It Is an Amazing Gift by Susan Mellsopp
Friendship is a gift I treasure with my heart. Told “you will never have any friends, no one likes you” was the catalyst to finally learning how to make and keep a friend. These wonderful human beings are so much more than friends, they are family, a true blessing.
Childhood friends were few and far between. Trying to develop a relationship with a quiet little country girl must have been very difficult. My propensity to favour lone pursuits like books and crafts over other children was certainly a barrier to lasting affiliations. As a teenager I was very selective, therefore often alone. I heard when attending several school reunions later in life there had been little advantage in getting to know me, apparently I was often distant. Did they not know I was painfully shy? Adults and animals were easier to converse with. I had no interest in the banal sewing room or lunchtime chatter about boys, makeup, dates and fashionable clothes.
I have had one friend for almost 60 years. Australian, she advertised in a farming magazine searching for a rural New Zealand penfriend. Dianne and I wrote frequent letters, described teenage angst and then shared photographs of weddings and subsequent children. We visited each other on several occasions. Letters devolved into emails, texts and phone calls. Now both divorced, grandparents, and living full happy lives, we keep in touch, not as frequently, but our bond is close.
Developing friendships when I started work was not easy. Being in a library among so many books I discovered I still preferred their company. Taking home large piles of newly catalogued tomes I hid in my bedroom or a corner of the lounge constantly reading. I should have been out discovering how to have a social life. “Why don’t you ever go out” commented my mother, “you need to make more friends.” Insularity meant they often had interests I did not understand.
Marriage brought few friends, often those I did attempt to make were soon discouraged from a relationship with me. Becoming very lonely and isolated, I remember that one year I had just two visitors; a salesman touting a concoction to put in the water troughs and an insurance man. Leaving my marriage was life changing. The world expanded in ways I did not know existed. Visiting a local mall early one morning I was astounded at the number of relaxed people out and about. I could not believe there were other human beings who, although they were strangers, smiled, wished me a good morning, and asked a little about me. Even the bank teller was kind.
Attempting not to adhere too tightly to these new wondrous people and unintentionally driving them away, I worked studiously at discovering how one made a real, perhaps forever friend. It was a huge journey full of apprehension.
Soon I was almost embarrassed to realise there were people who truly cared about me and described me as ‘their friend’. I was incredulous. With some reservations I slowly began to let these new acquaintances into portions of my life. Respect for my unusual journey was unexpected. Recognising my reluctance to trust and interact I also found professional people began to befriend me. Some new companions took me to cafés for morning tea or lunch, a totally revolutionary experience. Others showed me nearby walks, interesting shops and took me to concerts. With huge trepidation I started allowing these ‘friends’ to visit me at home.
Work at various schools meant colleagues, for reasons I still struggle to fully comprehend, took me under their wing and became supportive. Reluctant to accept their kindness, I remained bemused as to why they wished to spend time in my company. I didn’t have the social skills that seemed so natural to other women. Yet all seemed to accept my idiosyncrasies without question.
I still kept my heart very close to my chest. New neighbours absorbed themselves into my life. One recently asked me to assure her that I would never move as apparently I am the friendliest and best neighbour she has ever had. I found this difficult to perceive.
As I have grown in confidence, the many kind women who have not only befriended me but treat me with love and respect has grown exponentially. I can count guide dog instructors, Principal’s personal assistants, teachers, and people from my past I have reconnected with as well as those I meet at the many groups I now belong to as dear personal friends. Most respect my independent streak, but are there for me when I choose. We share lovely hot chocolates, nice lunches, a trip into the country, grocery shopping, a love of dogs, and amazing conversations.
I have tried valiantly to be a caring friend. Supporting remarkable women through grief, death, illness, lost opportunities, unhappy marriages, new relationships, the birth of grandchildren and the separation due to Covid has been a privilege I do not take lightly. Some love books as much as I do, others have interests which puzzle me. It is glorious to accept the differences we share. The offer of a ride on a cold wet day to avoid the bus is always welcome, as is the opportunity of a second opinion when I need to shop for something expensive, it is just so precious knowing someone cares.
One special person started the process of encouraging me to knock down the impenetrable brick wall I had built around myself to avoid being hurt. This wall prevented me sharing fully of myself and my story. To that friend I am forever filled with gratitude for their kind words and loving care of my soul.
Online friends have also filled my life with joy. One has recently included me in a poem she wrote about friendship. I have friends who teach gifted children, fight for law changes, write books, garden voraciously, knit and bake. They live all over the world and are just as real as those I can hug or invite into my home. They also listen to my tales of loss and sadness, of the joy when the sun shines into my life, and ring from countries far and wide just for a chat.
There are still people who ignore or belittle me, some who treat me as both ignorant and somehow lacking, unable to form a connection which appeals to them. I appear to be unworthy to be their friend. For several years I seemed to be the target of ‘caregiver’ types, always ready to patronise me and see me as ’that poor lady with the guide dog’. I have even been asked “do you have a full time caregiver.” I have ‘unfriended’ real and cyber people, particularly those who try to take over my life and tell me how to behave and what to do.
Lost friends remain embedded in my heart. A new ally gave me shelter for over a year in a flat below her home. She was zealous in standing up for me. Dying at 52, I still miss her deeply. Another longer term friend, one of the few I had when my children were small, supported me in the finding and building of my home. She helped plan my kitchen, invited me for Christmas every year, and even when ill with cancer still found the time to be my best friend in so many ways.
Friends are family we choose. By allowing them into our lives we discover what amazing gifts they can share. My friends are definitely my family; intelligent, loving, caring and at times sassy women who lift me up, respect me, and are the reality of practical and inspirational friendship. Friends are the most precious commodity of our very existence. They say you can tell everything about a person by their friends, I hope so.