On the Wings of a Dragon

May 20, 2008

To attract good fortune, spend a new penny on an old friend, share an old pleasure with a new friend, and lift up the heart of a true friend by writing his name on the wings of a dragon.
                              — Chinese proverb

I met her in ninth grade, September 1961. I can still see her in Sister Margaret Loretta’s English class in a damp basement classroom. She’s standing at her desk to recite. (We always rose to ask or to answer a question, a habit I did not lose until two months into my freshman year in college.) She’s wearing a plaid wool jumper and a white blouse. I have no idea why this memory is so clear.

We had all our classes together that first year, in a special “accelerated group.” We had biology, usually a tenth grade class, instead of general science (see my post of March 2 for how well I handled that challenge), and a modern foreign language, usually not undertaken until eleventh grade. Joanne and I were both assigned to Spanish (what? you should be able to choose things like this?), and both dropped it after the second year because we had become attached to the charismatic second year Latin teacher, Sister Mary Euphemia, and followed her into Latin III and IV, Cicero and Virgil, probably my favorite classes.

In those days I was attracted to two kinds of girls as friends, girls whose mothers were dead and girls who came from large families. Joanne fell into the second category. She had a younger brother and three younger sisters, the baby truly a baby, not even walking yet the first time I visited her house. There was a lot of love and joy in that house, at least the way I saw it. By the time we graduated from high school I would call Joanne, if pressed to name one, my best friend.

We were close for two more years, attending the local community college together. When we graduated in the spring of 1967 I had a party, and someone (someone I didn’t know very well and whose name and image I have forgotten) brought along his friend Larry. He and Joanne fell into conversation, and kept in touch when he shipped out to the war zone in the fall. They were married in 1971.

By then I would say that Joanne and I were still certainly friends, but we were no longer so close. She remained at home, finishing her elementary education degree at the local Penn State campus. I went away to Millersville, and even though that’s not very far, you have to remember that in those days we didn’t have personal cell phones, IM, or Facebook. We had snail mail and long distance via a phone in the dorm hallway shared with thirty other girls. My natural shyness and my fear of bothering someone by calling meant that we fell out of each other’s habits of communication. I blame myself, and I regret that.

Nevertheless, we never lost touch. We attended each other’s weddings, though neither as the bridesmaid we’d promised each other in eleventh grade. Joanne taught elementary school while Larry attended college. After a few years they bought a big Victorian house in a town about twenty miles away (picture something out of Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy-Tacy books, a favorite of my childhood fantasy life), established a business selling used books, had a daughter when they’d been married twelve years, and lived, one can assume, happily ever after. After Lynn was born we saw each other several times, and I have visited Joanne’s store from time to time in search of material for my nineteenth century projects.

One such visit was in the fall of 2005. I’d become interested in the story portrayed in Conrad Richter’s 1953 novel The Light in the Forest, about the return in 1765 of a 15-year-old white boy taken by the Lenne Lenape Indians when he was four. The site of John Cameron Butler/True Son’s home is only a few miles from my house, and a local historical society was sponsoring a study of the novel, the Disney film made from it, and the historical facts that supported, or were left out of, the fiction.

It had been a year since I’d seen Joanne, since I’d communicated with her. She welcomed me warmly, of course, and plucked a copy of the Richter book in seconds out of her 25,000-volume inventory. Then she showed me where she’d seen my name in the acknowledgements of a book one of my Penn State American Studies professors had written about the McCormick family. My goodness, I thought, she saw that and remembered it.

Another woman entered the store then, someone Joanne knew. “This is Margy,” Joanne said when she introduced me. “My best friend.” She didn’t qualify it with “my best friend from high school” or “my best friend from a long time ago.” She said, simply, “my best friend.”

I was deeply, deeply touched. That she would hold me in such regard, after so long, after so much neglect on my part so honored me that tears sprang to my eyes.

And then three years went by.

Today is Joanne’s birthday. I have always remembered her birthday, always written it down in my planner, always seen it coming and put “b-day card Joanne” on my list of TTD (Things to Do). But I can’t tell you the last time I actually followed through. I mean to write a note, I mean to call, but I stupidly let other things get in the way, and . . . .

Yesterday was a long day. I read and wrote in the morning, took care of some business details (most having to do with Lynn’s financial affairs as control passes to her), and then spent an absorbing afternoon in Millersville’s archives researching the Alma Mater. After that I had dinner and then conversation with a friend that stretched long into the evening. This friendship is relatively new, and I try deliberately to nurture and protect it, because it brings me so much joy.

At home then, near bedtime, I had a phone conversation with Lynn that left us both in tears. It had to do with friendship, with the ways she wants to honor and protect the relationship with the person she calls her best friend, though their attendance at colleges 1500 miles apart has wrought changes in the way they relate to each other. Lynn wants to participate in the best friend’s wedding in that distant college town, but that will require a commitment of time and resources that I think unwise considering Lynn’s still-unsettled job situation. (“Unsettled” here means she doesn’t have one. A promising opportunity has gotten tangled up in a company hiring freeze that could last a few weeks, a few months, or . .  . It’s the times we’re in. Cross your fingers for her, and vote for change.)

I did not sleep well and struggled through the rainy morning with my colored pencils and my book of mandalas, the way I’ve begun to pray in color. I write the names of those I love in a circle, draw shapes around each, embellish with line and color while I lift their names to the spirit that sustains me. Best friend, I wrote this morning, colored that in fuchsia, put some deeper orange into the shape surrounding Lynn’s name. Then I wrote Lynn’s best friend’s name, and, suddenly, remembering what day it was, I wrote Joanne. And embellished it with the wings of a dragon.

And then, before I could change my mind, before I could start to worry that such an act might seem shallow or intrusive, imposing myself and my need for connection in the present and correction of the past on someone else, I got up from the table, found a suitable birthday card with a sentiment about friendship in my collection of cards not sent yet (it was in the October file — I’ll have to shop again for somebody whose birthday is in October), pulled some soaps out of my stash of Benedictine nun-made items brought from Wyoming, drove to my old friend’s book store, and got reacquainted.

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