Janet's World: Savoring summer memories of childhood friendship

Janet's World

August 07, 2010|By Janet Gilbert

When I sit down to write this weekly column, the first hilarious thing I do is open up the "Janet's World" template I've created on my computer and change the newspaper run-date in the "header" field. I'm sure you appreciate this fascinating window into the creative process.

But when I did that today, I was transported for more than a few minutes. I could suddenly smell the hot slate of the front stoop where I sat most August nights waiting for the neighborhood kids to come out after dinner.

I could feel the jarring tepid-to-icy temperature fluctuations on the back of my neck in a 2-foot-by-3-foot open-air shower connected to an equally cramped changing locker on a Long Island beach.

I could taste fancy Pepperidge Farm Milano cookies dipped in rich whole milk, and feel my bony elbows leaning on a small, cool Formica kitchen table in Baldwin, N.Y.

All of this came back to me because Aug. 8 is the birthday of my childhood friend, Nnaoj Sussal, whose name has been cleverly spelled backward for privacy. I have never been good at remembering her birthday in advance — though she has sent me and every member of my family cards for our birthdays, graduations and other life events for the past quarter-century. So, you automatically know who the truly good friend is in this relationship.

Still, if you attend someone's birthday party every year from age 6 to 16 — from pin the tail on the donkey to spin the bottle — the date sort of sticks with you. And when I realized this column would run on my childhood friend's birthday, I thought that the topic of long-standing — I did not say old — friendships was suitable and worth pursuing. Plus, this might make for a very cheap yet meaningful gift.

The fact is, Aug. 8 never goes by without my thinking of Nnaoj in specific, charming and inevitably touching ways. I remember one year I had tuned in to a new, easy-listening radio station in my car when for some reason the song "Daydream Believer" by the Monkees came on. Suddenly, I was catapulted back in time, no longer strapped into a minivan but sitting cross-legged on the shag carpet in my friend's bedroom. We were writing letters to our favorite Monkee, and of course it was quite fortunate that we chose different Monkees to love, so there was no rivalry. To this day, I am certain Nnaoj would tell you that Davy Jones could have been very, very happy had he ended up with me.

How Nnaoj and I listened to that song for hours on end, fueling our adolescent dreams! We hate it now. So that is why you saw me crying in the Safeway parking lot.

My point is, when you are a kid and you live next door to someone special about your age whom you hang around with day in and day out for the better part of a decade, you are not able to perceive, much less articulate: "This person is the friend that I will always cherish, because we are growing up together, and our lives are inexorably connected." Mostly, you are thinking, "I wonder whose mother we can persuade to let us have a sleepover next Friday night."

She always preferred coming to my house because of my four cacophonous siblings. I always preferred going to hers because I could finish my sentence at the breakfast table.

We started out normally enough, coloring in coloring books. One summer, we snapped the rosebuds off my father's plants and tried to make perfume. Then we spent a number of years buying outlandish outfits at a thrift shop and parading around the neighborhood performing skits — complete with imitations of teachers and neighbors — for whomever would listen.

We were not like other kids, but we were like each other. What a gift.

Happy birthday, friend.

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