A true-blue best friend

Real Life



Jo Ellen Lavine and I met on the first day of sixth grade on the playground of John Witherspoon Junior High School in Princeton, N.J. We were both new students. It was 1966 and we were 11. I looked like a chubby Amy Carter and Jo Ellen resembled a precocious child star.

We hit it off right away. On our first "date," we spent an afternoon uptown, combing the rock 'n' roll record department at the University Store. I was mad about the Beatles. Jo Ellen loved Elvis. I thought that was a little old-fashioned.

Together, we giggled our way through three anxious, terrifying and hilarious years.

We attached ourselves to a funny group of boys who played in a rock band called the Peaches. We dressed up as a tie-dyed cow for the school talent show and danced to a song we composed, "Cowtown Ladies." We made prank phone calls to crushes and rode our bikes endlessly around the local shopping center.

We were a mutual admiration society. Jo was full of life, true blue and keenly observant. She thought I was funny and creative.

Then came high school, a crucible for personal transformation. I gravitated toward the hippies and a disaffected clique that started a newspaper called the Dungeon. The idea of actual dating threw me into a tizzy. Jo Ellen ran for class office, dated upperclassmen and worked after school at a law office to help support her single mother and little sister.

We both coped with difficult situations at home that I think made our efforts to fit in at school all the more urgent. With that aim in mind, we took different directions and drifted apart. It didn't have to happen that way, but I wasn't always a very good friend. Worse, I was unkind.

Gradually, though, Jo and I reunited, even as we continued on our divergent paths.

Just after graduating from college, Jo married the Johns Hopkins pre-med student she met her first day at Goucher and became Mrs. Jan Basile. I didn't want to think about marriage for years. She moved to Charleston, S.C., and stayed home to rear a daughter and two sons. I pursued journalism and took my time before having two boys.

By then, though, our contrasting lives gave us more than ever to talk about. Jo and I stayed in touch by phone and through occasional visits. In recent years, we've spent some wonderful weekends together, hiking, white-water rafting, drinking frozen margaritas, watching movies and talking until our eyes closed with exhaustion. We've known one another 40 years and can still crack each other up and tell each other anything.

It's easy to pay lip service to the idea of having a best friend if you live hundreds of miles apart, have busy lives and don't feel obliged to chat every day. To sign off on letters and phone calls with "your bestest friend ever," as Jo and I often do, isn't necessarily a blood oath.

When I spoke to Jo Ellen about my plan to write about our friendship, she was surprised. "I didn't even know if I'd end up being your best friend," she said.

I thought of those high school years when we had passed each other in the halls without saying much. Neither of us had forgotten. And I realized that if we were to have this "friendship" conversation, I couldn't gloss over painful memories.

"You always were my best friend even when I wasn't your best friend," Jo Ellen said. "I wanted to be your best friend, but I could accept that you might choose other people to be your best friend. That was fine."

Jo Ellen, I realized, has always, always remained true, even when I turned my back on her for the sake of some elusive sense of belonging.

"You will always be my best friend," she said again on the phone. Not that I needed a reminder, but Jo's words drove home yet again why she will always be my best friend. Even when she wasn't my best friend, I was hers.


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