You know that annoying song they make you sing in preschool, “Make new friends, but keep the old, one is silver and the other’s gold”?
I’m here to report, after 27 years of observation and assessment: the annoying song is right. Old friends are gold.
So here’s a tribute to one of my oldest and best. (For my other oldie-besties out there–do not fear, your time in the spotlight will come. But I have thanks to pay in this post, so it felt important to write it now).
When I was four years old, we moved from Ypsilanti, Michigan, to New Jersey. I have vague memories of the transition–sadness about leaving our house, with its giant wrap-around porch and huge pillars behind.
Sadness about saying goodbye to my friends–Johnny Beehive (a kindly middle aged man who lived across the street) and Emma (who I used to get into all sorts of mischief with), and the swing that let me fly over our fence and into the neighbor’s backyard.
But excitement about the big, empty house we were moving to, with its neighborhood teeming with children. The closets were perfect for pretend–I remember squeezing into the upstairs linen closet with my new neighbors on our first day in New Jersey, pretending we were in an elevator that could take us underwater.
It was a time full of transition. My little sister had been born not long before (and I still wasn’t sure whether I wanted to keep her), and I had to adapt to a new house, town–and new childcare.
I’d loved my old daycare in Michigan (my teacher even featured in my bedtime song), but my parents sweetened the deal by promising that I could help choose my new care provider.
My first memory of Gaby is of meeting her outside of my house. She was young and pretty and had golden, feathery hair. Her accent was funny. I wasn’t sold, but my mom ushered me inside.
“The daughter your age is upstairs. Go meet her!”
Amanda was coming down the stairs as I was coming up them. She had round cheeks and wore thin-rimmed glasses. Her thumb was stuck firmly in her mouth.
“Get that outta your mouth,” I told her bossily. “It’s got germs.”
She obediently removed it, and we trooped upstairs together.
“You wanna play the boy or the girl?” I asked. She shrugged. “You can be the boy then.”
After that, we were fast friends. My parents asked me what I thought after they left, and I gave a hearty affirmation.
Gaby became my daycare provider. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was getting far more than just someone to look after me during the times my parents couldn’t. I was also getting a second family.
Amanda and I were a perfect pair. We spent hours playing in their house in the woods in the neighboring town. Those days are mostly blurry for me–the most clear feature was their basement with its big glass windows that looked out into the dark woods.
I remember Katarina, her older sister, sleep walking into their basement (and how very impressive and frightening that was to me), and playing horror-tinged games down there.
As we spent more time together, our families became inextricably interwoven. When Gaby and her husband, Dan, decided to move, they looked at houses in our neighborhood. And when a sweet little house with cedar-siding and swimming pool went up for sale, a mere block down from our house, they made me and Amanda’s dreams come true, and bought it.
I spent as much time in that house through my childhood as I did my own. I loved the full floor carpeting in the upstairs with different whimsical colors (perfect for playing games of horses and Barbies). Loved the sprawling backyard, with its towering trees and ivy-filled nooks, and the old stone fireplace in the back.
We spent countless hours galloping over obstacles, pretending we were riding invisible horses, playing intricate adventure games where we explored underwater seas and vast deserts, and inventing tag-like games named things like “Bear-Dog” and “Bee-Bear.”
Gaby became like a second mom to me. She was firm and no-nonsense and loving. And she gave us the perfect amount of space, to explore the world side by side.
I remember her teaching me the beginnings of German (she was from Austria), and tasting the creamy, cured meats she’d bring back after visits to see her family.
Whenever my dad came to pick us up at the end of the day, he’d inevitably stir all the kids up into a whirlwind of excitement. “Don’t wild them up!” Gaby would scold. We loved her for that phrase and have co-opted it for our own–now I delight in using it on Jordan, when he wilds L up.
When we started preschool (another selection process I was allowed to participate in–(I remember assessing lofts and play-kitchens with a critical eye), I wound up at the Jewish Community Center.
And–to my delight–even though Amanda’s family was Catholic, they enrolled her too.
We got into all kinds of mischief together. The summer after we started preschool, we set out on a mission to capture one of the kittens born to the feral cat that lived in our neighborhood. We developed elaborate traps, including laundry bins and strings that could be dropped from afar.
When we finally caught a little black kitten in the narrow alley behind my garage, we were utterly delighted.
We hid him in the basement, and smuggled saucers of milk down to him. It didn’t take long before my parents found him, but capturing and hiding that kitten is, to date, one of my greatest accomplishments. And better yet, even after he’d been released, he kept coming back, until it was undeniable that he was our cat.
