Old Friend, New Friend

A few months ago, I reconnected with an old friend from college.  Gerry was an old boyfriend’s roommate.  As is often the case in college, we became good friends, simply by association.  We took several classes together, played guitar and sang late into the evenings, sat together in dining halls, and drank beer in the campus bar.

Gerry was fun to be with.  Prone to contemplation, he would give long soliloquies about simple concepts, sparking endless discussions about subjects like the value of plastic beer cups or the profundity of the lyrics of an advertisement jingle.   The bizarre nature of the topics paired with his perpetually impish grin often made me wonder if he were indeed serious, or if the entire exercise was a ruse, meant only to see how far he could engage me in much ado about nothing.

He loved Todd Rundgren’s music.  I remember watching him practice the same guitar riff over and over until his rendition was as clean and exact as the record album.  He drank beer while he cooked eggs for Sunday breakfast- a recipe that to this day still makes me gag.  It was his idea to ditch class one afternoon and instead, convinced me to tour the Narragansett brewery in Coventry, Rhode Island.  He gave me a red plastic Mr. Peanut cup for Christmas – an item I kept filled with spare change until it disappeared to that mysterious place where broken toys, jewelry and sports memorabilia make their final resting place.

We re-found each other through a mutual friend and have been emailing ever since.  Gerry has lived a remarkable life.  I know this only by the small references hidden within the sentences of his emails.  He never boasts, but I know he is an accomplished guitarist and vocalist, who has performed with a litany of amazing musicians. 

Gerry’s kindness permeates his emails.  His sentences are punctuated with a sweetness that that brings light into the room and a smile to my lips.  His emails are well crafted, with words carefully chosen and lyrical sentences that read like musical stanzas.  He tells me about living for a time in the Southwest, of traveling by motorcycle, that he still plays hockey, about the joys of raising his two sons, and that he loves his wife.   Through those small admissions, much is revealed about who he is.

He tells me that he learned from me how to hear and sing harmonies, and that he passed that knowledge on to other musicians who struggled to learn this skill.  He doesn’t know it, but this information is balm to a tender spot in my soul- a scar left by a sense of failure and lack of accomplishment.  How often do we get to hear that something we did left lasting impact on someone’s life, and created a ripple in the continuum of time?  To me, this is no small thing.  It gives meaning to my life.  It reminds me that I have purpose- that I have left a small mark on this big planet.

One of the nicest things about reacquainting with old friends is that although many things change, the essence of the person does not.  We are older, grayer, wider, slower.  We are balding, arthritic and scarred.  But the Gerry I knew when we were twenty is the same Gerry who fills the blank spaces of our virtual stationary.  He is kind, sweet and oh, how he makes me laugh.  I’m glad I knew him then.  I’m more glad I know him now.

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Epiphany!

When I was a little girl, we celebrated Epiphany at our church.  For those who may not know, Epiphany commemorates the visit of the Magi to the baby Jesus.  In our parish, we brought small gifts to a special Mass and laid them in front of the crèche.  It was explained to me that the gifts would later be distributed to “The Needy,” which to me meant anyone who didn’t get gifts at Christmas.  Usually, my mother would give me a dollar to buy something like bath soap or after-shave lotion.  I would walk to the drug store and search the shelves for something that fit my budget, carry it home, and wrap it in pretty paper.  Presenting my gift to the baby Jesus was exciting and heartwarming.  It was at that crèche that my social conscience began to bud.

The Christmas before my eighth birthday, the nuns urged us to consider “sacrificial giving.”  They explained that giving from one’s excess was not a gift at all; that a true gift was something of great value that its owner gave up for another.  True sacrifice, they said, would bring a smile to the baby Jesus.

As the day of the Epiphany Mass grew closer, I thought about this at length.  My childish ignorance made me unaware that my parents were already sacrificing in order to supply gifts for the Mass.  Instead, I wrestled with the concept of personal sacrifice, and how much I was willing to make this a reality in my own life.  I wanted to make Jesus smile.  As the January date approached, I knew I had to make a decision, no matter how painful.

The day of the Mass approached.  I had made up my mind.  Slowly, I wrapped my gift.  It was a stuffed bunny I had received that year from Santa.  Soft and yellow, with blue gingham ears, it had been my constant companion since I unwrapped it a few weeks before. I loved it as much as a little girl can love a stuffed animal. Eyes streaming, I took the bundle to my mother to put with the other gifts.  Realizing what I had done, my mother drew me to her lap, stroked my head, and explained that although Jesus would very much appreciate my gift, “The Needy” probably would make better use of the talcum powder on her dresser.  She asked me to fetch it and wrap it for her.

I now suspect that “The Needy” were people in nursing homes, who indeed had little use for a yellow stuffed bunny.  I wonder, though, if this was my mother’s way of sparing her little girl the pain of giving up someone she loved.  I kept my bunny, and loved it until the yellow turned brown and the blue gingham tore away from the fur.  But the seed had been planted, and the concept of sacrificial giving flourished.  I remember that Epiphany every time I consider what to donate to a food drive, or how much of my time to volunteer, or when I kiss a loved one goodbye as she leaves for a mission trip.  In the end, the nuns were right.  Sacrificial giving brings a smile to Jesus.  It makes me feel pretty darned good, too. 

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