As Nigel and I set out for our walk last Saturday, I heard the sound of bouncing balls and a man’s voice giving instruction before I was close enough to see two little boys in front of a portable basketball hoop. It was the turn of the littlest one. (I guessed he was about four.) He complied as his father said, “ Ok Bobbie, dribble, dribble, dribble, dribble, shoot!” The trajectory of the ball was straight up toward the basket, but it fell short by about a foot. “Good job!” said Dad enthusiastically as he squatted, tousled the blond head and quietly made some suggestions.
If we are lucky, and I was, we were raised with parents or older siblings who gave us affirmation as we grew up. I was not so lucky with my peer group in middle school as the opinion of kids my own age became more important. I was teased and shunned far more than encouraged or accepted. I was a loner and a good student and that is no way to be popular in adolescence. I always had a few friends, but not best friends, and I didn’t get invited to many parties. That changed in college where I was a part of a casual affinity group of undergraduates who were not in a sorority or fraternity. We had sophomoric discussion at taffy pulls, cookouts and parties, usually meeting at the home of a recent graduate who had an administrative job at the college or one of the seniors living off-campus. We also laughed and had good times together. I certainly was no longer shunned or teased and in fact, for the first time in my life, I had a sense that there were people outside my family who appreciated me just as I was. What is more, they laughed at my puns and irreverent remarks. My husband Bill was part of the group and we gradually became best friends long before we fell in love.
And then Cupid shot his arrow and I married my Valentine, with a college friend as my matron of honor, and lived more or less happily for an ever after that lasted fifty years. Mutual affirmation was built into our relationship and it really did not waver. Life was no fairy tale, however, and we had real problems and some issues between us. When we were young each of us generally believed that we were on the right side if our opinions differed, and compromises came slowly. No matter the occasional tense moments, we remained best friends, which is the case for many marriages: how often have you heard widows say, “I lost my best friend.”?
My daughter Melissa once said to me, “You know, Mom; Dad is your best fan.” It was true; he took an interest in almost everything I did (except he never understood why people read novels). He praised my knitting and sewing projects, he enthusiastically complemented my cooking, he would laugh uproariously at my wit and, when I climbed on a verbal soapbox and let off steam about the state of the world, he would often say, “I love your mind.” Nobody had liked my mind at Glenside-Weldon Junior High. I believe that his love and friendship healed all the hurts of childhood and adolescence. In short Bill affirmed who I was, just as I was, and I reciprocated with a full heart.
Then he died.
The period of grief, illness and loneliness was the most difficult part of my life, at least so far. One day, I had an epiphany. I realized that Bill had not just loved me, he had entertained me with his music and the many shows he directed and he had affirmed my personhood. Those amazing gifts were gone from my life. Everybody knows old people who live alone need to be touched and I got lots of hugs, but not many people said, “You’re doing a good job of being a widow.”
In the late seventies when we moved to the mountains, I got to know Joyce through proximity since we both live in Celo, and Susan because she was the daughter-in-law of close friends of my mother. But our friendship grew because of the work, which each of us did. All three of us administered the same chamber music series at different times, and there was a lot of overlap in our skill sets even though we each had different strengths. For a while we worked together in the hope of creating a flourishing business; but Susan moved away and Joyce and I each took on more responsible jobs leaving less time for free-lance work. (Susan has retired and is now back home in the mountains.) The friendships we formed 30 years ago have endured and deepened as we have aged.
When I started coming to Tybee, Susan and Joyce joined me each year for a long weekend to celebrate our three winter birthdays. This year we had lunch at the Pink House in Savannah and later dropped by the Tea House where the waitress snapped our picture. We talked about the affirmation that comes in marriage, at work, as volunteers and in friendships and how as you age and do less of those things, you still need to be affirmed. This is not just a matter of praise or gratitude, it is the smiles of welcome, the sharing of food, the invitation to take a walk, and all the small ways in which others show us we are worthy of their attention.
Some years into his illness, Bill began to urge me to go out and do things with friends, to cultivate friendships. ”You’ll need female friends after I die,” he said. I never actually tried to cultivate friends but I opened my heart to them and as I neared retirement, I began to experience the amazing bond that can grow among women, and the joy of having close friends.
When I rejoined the world after I was finally recovered in 2006, I did begin to cultivate friends, mainly by inviting people I wanted to know better to come for tea. It was not specifically to find affirmation, it was more to understand—and live as well as I could—the life of an older single woman. I had no desire to replace Bill; I wanted a new life experience. I am having it now and it is good.
There will be a Part Two on this particular subject, which I want to explore and share at further length. I think that our need for the kind of encouragement a dad gives a little boy who tries hard, but misses the basket is even greater at an age when we do a lot more dribbling and not very much shooting.