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Toasting Rye Bread
"A constant friend is a thing rare and hard to find."
I have heard that memory is 80 percent smell. I don't know if that is a verifiable percentage, but every time I put a piece of rye bread in the toaster, I think of Laurie.
I was twelve years old when I discovered that toast didn't have to be made from white bread. I was sleeping over at my best friend Laurie's house when I first smelled the sharp, singed-caraway aroma of rye toast. I was astonished and laughed at her outrageousness: She was toasting rye bread. Then she made me taste it, and I was hooked. This morning, munching on my rye toast, I realized that this was only one small way my best friend had broadened my horizons and that that's one of the things best friends do best.
Aristotle's definition of friendship is the image of one soul dwelling in two bodies. Certainly, that was Laurie and me. Our friendship existed in the pre-menstruation, pre-boyfriends, pre-rebellion pocket of childhood. We were on the verge of everything. Our relationship turned out to be excellent preparation for marriage. It was as consuming as monogamy. We spent every free moment together. We were in the same class. We demanded to know each other's innermost thoughts. We finished each other's sentences. We had the same passions. We argued vehemently, and just as vehemently stuck together. We had little room in our hearts for other acquaintances who didn't know our codes.
Our friendship began when we were the only two new kids in the third grade of a closely knit Catholic school. We sat together in the lunchroom, eight-year-old victims of ostracism, and our segregation soon turned to camaraderie. We were inseparable for five years, until my parents unfeelingly decided to move. Our friendship has lasted through subsequent moves, soul searches, college degrees, fads and grown-up adventures.
For many years, our actual communication has been sporadic. Laurie wrote when her father died, instinctively reaching out. I sent her a wedding invitation and an announcement for each new baby; she answered about every five years. Her return address has always been a surprise, leading to the many cross-outs that eclectic friends make in an address book. Laurie has been a poet, a reporter, an artist in Mexico, a forest ranger in remote areas. She used to criticize my dreams of romance as too mundane. "I know you want a white picket fence," she would chide me. I often felt like a potted geranium in a window box next to her rambling wild rose. But I also always knew she loved me for who I was.
I have thought of her more and more over the years, although our contact has grown less frequent. I now watch my four daughters grow and blossom into their own kinds of flowers, and I remember Laurie. I hear them coordinating outfits, hashing it out about other girls, angling for more time together, picking apart their appearance, their goals, their plans, their parents, each other—attempting to distill their own exact essences, just as Laurie and I once did.
Sometimes I think I am not really old enough to be on the other side of all this. I tell my girls we had no VCRs, that we had to go to the theater to see a movie, and they ask facetiously, "Did you have electricity?"
Yet my sometimes cloudy, sometimes lovely, sometimes fierce memories of childhood are really all I have to draw on as I try to raise my daughters to be kind, honest and full of heart. All the parenting books on my shelf cannot evoke the tug of a best friend "breaking up" with you or the delight of the intimacy of a day at the lake that you wish would never end.
Best friends beckon us to come out from the shadow of our moms and dads. They show us we have separate lives. They offer us affection solely for who we are, surprise us with the scope of another's existence, and teach us it's okay for toast not to be white bread.
My most recent letter from Laurie said that she'd left the Forest Service, gained a husband and was living in Portland, Oregon, in a cedar house they called their "urban cabin." Last summer, we met for the first time in twenty-two years. In the area to visit relatives, our family went to their cabin for dinner. We introduced husbands and children, and reintroduced ourselves. We talked and laughed and caught up on the years that seemed to have flown by. As I described the insight our childhood friendship had afforded me into the lives of my daughters, I realized they gained something from us now as they watched twenty-two years - twice their lives or more - melt away. Two old friends embraced, shared photos, got to know husbands and children. My girls saw firsthand the living truth of Anne of Green Gables "kindred spirits" and glimpsed their mother as a girl.
To my daughters, Laurie and I are old. They barely see the point of being almost forty. But someday, all this may filter back through their memories, perhaps as they raise daughters who have best friends and recall their own childhood best friends.
My head is full of cycles; my heart is full of love for every turn.