Friendship Over Mashed Potatoes

WHENEVER I make mashed potatoes, I think of Anna. It was Anna who gave me the potato masher. I also think of all the years we have been friends - well over half our lives now - and of the small things on which a friendship is built.

Meeting had been a fluke. The Welsh cousin of a neighbor, Anna was making her first trip to the United States in what was the 1960s equivalent of a tour of the continent. Greyhound Lines obliged with a $99 ticket for 99 days. I was close to her age so was recruited to help entertain her.

Anna and I had little in common on the surface. But we loved good books and the heady fragrance of mock orange in bloom. And there was something else, an indefinable compatibility of spirit. When she left, we agreed to correspond.

I did not imagine that anything would grow by means of some desultory exchange of letters. I thought that over time the correspondence would dwindle, the time between each letter drawn out longer and longer like the wispy threads of a broken spider's web, even the original meeting later forgotten. Yet, in a constancy that surprised us both, we maintained our acquaintance by post.

At 20, disillusioned with academics, exhausted from working while studying for a degree I wasn't sure I wanted, I left college. In response to my letter explaining a change of address, Anna informed me that I needed to see more of the world. I moved to the spare room in the London flat she shared with two other people.

To support myself, I cadged odd jobs at every turn. And I tried, in spare moments, to find direction in my life. My relationship with Anna took on a sisterly tone. Together at her father's home in Wales for Christmas, we tramped through the snow searching for a tree. The scrawny pine we dragged back had nothing in common with the image I had carried of how a tree should be, but, decorated with whatever came to hand - gilded pine cones, paper chains, and strung cranberries - it developed a dignity all its own.

It was during that Christmas that I bought Anna a potato masher. Until that time, as though in deference to her and her father's unheated half-timbered ancestral farmhouse, she had smashed boiled potatoes against the pot with a wooden spoon and served them up like some weak equivalent to wallpaper paste. Lumpy. And no milk. Yuck.

I bought her a bona fide masher. Metal, with small holes through which the potatoes would be squashed mercilessly. An instrument of control and direction. A statement of intent. She was amused rather than insulted. It became a symbol of the small changes our friendship had worked in each of us, the little compromises we make with another person to stand on common ground.

Late the next summer, I moved back to the US and finished my degree, understanding, finally, that completion alone can be a triumph.

I wondered if that would be the end of Anna's and my closeness -

like sisters who leave a home to make homes of their own. By the time I left Europe, Anna had met Colin, who soon became her husband. I met Gary. We married the following year.

Our paths diverged. We each wrote of children the other had never seen, voices without inflection. There were a few phone calls. Sometimes the connection had a time lag so that you could hear words crossing the cable in echoing waves. I wondered if they would collide along the way and lose their meaning.

Then, just before Anna's 40th birthday, a phone call came.

``Can I come to stay with you for two weeks with Allison and Shona?''

``Yes! Absolutely!''

Would we still have things to say? And if the old easy conversation was gone, what would we do? Two weeks with a stranger who was once a friend is a discomfiting possibility. It had been a lifetime since we had sat by a fire together talking of community and connection, love and politics, and history and books.

Our meeting at the airport was subdued. We had held our friendship together with paper. Thin fabric. With our children, we walked down the concourse to the phones where she would call Colin to let him know she had arrived safely.

``She's gone grayer than I have,'' she told him, eyes twinkling.

That night, she gave me a potato masher.

``I thought you could use this,'' she said, smiling the same smile I knew from our youth. ``You are so picky about smashed spuds, it was the best one I could find!''

Its wooden handle, striped an inelegant white and yellow, was attached to a metal base that supported thick sides and a perforated bottom. A simple tool, but sturdy, built for the long haul.

``I still have the one you gave me,'' she said.

Now when I mash potatoes, I think of the times past and the renewal and expansion of our ties, including now our husbands and children in the circle. I think of the simple things that continually reweave the ties.

The masher has no paint on its handle any longer, but there are no cracks and otherwise no signs of wear.

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