George was my best friend in elementary school.
Which is not to say I didn’t have other friends. I did. I grew up with a great bunch of guys: Albert, Ron and Don (yeah, they were twins), Dean and Kenny, to name just five. We tended to do things as a group (did someone say “pack”?) whenever we could – riding bikes, playing basketball and football, building forts in empty lots, sledding and stealing . . . er, borrowing raspberries from Grandma Hayes’ raspberry bushes.
But when we couldn’t get the guys all together, George and I always managed to find a way to hang out. We climbed the fruit trees in his yard. We teased his little sister Patty and my big sister Kathy. We played army. We played one-on-one football (I was the huge one that he couldn’t bring down; he was the speedy one that I couldn’t catch). We spied on Gayle.
In fact, Gayle was the only thing we ever fought about. Gayle was my on-again, off-again girlfriend (we liked each other in 3rd, 5th and 7th grades, so it was on, off, on-again, off-again, on-again, off-again, to be technically correct). George kind of liked her, too – but it was awkward for him, because they were sort of relatives (I never really understood HOW they were related – just that they were). So he wasn’t supposed to like her – it was against the commandments or the Beatitudes or something – but he kind of did. And it was upsetting to him when I told him about playing kissing games with Gayle in her back yard.
Yes, Gayle – I told George. I know I told you that I didn’t, but I did.
There. I feel better getting that off my chest, even though it took me 48 years to do it.
The thing is, I told George pretty much everything back then. That’s just the way it was with us. We’d sit up there in one of his trees, or we’d lie on our backs in his backyard (which was way better than my backyard) and look up at the clouds, and we’d talk. We talked about everything, and we knew everything about each other. He knew about that “men’s” magazine I had stolen a few . . . well, OK, maybe a dozen . . . peeks at. I knew about the homework assignment he had cheated on. And we schemed together about how to get Kathy to marry one of his older brothers – Vic or Dave, it didn’t really matter to us. We just wanted to be family.
You know – sort of like him and Gayle were. Whatever that meant.
At one point in our friendship our moms got together and decided we were seeing way too much of each other. As I recall, this came around the time that we started inviting each other over for dinner every day. George’s family had their big meal at lunchtime, and we had our big meal in the evening. So every day for about a week we ate two big meals a day. We were in heaven – but our moms had had enough. We couldn’t see each other or talk on the phone for a week. It was hard – we both went through a sort of withdrawal. But at the end of the week everything was the same as it was, only we were both down to one big meal per day.
Eventually junior high put the distance between us that our mothers couldn’t. We were still friends, but we started hanging with different groups (in other words, I was a band nerd and George wasn’t – end of story). We still said “hi” in the halls and we talked at church and stuff, but it was never really the same. We drifted further apart in high school, and have only bumped into each other occasionally after that. Still, it was sobering when Gayle sent me an e-mail yesterday to let me know that George had died. Even though I haven’t seen him in years, I felt an emptiness and a sadness that I never would have anticipated. Evidently the bonds forged while playing in fruit trees and lying on your back looking at clouds are strong.
And today I find myself wishing I had made an effort to communicate with George or to go to dinner with him or something. You know what I mean? I’m not riddled with guilt or angst or anything like that – I’d just like to spend some time with an old, dear friend. Only now I can’t.
Maybe there’s a George in your life, too. I know – our lives are all busy, and we have so much to do with work and family and current relationships that we have little time to go searching for friends in our past. I understand that. But if it’s true, as the poet Joseph Parry wrote, that we should “make new friends, but keep the old; those are silver; these are gold” . . . well, maybe we should try to find some time now and then to mine for a little interpersonal gold.
Which reminds me . . . I wonder what Albert is up to these days?