Josna Rege

434. Friends from Way Back

In Books, people, reflections, Stories, United States on May 26, 2019 at 9:59 am

In Chinua Achebe’s modern classic, Things Fall Apart, the hypermasculine, highly-strung protagonist Okonkwo has a best friend and agemate, Obierika, who is the only person who can speak home truths to him without making him fly into a rage. They are both well-placed, well-respected family men, but Okonkwo, bull-headed and defensive, is perpetually falling afoul of the community because of his uncontrollable temper, while Obierika is a much more deliberate, thoughtful man, with a wry sense of humor. Even though he is the stereotypical strong silent type, Okonkwo will regularly go over to Obierika’s place where they may share kola nut and palm wine and sit quietly for a while, until Okonkwo blurts out what’s on his mind, or his friend raises the subject more delicately and then gives Okonkwo a piece of his. In Igbo society back at the turn of the twentieth century, agemates had gone through the circumcision rituals together in adolescence; having shared that arduous coming-of-age experience, there was little they could hide from each other ever after.

As I get older, the people in my life who have known me since childhood and youth get fewer but all the more precious. Yesterday old friends visited who go all the way back with our family. The parents were good friends of my parents, who met them on the IIT campus in Kharagpur in 1955 when they were still newlyweds and I was just six months old and “still crawling”, as Mona remembered yesterday, visiting us with her daughter Ginny on her 92nd birthday. Mona’s son Jim, just a little older than me, was my playmate, and when our families miraculously crossed paths again in the U.S. after having lost touch with each other for fifteen years, we took up the friendship as if it had never been interrupted. By now each of them had had another child, and the two daughters were also agemates whose lives proceeded to take parallel tracks. Fast-forward 33 years, and Mona and Bajirao attended my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary celebration, bearing the ceremonial cake. Like my parents, they had a mixed marriage, Bajirao coming from the same part of the country and the same community as Dad, and Mona, like Mum, a foreign wife in early post-Independence India, though Mona was American and Mum English. Bajirao was the first to pass away, nearly nine years ago, and as my sister Sally and I drove back in the snow from his wake, Sally pointed out that our friends had shown us the way we, as fellow half-and-halves, might honor the passing of our parents in a foreign country. At Dad’s memorial both Jim and Ginny spoke eloquently, and Jim’s heartfelt words for our father brought tears to his family’s eyes as they no doubt remembered their own. Now, after our families’ lives have been intertwined for nearly 65 years, there is little that we can’t share with each other.

This is Old Home weekend for us. Today we are eagerly awaiting the arrival of our dear friend Michael, Andrew’s best friend from eighth grade on, sharer with him of teenage exploits of all kinds, who now lives in New Mexico and is driving down to us from Maine where he has just scattered his parents’ ashes by the ocean. Michael and I go way back, too, back to 1970 and my very first day at Brookline High, a new immigrant entering an entirely foreign school system mid-year. I took the first joyride with Michael and his then-girlfriend Laura the day they got their drivers’ licenses, an important American rite of passage, and when I met Andrew it turned out that he and Michael were best friends and that they had built a treehouse together, a dream of a treehouse in which we three shared many happy hours and which helped us all survive high school (see TMA#4, The Tree House). Later in the decade, Andrew and I drove out to New Mexico in our 1950 International Harvester milk truck (which Andrew had bought at the same time and from the same man who sold Mike a 1964 Triumph TR-4 sports car) and lived with Michael in Albuquerque for nearly a year, sharing another defining period of our lives. His parents retired to Portland, Maine, so as they grew older, Michael made the pilgrimage Back East to visit them more and more frequently, and we got together almost every time. Once he brought his parents to visit us in Amherst, where his father had attended “Mass Aggie,” as UMass, then the state agricultural college,was called, and he pointed out some of his old haunts. We gathered to toast his parents’ on their 50th wedding anniversary, celebrated landmark birthdays with them, and attended Mike’s father Pete’s funeral. Pete, who managed the farm and greenhouse on the Brookline estate where Andrew’s family rented a house, was Andrew’s first employer, and later, for a few months after college when I worked at the same greenhouse, he was my employer too. The last long car ride Mike’s mother Velma took was down to Amherst with him to attend Andrew’s father’s memorial, and we went up to Maine to dear Velma’s funeral just before my own mother passed away. This weekend I look forward to the three of us sitting out back just hanging out, Andrew and Michael agemates from way back, both men of few words, and for once I think I will quiet my chatter and be content to just be.

Here’s Jimmie Rodgers singing My Old Pal. Thinking of all my old pals with love and gratitude.

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  1. Beautiful tribute to friends. I like the term age mate- it reaches deeper than friendship I think. Linda x

    • Thank you, Linda. I think so, too. Hope you’re settling happily into your new home. Any more big trips in the works?

    • Thank you, Linda. I think so too. Hope you’re settling happily into your new home. Any more coddiwompling in the works?

  2. I know you are one of my closest age-mates, lovely to remember.

  3. This must be a summer of visits from old friends.

  4. Friendship is what makes us all going, is it not? That’s what relationships are made of. One benefit of technology is that all our friends are just a tap or a click away.

    • That’s true, Pradeep. And yet, while the one-click connection gives instant gratification, it does not satisfy deeply as human contact does. Even a snail-mail letter “lasts longer” (as a friend of mine once said) than a phone call, let alone a text message. A Facebook “like” gives a feeling of intimacy–virtual intimacy–without the real thing. Still, I’m grateful for any mode of contact with family and friends who are continents away.

  5. Lovely memories. I hope you have a wonderful time together and manage to bring some of the treehouse-vibes

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