Friendship blooms amid the cactus

Friends aren't truly appreciated until they move away. Or so it seems.

That was brought home to me a little more than a year ago when neighbors down the street left Phoenix to return to the husband's hometown in Mississippi.

They had been like family to me, my wife, and young daughter. We had met them just 18 months earlier, when my family moved into the neighborhood, and we discovered that their daughter and ours were only a year apart.

The two girls - and families - became inseparable. Children, recipes, and conversation flowed between our two homes the way water rolls through a desert wash in summertime.

Then one day, the "For Sale'' sign appeared on their house, as a better job beckoned. It was followed weeks later by the arrival of the moving van, and the emotion and tears of having to say goodbye to close friends.

That day, a reality of life in Phoenix, the nation's sixth-largest city, hit close to home. The Sunbelt is a magnet for people who come in search of sunshine, jobs, and a chance for a new beginning in life.

But the dreams that lure people here do not always come true.

Many of these transplanted residents leave before they've had a chance to set down roots. In fact, researchers say, for every three people who move to Phoenix during any given year, two people move out.

My wife and I are something of an anachronism in this environment. We're like plants uprooted from northern climes and plopped onto the desert, where we've thrived. We both grew up back East, and this city has been our adopted home for 17 years. Residents regard us as "natives.''

But our established nature here is also a source of frustration: How does one develop a sense of community when neighborhoods like ours are in such constant "churn"?

Where does one turn to seek friendship, when chances are that your neighbors will be gone before the next year is out?

Even churches - where people go to find a sense of community, belonging, and "place'' - experience the same turnover.

The question remained: where to find community - and how? After our farewells, a strange quiet settled into the neighborhood. Undaunted, we used the example of our departed friends as a model from which we could build a new sense of community.

With their traditional Southern hospitality, they had served as the social linchpin of our block, hosting parties and keeping neighbors up to date with goings-on in the neighborhood. As they had once done, we reached out to others and made new friends.

Their impact on us was like that made by a dropping a stone into the water, its waves radiating in ever-widening rings.

In their absence, not only did we reach outward, but also backward in time, researching the numerous families that had occupied our Tudor-style home in the 70 years since it had been built in 1929 - a home that is considered historic, by Phoenix standards.

But still, there was that feeling of loss that distance and phone conversations could not transcend - until one day around Christmas last year when the phone rang.

It was our former neighbors calling from Mississippi. They said that the move and the new job had not worked out as planned, so they were taking their house in Phoenix off the market before it had a chance to sell, and were moving back.

We were elated.

"That's the best news I've heard all year,'' I remember telling them.

They returned to Phoenix in January to laughter and embraces. Their moving van was unloaded, and they unpacked and resumed life here. Our friendship, which endured six months and 2,000 miles, was renewed.

They now have a second girl, a toddler. Our children run back and forth across our front yards now, just as they did before. And now our lives have been made doubly rich by both the new friends we have made, and the old ones who chose to return.

It gives me a sweet sense of satisfaction to know that, for now at least, we have found the community and sense of place we had long sought.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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