On Strangers, Acquaintances and Friends
After posting the previous to my blog and mentioning my situation on a couple of the knitting lists, I was flooded with emails. Some were from women who had also been through the long wait until they found out that they, too had a negative biopsy. Others were from women who had positive biopsies and survived subsequent surgery and treatment. One was from a woman who has had breast cancer, as well as cancers in three other sites in her body. Several were from women who told me that they knew everything would be fine, they had added me to their prayers. I mentioned my negative result on the knitting list that serves our local guild, and at the Thursday meeting several women come up to me and told me their breast cancer survival stories. These were all women I have known for a couple of years now, and except for the occasional one, I never knew that they were breast cancer survivors. Another guild member told me her friend had just been diagnosed with breast cancer. I was stunned by how many people I heard from who have been through all this with me, with their own positive or negative biopsy results. I was and am deeply moved by how many had added me to their prayers. The women from my book group - which I had to miss this month because it was the day after my surgery and I was still woozy from the anesthesia - got together and gave me beautiful flowers in a gorgeous glazed jug, as well as a basket with ‘a taste of book group’ including a bottle of wine, a wedge of brie, some artisan bread and gourmet chocolates. And they all sent me emails before my test to tell me that I was in their thoughts and prayers, and emails after to tell me how relieved they were to hear of my great result, with one woman planning to bring champagne to our next meeting - at my house - so that we can all toast my happy news.
I was raised in a small town in the late 50s and early 60s. Those of you who are younger can’t realize, but those who are my age or older know that this was a completely different period of time. We were raised to be polite to our parents, our elders, our teachers, to treat anyone we met with respect and to behave with decorum, knowing that our behaviour reflected well or ill on our family. We were also taught from an early age to never completely trust strangers. I remember at about 5 years of age, a friend of mine and I were playing in her front yard when a young man stopped his car and offered to take us for ice cream. Ann, a year younger than myself, started to climb into the car, but I was screaming so loudly that her mother came out of the house on a run and the young man drove off. I was completely convinced that I would be on the national news that evening for my bravery and quick-wittedness in saving my friend from the Demon Stranger. Much to my disappointment I was not. But the message was clear: Strangers are not to be trusted, and my early experience reinforced that.
Because the neighborhood was so small and the times were what they were, you knew everyone’s parents. Their parents knew your parents, your siblings knew their siblings, your teachers had taught your siblings before you, and there really wasn’t much wrong that you could get away with - it was an extended network that comprised your entire neighborhood. If you and your friends were riding your bikes up the highway into town without permission, believe me, someone’s mother drove by and saw you, and called your mother when they got home. I once notoriously was busily peddling my trike to town with a few pennies clutched in my fist to buy my brother a birthday present when I was spotted by a family friend along the highway and captured to be returned home to a serious scolding and rare spanking.
The families on our small street - five in total - were all of an age. Our parents were contemporaries, we kids were all in the same age range, and we were in many ways like one large family. I knew that if I behaved badly at the Bunk’s or the Petty’s, they could and would scold me as if I were their own child. And at the same time, and more than that, we had all the good times a large family had, with large summer cook-outs that started with the Dads all gathering in early afternoon to talk. Maybe one went to another’s house to borrow a tool or ask for a hand with something they were working on, next thing you knew they were all standing around talking and laughing, tasks forgotten, and the cold beer would come out. Then Moms were out in the yard, we kids were running around whooping and barbecues were fired up, someone ran to the store to fetch some extras, and food was being pushed at you from all directions. On Christmas we all visited from house to house to view presents and to eat wonderful food with each other.
Last summer my husband and I returned to visit my siblings back east, and while we were there one of the Moms - the woman who taught me how to knit, made us all laugh til we cried and made the best Italian food that I still judge all other Italian food by - died after a short illness. My sister Mary and I went to the funeral home for the wake, and I know Annie of all people would understand and be glad when I say that her wake was one of the best parts of my trip. To see all of our old neighbors nearly thirty years after I left was so wonderful. The parents from across the street now completely white-haired, the neighborhood terror a middle-aged man, his sister a mom herself. Annie’s family had an old photo album out for all to look through, and on page after page all our families were intertwined.
I left home in my early 20s never thinking I would ever go back, or ever want to go back, and made my way in a new place with new people around me. But I know now I have no other home, and these people are my family just as much as my own parents and siblings are.
I started to tell you all this because I wanted you to know what my concepts were of the meaning of the words strangers, acquaintances and friends. And all my moving from place to place didn’t change that. But the internet did. I married a man that I met on a mailing list of Aromatherapists. I made good friends through such lists, visited them, met up with them at conferences, shared laughs and stories and good times, truly stretching my ideas of who friends could be and where they were to be found. And here I find those old concepts are stretched and broken by what I have been given by this vast sisterhood of women. Few of whom have met in the flesh, all of whom are a family that stretches from Canada to Mexico, from Hawaii east to Finland. We share our stories of triumph and loss, births and deaths, illnesses and recoveries. Projects started and stalled, projects finished, projects lusted after. Stories of our children, our parents and our spouses. We are joined together by the common thread of our gender and the bond this neccesarily gives us.
We wear our scars for each other to see, and we wear them proudly, like the scars of old whales that tell the stories of battle and more importantly, of survival. I bear a new scar now to add to my others, and somehow this is the scar of which I am most proud, although it is not as hard-won as those of many of my sisters. I add it to the scar near my left eye and the divided cheekbone I still bear from my mugging, the scar on my leg from being attacked by dogs as a child. They don’t disfigure me, they are medals of war, and evidence of survival. They add to me just as my laugh lines and white hair does.
Years ago I went to visit a psychic who looked at my hand and laughed. She told me that as a child I was not meant to survive, and because of that I had illness after illness - which I did. But that I was too stubborn and refused to go, and that was the only reason I am still here. Supported along the way by strangers, acquaintances and friends.