The mystery of friendship

My high school class had about 500 kids in it. That means there were just under 2,000 kids in the school itself. When you have 500 fellow students in a class, there’s no way to know them all in a meaningful way. Many I got to know through our classwork, of course. Many others became friends through extracurricular activities like drama or the pep squad. Some of us connected deeply through conversation and camaraderie.

Janet friendship quote

My dear friend Janet Jackson was an art teacher. She made this for me after we had become adults and had ventured well into our lives apart. That’s Janet in the lower right corner. That’s me in the upper left. We first met when we were in second grade and we went all the way through high school together.

I loved high school. Well, I loved school (with some notable exceptions) when I was growing up. And the friends I made over the years have always remained important to me even though I have had little contact with most of them.

When I graduated, I ran away. Oh, not in the conventional sense, but in every way possible I ran away from my hometown, my family, and most of my friends. There was stuff going on in my life, some tragedy here and there, and I couldn’t wait to get away from the day-to-day reminders of it. Much of that tragedy, I discovered, travels with you. Nonetheless, I set out to make something new of myself and I felt that separating myself from those years of schooling was part and parcel of doing that.

Janet and me at her house

Janet (on the right) and I at her house in Kansas City, Mo (Northland). Janet died before our 40th high school reunion. This picture was taken sometime before our 30th.

Our class reunions have been held every ten years. I had no interest in returning for my tenth reunion. I was still trying to find my niche in life. When the 20th reunion rolled around, things had changed for me a bit. I was married. I had a superb job. And I was thin. I called a friend with whom I had maintained contact over the years and she and I decided to be bold and make our 20th reunion something of a debutante ball for ourselves. We felt confident about who we were, yet and ironically, we probably wouldn’t have gone without one another. We did have a ball. She and I had been friends since second grade. We could read each other like books. It was a good night and a good time was had by all.

By the time our 30th reunion rolled around, I was reinventing myself again and didn’t want to go back. My childhood girlfriend told me she went and took her husband because, she said, “I finally got married. I want people to know that.” I’m glad she went. She died before our 40th reunion rolled around. I attended that one without her and felt a piece of me was missing. But I also renewed friendships with old friends and in a new way. By that time I cared little about the superficial things like wealth, power, success, and thinness. I went because I was drawn by that mysterious and indescribable magnetism of childhood friendship.

Since that last gathering, I have had familial reasons to make that trek back to the homefront several times a year; one brother who requires my love, attention, and advocacy. As I have increased those homeward visits, I have also extended a request to anyone from my high school class who still lives in the vicinity to join me for a casual supper at a local watering hole.

Central '70, 6-3-15

School friends and a couple of spouses during a recent gathering in St. Joseph, Mo. One classmate who wasn’t with us that evening complained through social media, “Why didn’t you take a picture of all the kids we went to school with instead of these old farts in the restaurant?”

We usually have from 10-15 folks who gather, some with significant others. Some of us have put our toes in the water a few times before inviting our spouses to come along, and finding the water to be comfortably warm have drawn them along with us. The biggest problem has been our choice of a gathering spot. It’s good food to be sure, but there are no large round tables so our conversation is pretty much limited to those around us. The group is fluid; some come every time we gather; some are in and out; and some I celebrate when they show up for the first time.

But what fascinates me is the mystery of our friendships. I have made wonderful friends through the years and in various parts of the country. But the friends I made in high school and grade school hold a special place in my heart. In fact, there is one man who frequently attends these gatherings and who was in my high school class but we didn’t know each other all those years ago. We met for the first time over one of these dinners. Yet I have a connection to him as though we had known one another since high school. Our shared experiences, people, and places in history have drawn us together as surely as the friends I knew well and with whom I shared secrets and English literature.

Although I haven’t experienced it myself, I know that more often than not, it is true that blood is thicker than water. I’ve witnessed time and time again that which draws people together for holidays and special occasions and those gatherings are based more times than not on blood. But for me, those friendships I have going all the way back to elementary school hold not only memories that are sacrosanct but the promise of a future together no matter how far apart we may live.

Hardy Boys inscriptionAt our latest mini-reunion just last week, a friend who goes all the way back to second grade with me, carefully unwrapped a book from a non-descript plastic bag. It was obviously old, but it was in very good condition, lacking only the slip cover. “Hardy Boys?” I asked as I read the title (there was no clue, really, except for the obvious mystery and the shape of the book). “Yes,” he said, “but look inside.”

There, in my finest fifth grade cursive penmanship, I had inscribed,

Presented to Roger Heard on his tenth birthday, 1962.

From Gretchen Lord

“Happy Birthday”

I surmised that I had just learned about quotation marks and was putting them to good use with the “Happy Birthday” portion of the inscription.

Some wag at the table joked about the missing multitude of other Hardy Boys mysteries which led others to surmise that I was never invited back to another of Roger’s birthday parties because I gave him a book. It was all in fun, but there, in that childish handwriting a flood of memories washed over me. Roger’s mother who died three years ago had tucked that book away in a box in the attic and Roger had only recently discovered it. That she would save that little treasure through all these years drove home for me the importance of friendship, of connections that are deep and true and long-lasting.

Before we all parted for the evening, a woman with whom I had had little conversation that night talked with me about the importance of reconnecting after all these years – even if only via social networking or reading one another’s writings on the Internet. And we marveled at how blessed we are to have lived long enough to reunite in a way that makes us wonder at the mystery of friendship and how those bonds can be so securely fastened just waiting to be cherished.

I can’t judge whether running away after my high school graduation was the right thing for me to do or not. I made a lot of mistakes along the way while I was venturing into a new life. It seems God was able to mold me into something acceptable in spite of my wanderings. Given the years to know what I know now, however, I am so grateful for childhood friendships that hold a mysterious bond that, for me, proves that it doesn’t take familial blood to bind us together in love.

Some friends play at friendship
but a true friend sticks closer than one’s nearest kin. – Proverbs 18:24

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