The Folklore Project
The Geographical Lines of Friendship
By Meredith Frye
I remember the first time I saw her — standing there on that unfinished porch, attached to a house no one in town could describe, except to say it was black. Literally black. Singed wood, a Japanese method of preserving wood rather than painting it. Waverly, Alabama, had never seen the likes of this house. And seeing as how we were new to Waverly, we had never seen the likes of her.
My sister-in-law said she looked like an Anthropologie model cascading off her steps. Effortlessly cool — thin and billowing in her floppy hat and linen pants. We were all headed to a Fourth of July celebration at the Standard Deluxe, within walking distance from our homes. She waved, and then ran down to greet me.
“I’m Christy. I had your pie the other night. I hope you don’t mind, but the Sims ate a little and then passed it on to us. I’ll get your dish back to you soon. That crust reminded me of my grandmother’s!” I didn’t know this woman, but she could have fooled me. I would have thought from her flat, simply American accent that she could be from anywhere. Her charm and grace led me to believe she was from here. But I already knew different.
A few neighbors had described her briefly: “She’s with Taylor, who is 15 years younger and ... she’s from New Jersey.” For some, it might as well have been a red letter tattooed across her forehead, although I suspected, in this case, it would be a “Y.”
A few months later, another neighbor said, regarding Christy’s move south, “You know what we say around here? Once the Yankees get here, you can’t dynamite ’em out.” I laughed. Didn’t I know. I had fought so hard to get back to the South for so long. Finally, my husband, our three boys and I had just recently succeeded, and now my new friend and neighbor was from … up north. I wondered what she thought about the butter down here. How it melted so fast that you could take it out of the refrigerator and spread it on toast in five minutes flat. Or how the milk cartons swell like a retired man’s belly. Or how it’s hard to tell the difference between someone driving up your gravel road and thinking you have a pot boiling over — they sound exactly the same. These were things I had grown away from once, but was soon remembering again now that we were back, only to wonder how I’d ever forgotten them in the first place.
For a while, I wondered what I would have in common with a New Jersey woman who was two years younger than my own mother. The woman was also a mother — with a 14-year-old in boarding school back up north and two sons in their 20s. She was nearing the end of a long, drawn-out divorce and was busy building a house with her partner, and she was trying to write. But it wasn’t long before she and Taylor were corralled around our table — me making nothing into something from our humble kitchen. She’d just received word of some troubling news, and needed a drink. The four of us shared wine long after my children were tucked in, and she cried at my kitchen table about 9/11 and a soon-to-be-ex-husband, and children tucked in a long way from here, and she cried about life. She was warm and sensitive, and, by golly, she writes. We were destined to become good friends.
Over the coming months, I longed to share time with her. She was a comfortable spot on my map that for a while had seemed blank and unsteady. We were back home, per se, but “home” 10 years later and “home” when everything’s already comfortably familiar is different. I knew I was going to need her if we were going to stay. And come hell or high water, I started to hope and pray she planned on staying, too.
Our friendship blossomed into long talks about old loves and lives we felt we had lived ages ago, and children. We talked about children. She had been married to a traveling banker, and I am married to a pilot. Both of us had seen our share of single parenting. She was now on the cusp of truly being a single parent, a role I’m not sure she would have chosen had she known the plight. But alas, it had led here here — to my living room in Waverly with a hot cup of tea and a need to revisit past memories. I never wished she were younger or that we had more in common. Already, it felt like God placed here here, and me here, and us as friends, for so many reasons. She became such a beacon in my little world. I missed her when she traveled back up north to see family, and felt slightly uncomfortable on nights when she couldn’t see the lights in my windows. When either of us were away for any length of time, we would meet for tea, wrap our arms around each other, and exclaim, “I missed you!”
She took over an aging neighbor’s garden, providing him with bounty. She helped him keep the soil continue producing beauty each season, despite his own inability to carry on with such an abundant landscape. Tirelessly, she would show up for a chat — dirt under her fingernails, pants stained with Alabama red clay, and always a hat. Yes, always a hat. I grew to understand her marriage, and eventually what lacked in it. I grew to understand the culture in which her children had been raised, and how she struggled sometimes to parent her teenager from the far southern side of the Mason-Dixon Line. I watched her selflessly set aside her own biases and her own needs as she gave in to family members who needed her more. I watched her poised fearlessly, arms stretched out gracefully, pants dirty from the day’s work — a far cry from her old New Jersey wardrobe, I suspected. I watched her love big. Really big. And that made me love her even more.
A few weeks ago, I drove her to Memphis to see an ocular oncologist. The C word. Cancer. Presenting itself on her eyeball, of all places. She would undergo surgery to attach a radioactive disc, and she would lose her vision in that eye. She took the news right there, right in front of me, a person who has been witness to many of her tears. But she didn’t cry. Not in the doctor’s chair, anyway. She joked about staying out of the Chuck E. Cheese and that we might have a pirate party for Halloween. When she showed me the image of the melanoma, it strangely resembled the shape of a heart. It was her revelation, not mine, noting she had always seen through her own heart anyway. I’m not worried about that going away. Her ability to see love in everything around her isn’t a character trait she’s letting go of anytime soon. I’m not even worried about her livelihood or how she approaches the day-to-day meaning of her world — once grand and big-city, but now small and dirty and Southern. I know she never waivers. She is billowy and beautiful, and now more than ever she will need that hat.
The geographical lines of friendship are nonexistent now. The idea that I could judge her understanding of this world I know so well, and fought so hard to get back to, isn’t appropriate in this day and age. There is too much fluidity now to expect that we could have things in common only with those who grew up similarly or lived in a certain region of this earth. I threw that notion out not long after I met her. I don’t know how long she will stay here. I don’t know if any of us ever know how long we will put roots down — how far they’ll grow into the red clay and how difficult it will be to pull ourselves out.
But there is something this dirt does to you. It leaves its mark on its inhabitants, the keepers of its gardens, and it turns neighbors into friends. I hope no one shows up with dynamite.