Old friends, old friends sat on their parkbench like bookends
A newspaper blowin’ through the grass
Falls on the round toes of the high shoes of the old friends
Old friends, winter companions, the old men
Lost in their overcoats, waiting for the sun
The sounds of the city sifting through trees
Settles like dust on the shoulders of the old friends
Can you imagine us years from today, sharing a parkbench quietly
How terribly strange to be seventy
Old friends, memory brushes the same years, silently sharing the same fears
I was only a teenager when I first heard the Simon and Garfunkle song, Old Friends. It was poignant to me even then, because I was preparing to say goodbye to my high school friends. “Can you imagine us years from today, sharing a park bench quietly? How terribly strange to be seventy.” At seventeen, I couldn’t imagine myself at seventy. Now, only 13 years away from that birthday, I see it much more clearly.
Some of my closest friends right now are all in their seventies, living happy, busy lives, engaged in the modern world and doing the things they’ve always enjoyed. But because we are from different generations, my friends and I don’t have memories that “brush the same years.” I was plodding away in elementary school when they were graduating high school and college. And when I took my first steps into the world of young adulthood, they were in the midst of juggling marriage, work, and family life. In some ways they are role models, in some ways mentors, in other ways, second mothers.
Especially dear to me, then, are the few friendships I have with women my own age. I’ve recently spent some time with one of my closest friends in that category, which reminded me how much I need someone like that in my life. She and I face the same life choices and changes – aging parents, adult children, grandchildren entering our lives, looming retirement – while pondering the next steps in our own life journeys. And so I imagine – I hope – we will go into the future like a female version of that pair in the song, sitting on the park bench like bookends, waiting for the sun. Or, at the very least, instant messaging one another from afar, old fingers tapping out the news and views across cyberspace.
Since my parent’s divorce, 25 years ago, my 86 year old mother has had a revolving door of women friends, most all of them ladies around her age, some married, some widowed. As the years pass, the roster changes as death claims one after the other. Most of the time, she is sanguine about it. Last year, though, she lost a relatively new friend, and this loss was a crushing blow.
“We talk about so many things,” she told me, when they first began their daily phone chats, ‘what it was like back in the old days when we were young. She is always cheerful and so interesting to talk to. ” When we first learned of this lady’s terminal illness, my mother was devastated. “I don’t think I can stand to lose her,” she said. But of course, she did stand it. Because what else can you do, after all. And as we age, the loss of friends becomes more inevitable, making those that remain even more cherished.
My mother rarely sees the few friends she has left, unlike the friends of her youth who were young housewives and mothers in the neighborhood, taking turns gathering in each others living rooms for coffee and confections. Today, my mother’s frequent phone conversations with other women her age serve as a lifeline during a stage that is often marked by illness and pain. I’m finding that social media serves much the same function for me, helps me keep in touch with friends who live far away, or remain connected when our busy lives don’t intersect in real-time ways. It’s not perfect, but those Facebook status updates, Tweets, and emails help us maintain a hold, however tenuous, on one another’s lives.
“Friendships matter,” writes author Beth Kephart in her memoir Into the Tangle of Friendship. “They rebut death, they tie us to this earth, and, when we’re gone, they keep us here; our friends remember us.” The nature of friendship changes with age and circumstance. But it’s never a sure thing, should never be taken for granted. The friendships I have lost over the years, the ones that were formed circumstantially and withered away when circumstances changed, the ones that seemed solid and yet proved too fragile to withstand misunderstanding, those relationships continue to haunt me, wavering ghosts that hover in the shadows of my heart.
As I move farther along on the continuum of life’s road, I find myself wishing for more friendships, wondering about the “auld acquaintances” that have never quite been forgotten. Being an only child puts me on a precariously lonely life path. The fact that my husband, my mother, and my son are all singletons also means our extended family is – well, almost nonexistent. So my friends are a buffer between me and the totally solitary life that looms larger with each passing year.
Philosopher Henri Nouwen wrote, “When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.”
The Simon and Garfunkle tune ends with these words:
Long ago it could be I had a photograph
Preserve your memories
They’re all that’s left you.
Some of life’s most precious memories involve friends, the people who sit companionably beside us on the park bench as we pass from season to season.