The Soft Edges of Childhood Friendship

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WE both had the same first name, although she spelled hers kind of funny - Elin instead of Ellen. In fact, we had a slew of things in common: We were both in Mrs. Peterson's third-grade class; we both sawed away at violins in "music" class; we both had an older brother named David; and we even lived on the same side of the same street. It was meant to be, our friendship.

We recognized in each other a fellow tomboy: someone to romp with while our other friends played with dolls, played house, and did whatever else they did. Together we'd scour the woods at the end of our street, discovering whole new universes. Sometimes, we'd just sit back in those woods and talk.

When the bulldozers arrived and changed the face of that world in preparation for yet another subdivision of houses, we adapted. The mountains of dirt covered with snow made for superb sledding that year. We even managed to extend the sliding season into late spring, by donning our plasticized leggings to careen down the steep banks of dirt.

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But our best times were in the tree - our tree. It was a big old maple marking the corner of Elin's backyard. Our tree had a split trunk, and a sturdy, perfectly positioned branch about 40 feet up that provided a crossover. It was the daredevil's cross.

We'd climb up the smaller trunk, swing out on this branch, and land in the inner sanctum of our tree club: the upper reaches of the larger trunk. We couldn't get there climbing straight up the larger trunk, because the branches were too far apart for us to reach. And we didn't always swing over. We could get high enough up into the leaves of the smaller trunk for our purposes on most occasions: telling jokes or spying on people on the street below.

Plus, the crossover was scary. But crossing it was the one rite of entrance into our tree club, along with knowing the password. In point of fact, Elin and I were not only the founding members of the tree club, but remained the sole members throughout its existence. Not for lack of openness, mind you. But our other friends lacked either the interest or the ability to even shimmy up the tree, let alone climb further and have the nerve at 40 feet to swing out on the daredevil's cross.

When Elin and I did do the crossover, we both knew what it meant: the need to talk openly and fully with each other as best friends, away from all others' ears and eyes. Anything said up in the upper reaches of the larger trunk stayed private between us. It was the only place we knew of where we could be exactly who we were - without fear of being judged.

It was all very clear to me back then. I was sure I knew what it meant to be a friend and to have a friend. It was what Elin and I did naturally. We spent as much time as we could together. We played, explored, laughed, and cried together. We made plans together. We didn't exclude others, yet asked that they take a risk, as we had, to earn our complete trust. Elin and I talked about everything with each other. We listened to each other; we were there for each other. These were givens.

The concept of friendship has lost much of its simplicity and clarity for me over the years. I still believe that listening, caring, sharing, and exploring form the cornerstones of friendships. But the people part of the puzzle doesn't fit together as snugly as it once did. As children, we seemed to have soft, malleable edges that form-fit to a friendship. We came together as raw material and, as a unit, tried to fashion something out of ourselves. While we may have brought less to the relationship as ch ildren, what we created was watertight.

There are times when I yearn for that kind of snug fit again in a friendship. Intellectually, I know all the reasons why that can't be so. I realize that part of the price of developing individuality involves losing the kinds of generic qualities that allow childhood friendships to be what they are. I know that the choices we make in all areas of our lives - education, jobs, marriage, kids, geographic location, volunteer activities, hobbies - influence who we are and how we interact with friends and coll eagues. I'm aware that as adults, we potentially bring a lot more to a friendship in terms of knowledge, compassion, and experience to be shared. And I also understand that the loss of friends, whether by distance, deed, or death, sometimes curtails future openness and trust.

So I've adapted. I believe I successfully share different parts of who I am with various friends. With long-term friends, I value my role as witnesses to their lives, and find comfort in our discussions of the stages we're going through in our personal journeys. Work friends provide a needed outlet for intellectual curiosity, and we often serve as political sounding boards for one another. Other friends are naturals as cultural-event companions or skiing sidekicks. A shared sense of the importance of cer tain values in life is the bond among those of us volunteering in the same community programs. And the gut level connection I have with my husband in so many areas of my life is the source of my deepest comfort.

My rational faculties, in other words, are intact. I appreciate and value the friendships I have, and work hard to maintain them. Yet the occasional yearning of my heart for the all-encompassing friend refuses to be quenched.

I saw Elin a number of years ago at our 10-year high school reunion. We joked about the tree club, and the daredevil's cross. But I recognized the momentary sadness in her eyes as she said, "Let's do the crossover." It echoed my own heart's deep, sad truth - that we'd never again know that kind of pure, innocent, complete friendship. Not even with each other.

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