Amanda’s house was the first place I was allowed to walk on my own. We’d spend hours walking each other back and forth to our houses, deep in conversation.
First she’d walk me home, but when we got to my house, neither of us wanted to part. So I’d walk her home again. And then she’d walk me home again. Until finally we both walked to the middle of the block and split–each of us sprinting toward our respective homes.
We used to spend hours and hours together. Whole days at her house, and then sleepovers at mine. Sometimes, we’d be away from our families for days on one extended sleepover, until finally one of our parents put an end to it and decided they wanted us home.
We were so close that we could understand each other’s mumblings and sighs and smiles. Sometimes, we’d be sitting in silence, when suddenly we’d both burst out with the same exact thought. It was like our minds had been synced.
I remember, on one early morning, not being able to sleep. I texted Amanda, and she snuck over. As we sat on my front porch together, it started to pour. We talked for hours, watching the rain shimmer down in front of us, shoulder to shoulder for warmth.
As we got older, we hatched grand plans for the future. Inspired by Katarina’s desire to live in Montana, we decided we too would move there (Katarina inspired many of our dreams–she was the older sister I’d never had, and I totally idolized her).
We’d buy a farm together, and both live on it with our husbands and families. Regardless, we knew that we wanted to live close together.
We used to spend hours discussing those plans, leaning on the tall cedar tree at the corner of her driveway, imagining who we’d marry and what our kids might be like.
High school brought with it real boyfriends. Through the complications of new relationships and new friends, we stayed close.
We tasted our first beer together in the basement of my house (I still remember how fizzy and warm and awful it was), had sleepovers where we talked late into the night and laughed uproariously over things as small and (unfunny) as banana peels and saying the same word at the same time.
We went our separate ways during college–she to a school in New Jersey, and me to a school in New York–but we met up for long weekends together, and each summer she came to visit me.
The only times I’ve ever successfully gotten drunk and had a good time were with Amanda–as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized it’s because she makes me comfortable enough to relax. On one notable occasion, we slid down a steep hill on our butts to the lake, where we swam in our skivvies.
And then, with a blink, we’d both graduated college and grown up.
Our families are still incredibly close. When Gaby had to evacuate Florida during a hurricane, she came up to stay with us in Mississippi, and we spent a wonderful few days reminiscing and eating and hanging out.
It was a spot of light for me during a dark period, when I was first struggling with my mom’s diagnosis–a reminder that by linking me with Gaby’s family, my mom had given me a backup mom. Another person who remembers me when I was small and silly and constantly barefoot.
Whenever Gaby and Dan, who have always been inspiringly outdoorsy, come our way to hike portions of the Appalachian trail, we meet up with them with our dogs in tow. Last summer, while I was six-months pregnant with L, we hiked the tallest peak in Georgia.
Amanda might be far away in New Jersey, but we’re still closer to sisters than we are to friends. She came with Jenna to the hospital when L was born, and stayed for a week to help us survive our first days with a newborn. We talk on the phone during drives to work, and I jealously stalk all her amazing travel photos on Instagram.
She has, over and over again, been an absolutely incredible friend. And now–after years of her mom taking care of me and Jenna–she and Katarina have stepped up to take care of my parents in their time of need.
My dad was looking for someone to help my mom during the day when he was at work, and Amanda and Katarina wanted the job. [If you missed the post on my mom’s diagnosis, it can be viewed here].
I can’t begin to describe what a gift it is to have them in our lives. Before, my dad used to feel scared every time he left the house–scared that my mom would lose their dog by letting him out the front door. Scared that she’d find the car keys and get in an accident, or wander away and get lost.
He struggled to do her hair and to keep her nails trimmed and to pick out clothes that made her look like herself.
But like fairy godmothers, Amanda and Katarina have swooped in. They took her for a haircut (and she walked out saying how much she loved it). They took her shopping, and bought her clothes that are 100% old Ellen. They paint her nails and bring her for dog walks and help keep her happy and healthy.
Most of all, they treat her with such kindness–they assume that she understands them, assume that she hears more than she can say.
They’re surrogate daughters to my mom and dad, while Jenna and I are far away.
And I suppose it’s that simple fact that moved me to write today. How incredibly beautiful, the way our families have been intertwined.
Twenty-four years ago, we were strangers to each other, two families orbiting in separate worlds. But through time and love and hardship, we’ve braided our lives together. We’ve become family in a way that some blood-families never are.
So cheers to Amanda and Katarina (and their younger sister Jenny, who’s also grand). Cheers to Gaby and Dan.
Thank you for being the people you are. Thank you for always being there for us–from becoming our family in a new and unfamiliar town, to being there for us every step of the way ever since.