Someone to lean on arrives just when you need them

Crises may foster friendships as nurturing as they are brief.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
Friends in Jauna Pur, India

When you think of friends, you tend to think of people who have been in your life for a long time: childhood friends, college friends, family friends. But there is another kind of friend, and another kind of friendship – one that does not unfold over a long period of time but springs entire from a particular moment. 

The first such friend I remember is the little girl with red curly hair in the bed next to mine when I had my tonsils out. I was 3 or 4. She was probably two years older and a great deal bolder. She would clamber out of bed in her striped pajamas whenever the nurse was gone. I don’t remember what she did, barefoot on the cold brown linoleum, that so impressed me, but without her, I would have been alone and afraid.

In London, a year or two later, there was the Russian girl. It was a strange year for me. My mother had remarried and we would be moving to the United States. I didn’t really understand what that meant, I just knew that everything was changing. The Russian girl and I were the two oldest in our little school; the others were babies who couldn’t speak clearly and were still in diapers. Our friendship took the form of fierce competition, since we were necessary, but unintelligible, to each other. She spoke no English; I, no Russian. We communicated by trying to outdo each other – at drawing, at games, even at eating. A picky eater, I would choke down the watery powdered eggs in order to finish first. Our contests, I think, gave me something I could control. And maybe I gave her, who had already had to leave the familiar behind, the same.

In eighth grade, there was Jenny. In our polite, suburban girls’ school, she stood out, her hair in rough brown braids, her hands stained with gentian violet from treating a barbed wire cut on her pony, Redwing. I loved to stay at her house, a warm, untidy farmhouse out in the country with a complement of cats and dogs. Eighth grade was a terrible year. We both knew it, but we didn’t have to talk about it. We spent most of our time in the barn with Redwing. On cold winter days, Jenny showed me how she would lie on Redwing’s back, under the horse blanket. Then we’d go out on long treks, taking turns riding and walking. She left in ninth grade and I missed her. We had gotten each other through a difficult time.

Anyone with children knows the rapid friendships formed with parallel parents, some of whose names you can barely recall. To Julie, I will be forever grateful. 

I remember her pretty face and dark hair. But I knew her for such a short time that I can’t be sure that was really her name. We met on the beach in New Jersey late one afternoon just after Labor Day, when the beach was almost empty. She was there with her twin boys, the only other children there, and about the same age as my daughter. Warily, the children approached each other and soon were digging holes together.

I moved my towel over near hers and we began to talk. She lived year-round in the little beach town. I was perched alone with my daughter in a big Victorian a block from the beach, the site of a summer experiment in communal living. The commune had disbanded and my young husband had taken off for North Dakota, leaving me to puzzle out what to do next. Now, suddenly, there was someone I could talk to. For the next couple of weeks, we met at the beach with the children, and I would go home with her so that they could go on playing. We would order pizza. The normalcy of that little home, the husband who came home at 6 (my cue to leave), was balm to my despairing heart, sustaining me till I could gather myself for the necessary leap forward.

Such friends as these often arrive when your own life is off balance; they support you till the world settles on its axis once again. You can’t forget them any more than you can forget the intense time you shared. A word, a smile, a place, the weather can bring memories of them back. You think of them fondly and wonder how life turned out for them. Silently, you thank them and wish them well.

[Editor's note: The original version of this essay appeared with the byline Perdita Connolly. It was changed at the author's request.]

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