Friendship Is A Sheltering Tree

(This essay appeared in my essay collection Lake Forest Moments.)

I had known for nearly a year that my dear friend Diane would be moving as soon as her husband Jim got a job offer. A casualty of banking industry restructuring, Jim, at 52, was interviewing all over the country. We hoped they would remain in the Chicago area, but the chances of that seemed less and less likely as the months went by.

Like most corporate wives, Diane knew the drill. Be glad for the job opportunity, put a smile on your face, pack up your grandmother’s china again (minus the creamer that got broken in the last move), dispense a few hugs, shed some tears, and don’t look back. Even in this era of two-career couples, far more wives move because of the job opportunities of their husbands, than husbands do for their wives.
And move, they do. As a past President of our community’s Newcomers’ group, I saw firsthand the different ways women cope with transplantation. The gender make-up of our group speaks volumes to this issue – we always average around 500 members – all women. Women hoping to make new connections, women needing phone numbers for dentists and pre-schools. Women who remark lightly during their first coffee, “We’ve moved so many times, I have boxes this time that I never unpacked in the first move.” We all nod in sympathy, recognizing that casual tone of voice for what underlies it – acceptance, denial, and a reaching out toward those with a shared experience.

Diane and I met five years ago at a coffee hosted by the Newcomers’ Club of Lake Forest and Lake Bluff to introduce new people to the community. Most communities, large or small, rural or urban have these sorts of groups set up, but the Newcomers’ group here is especially large because of the ongoing number of corporate job shuffling that goes on.

Ironically, Diane and I had moved to the North Shore at the same time from the same city in southern California. We had never met there, although we had both lived there for twenty years, and had even shopped at the same grocery store. Our realtors here told us about each other, and we agreed to meet at the coffee.

Diane seemed confident and self-assured as she moved through the crowd of unfamiliar faces at the coffee. I was fighting tears of loneliness and homesickness. When we first met I thought we had little in common except our California backgrounds.

Where I was high-strung, and it might even be said “hyper,” Diane was thoughtful and nearly sedate. She loved British comedies on PBS; I watched Melrose Place. She favored tweedy, classic clothing; I have been known to wear spandex. I have two children; she has cats. She loves to garden; I have no patience and a black thumb.

We persevered in laying the groundwork for a friendship, ignoring the differences in our personalities. Diane sat with me through my entire first winter in Chicago while I moaned about the weather, and despaired the lack of palm trees or hills. We began to explore our new home together with other newcomers, joining the Art Institute, signing on for philanthropic jobs, and discovering shopping and restaurants. Our husbands both traveled a great deal (as do most husbands of corporate wives) and our excursions did much to ward off loneliness and isolation.

We did this for five years. During that time we went from the tentativeness of first introductions, to the companionship of someone else to do things with, to a true intimacy brought on by sharing the many changes happening to both of us during our mid-life years.

By the time Diane and Jim were offered an opportunity in Charlotte, North Carolina, Diane and I had become deep friends. We shared intimate details in our lives; we shared our daily problems and joys without passing judgment. We listened over endless cups of tea and nodded sagely and said what needed to be said, never being hurtful, only being as honest as we could be at that given moment.

Even with a year to get used to the idea of Diane moving. when I saw the For Sale sign in front of her house the first day, I had to pull over to the side of the road and compose myself. Of course, being the good corporate wife myself (bloom where you’re planted!), I dried my tears before I went into Diane’s house, where she was straightening up for the initial real estate showing. She was in the first stage of withdrawal from the house that she loved so much; the stage where you can’t bear to think of strangers tromping through your house looking in cabinets and closets. I took her away for a long lunch.

My dear friend has moved, but when I last talked to her on the telephone she assured me that she would not become a genteel Southern Lady. We have great trust in our friendship; it will last and this eases my sadness. Last spring when I drove by Diane’s old house I slowed down and looked for signs of the bulbs she planted. Samuel Taylor Coleridge said, “Flowers are lovely; love is flower-like; friendship is a sheltering tree.”

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