t allowed to say that! She’s not too far away! She lives close!”

Though I know better than to argue, I let a snotty little, “No, she doesn’t,” slip out. Sometimes, it’s hard to be the grownup.

We run into Marie on the way out the door. “Sophie’s Mom? Can Sophie come to my birthday party? Please?” She clearly did not hear the conversation that just took place between Sophie and me.

“I’m sorry, Marie. I don’t think so. We live really really far away.” Marie literally hung her head. She looked crestfallen. “Oh man!” she said.

Then, the two of them clung to each other as if they would never see the other again. And they kissed, just barely missing each other’s lips.

I watch, struck by this truth: their friendship matters.

I flash back to when I was six years old and best friends with Judy Kelly. We were as close as six-year-olds could be, playing exclusively together on the playground, visiting each other for play dates. Our teacher, Miss Stonehill, would put a cardboard box around my desk to try to keep me from talking to her in class. Judy had invited me to her seventh birthday. It was going to be a sleepover. We were so excited, we couldn’t stop talking about it. I got my first sleeping bag for the occasion.

Saturday, the morning of the sleepover, I got a phone call from Judy. Mom brought me the phone. “Where were you last night?” Judy asked me. She sounded really upset.

“What do you mean?”

“My party! Why didn’t you come to my party!”

“But it’s tonight!” I protested, an awful feeling rising up inside of me.

“No! It was last night! You missed it. Why didn’t you come?” I didn’t know what to say this. I was so overwhelmed with disappointment. I started to cry and dropped the phone. Judy’s party! My first sleepover! How did this happen?

I was too young to realize this was not my mistake. I blamed myself. Even when I think about now, thirty-five years later, I can feel the disappointment and shame.

Sophie was not going to miss this party.

I found a way to make it work, logistically, and then I told Sophie. She was elated. The next day, she told Marie. Marie was ecstatic. The two hugged each other and danced around.

My hope is not that Sophie will remember the party. I doubt that it had any great emotional salience for her. It was one good time among many. But I do wish that, no matter how many people she meets in her lifetime, no matter how many relationships she moves in an out of, this early friendship will hold a sweet place in her heart.

Love, in any size, at any age is the most important thing.

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