This time of year is one of reflection and gratitude. We take a few days over the coming weekend to consider our many blessings in this life, our family and friends among the most important of those blessings. This year, we don't have family coming for Thanksgiving, so we are hosting a Friendsgiving. That, plus the recent delivery of my third, hand-knit cashmere hat from my friend Jen, has had me doing some thinking of my own.
Do you ever look back at yourself as a teenager and cringe at your absurd drama and self-absorbed behavior? As the mother of two girls who are bombing unstoppably toward adolescence, I find myself thinking back on how I was during that period, and subtly bracing for impact.
I was a good kid, for the most part: fairly respectful, barely curious about drugs and alcohol, mostly focused on school and athletics. But, the one thing I wish I had figured out earlier was how to be more secure about who I was, and not feel I had to work so hard to please others.
That I spent an entire summer in Oxford, England, pining away for my not-terribly-nice boyfriend is one of those cringe-worthy details of my adolescence. It was the summer I turned 17, and I remember feeling both grateful toward and, paradoxically, irritated with my parents for “making” me go to the summer program. (If you offered me a chance to study creative writing and photography in that crushingly romantic location right this minute, I might have to slap myself to remember that I have a family and a business to run.) Somehow, though, after a few tearful days slopping around in self-pity, I snapped out of it. And, when I looked up, there was Jennifer.
One of few people I had ever met with hair bigger than mine, Jen presented herself unapologetically to the world, to me. She moved with enviable confidence for a 17-year old, and seemed to have an endless supply of easily accessible joy – also enviable. Despite hailing from opposite sides of North America (Alaska and DC), we were drawn to each other instantly, and spent the next six weeks glued together as we explored the mossy cobblestones and haunted corners of this ancient English town.
Cider. We discovered cider. I was not interested in beer or liquor, but when a bartender offered me a pint of cider, I naively accepted. We drank it up like little kids, not understanding that it wasn’t Grandma’s apple juice until a bit later, when we danced – shall we say, uninhibitedly? – to Madonna songs under the swimming lights of a disco ball in a dank basement pub. If my memory serves correctly, we may have actually peed our pants from laughter that night. And we definitely missed curfew.
Shoplifting. This was another little experiment. We just wanted to know if we could do it. So we packed up little plastic baggies full of Sour Patch Kids, and sauntered out of the store without paying. It was thrilling, but I am not a shoplifter at heart. I snuck back in to the store and paid.
Boys. Jen had a boyfriend, too. But she didn’t lament his absence. She seemed to have a clear understanding that she would see him again soon enough, and that, if he was worth his salt, he would wait. I wish I had followed her lead – it would have saved me much heartache that summer, and in the years to follow.
Running. Jen and I both had a love of exercise and a mild paranoia about our bubble-shaped butts (we didn’t know that they would come into fashion later). We jogged through misty fields on many a chilly morning, watching each others’ faces flush in the plumy halos of our exhaled breath.
And laughter. My god, was there laughter. We found it in every nook and cranny. Silent, quivering laughter with hot tears streaming down our faces. Loud, belly laughs that echoed in the halls of Roger Bannister’s dormitory, where I stayed. Choked, bursting, explosive laughter at hugely inappropriate moments, cementing the unfavorable perception of Americans in several British minds, I’m sure. But worth the setback, for that kind of laughter is life-affirming and priceless.
For several years after that Oxford summer, Jen and I kept in touch through letters. (Yep, we are so old that this was before email and the interwebs.) I scanned each day’s mail frantically, hoping I would catch sight of her neat, angular writing on a slightly-too-fat envelope. Her letters were like pieces of cherry pie to me – I’d get a glass of milk, take them to a quiet spot somewhere I knew I wouldn’t be disturbed, and savor every bite. I hope she did the same with mine.
College years brought the end of the letters, and life swept us away for a bit. But I never forgot about Jen.
Fast-forward 21 years.
It’s 2012, and I’m doing my semi-annual Jen search. Since the advent of the internet, I have looked for this girl a couple times a year. Her name is fairly generic, and my efforts, for the last 12-ish years, have been fruitless. As I scroll, on the 8th page of a Google search, my tired eye catches an article about ecosystem-something-or-other and the city of Boulder, with Jennifer Jones as a contributing author. “Huh,” I think, “wouldn’t that be surprising if this girl from Alaska and I (from DC) ended up living in the same state. No chance.”
But, I am nothing if not persistent. The next morning, I called the City of Boulder government, and asked for her. I was transferred, the line rang, and someone answered:
“Hi, this is Jen,” said a voice.
I froze for a moment, and then proceeded to fumble through a few questions.
“Uh, hi. Are you from Alaska?”
Awkward, slightly creeped-out pause. “Yes…”
“Aaand, did you go to Oxford, England when you were 17?”
Longer pause. “Yes…”
“Do you remember a girl named Sarah?”
Brief pause, followed by a miniature shriek. “No WAY! Seriously??”
And just like that, a friendship was reborn.
It’s over two years later, and Jen is part of my inner circle of friends. It has been beautiful, touching, and revealing to come to know her again, after a two-decade break. Just in case you didn’t believe that she and I were meant to be friends in this life, I should tell you that, like me, she lives in the mountains of Colorado, loves to trail run, ride a bike, and Nordic ski. She is married and has two kids the same age as mine. She drives the same kind of car. She has two border collies, just like I do. And, guess what she makes her family and friends for Christmas gifts? Soap. Nope, not even kidding. On top of all that, Jen is a proficient knitter (hence, the gorgeous hats), a super-mom (she should have a cape), and will can or pickle anything that sprouts from the earth. Our first time seeing each other in over 20 years, we went for an 8-mile trail run at 6000 feet in Boulder – not many people stay synchronized to that degree in this life.
How lucky I have felt, coming to know her again. When I was 17, Jen showed me that I could just be myself, without apology or explanation, and share my laughter with the world. Now, fresh into my 40s, that lesson is every bit as relevant as it was then. It helped me pursue a career in medicine, and gave me the courage to change careers when the idea of Osmia called to me so strongly.
Every time I slide one of her perfectly slouchy, recycled cashmere hats onto my big head, I am grateful to Jen: for the memories of that one special summer as we came of age; for the excitement of rediscovering our strong connection after so many years apart; and for the comfort and joy I feel knowing that we will face our future years together — confidently and with great humor — as friends.
With so much love and gratitude from us to you,
Sarah, Jen, and the Osmia Crew.