Last week, marinated in sunblock, stepping gingerly into the heated pool, dutifully exercising the way we’d been taught in water aerobics and Zumba classes, my friend Anne and I were probably almost indistinguishable from all the other 60-something ladies in her Florida condo complex. But to one another, we were unique and deeply familiar — her explosive laugh and my snorting one, her long fingers and my perpetually tilted head, her quiet ferocity and my annoying morning cheerfulness.
I was 17, Anne a year older, when we met as college roommates in early September 1971. The first month of our relationship was probably a bit uneasy, what with her devotion to a loud, wind-up alarm clock and my propensity to clutter. But we both loved Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell, and after we bought two identical V-necked velvet dresses (hers green, mine blue, both “Nouveaux Bordello”) and red-and-white checkered coffee mugs pertly labeled “Nancy” and “Betty” from the local thrift shop, we both knew this friendship would last.
In the 48 years that have followed, we’ve seen each other through bad boyfriends and some decent ones, through marriages and miscarriages, through parenting joys and some challenges that would make even the most resilient woman swoon. Now aging orphans, we’ve navigated the disorientation of becoming the people we once brought our kids to visit.
In conversations with old friends, none of us has to explain how we got here.
We have, in short, grown up together. We've known each other longer than nearly anyone else, longer even than our husbands and children.
Affection, laughter, candor — these are all qualities of durable relationships. But there’s something more that makes these lifelong friendships so gratifying and essential. We don’t have to recapitulate our histories to one another because we’ve been together every step of the way. My old friends from high school and college knew me when I was an awkward teen, a hair-straightening brunette, a romantic would-be writer, a zealous lefty organizer, a dazed new mom and a variously baffled, bruised, appreciative and grateful one. They’ve known my husband through every iteration of his head and facial hair, and grown to appreciate what I love about him. They’ve tracked me through my accidental careers, through my weight losses and gains; they’ve babysat my kids and listened without judgment to my doubts. They’ve accepted my compromises. In conversations with old friends, none of us has to explain how we got here.
And oh, what a luxury it is to be known! Though it’s been decades since we’ve lived in the same city, getting back together feels like stepping into a hot shower. Taut muscles relax, the accumulated grime of daily life washes away, and I can finally, deeply relax.
In Paul Simon’s aching, melancholy song, “Old friends sat on their park bench like bookends.” He was 27 years old when "Old Friends/Bookends" was released — and probably about 25 when he wrote it — so when he sang “how terribly strange to be 70,” it must have felt like a Herculean feat of empathy.
Now he’s 77, old enough to know the truth of his own prescient lyric that among old friends, “memory brushes the same years.” But he also probably knows that old friends do more than sit on park benches; we jam together, eat together, take long walks on cold days. And though we “share the same fears,” we don’t do it silently.
Longstanding friendships let us get together without make-up on our faces. Old friends allow us — indeed, expect us — to look and speak without pretense. And that freedom, I’m discovering, is nothing to sing mournfully about. It’s one of the few gifts of aging.
This segment aired on March 19, 2019.