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One Memorable Friend

by Margaret Cullison

Acquaintances come and go, but true friends stay with us, if not in physical proximity, then certainly in memory. At least thats the way it works for me. I know fairly soon after meeting someone that he or she has the potential of becoming a good friend. Honoring that intuition may be the best way to choose friends, because it almost never fails.

I met one of my most memorable friends at a time when I needed a good friend. Id just moved to the San Francisco Bay area and, while still unpacking the moving boxes, my husband told me he wanted a divorce. After thirteen years of marriage and four children, wed drifted apart but still his announcement knocked me off balance.

With only vague notions of how to manage the upheaval, I felt lost and alone. Neither family members nor trusted friends, with whom I could confide, lived near me. It was one of the few times in my life that I lost my appetite. Too distracted to eat, I fought feelings of rejection and tried to focus on helping my young sons through the transition.

Gradually we achieved an amicable separation. He continued to support us financially and to be present in the boys lives, giving me time to figure out how to adjust to my new existence as a single mom.

Since my teenage years Id made fleeting attempts to write fiction and poetry, so I decided to nurture that interest by taking a creative writing class. When I first walked into the classroom, I almost turned around and left. From the perspective of my thirty-five-year-old mentality, I saw a roomful of white-haired senior citizens. The class room, located across the street from a retirement community, was convenient for those residents.

Despite my initial hesitation, I resolved to give the class a chance. I soon learned that my classmates varying interests and talents offered the challenges I needed as a fledgling writer. Our teacher, Ella Thorp Ellis possessed the enthusiasm and ability to inspire us, bringing the class together in common purpose, despite our widely ranging ages.

A blank piece of paper has the potential to intimidate almost any writer, but Ella assigned regular class exercises to help us overcome that block. Shortly after I came into the class, she asked us to write a few paragraphs about someone in the room we didnt know. My attention settled on a tall woman with dark hair, cut short and shingled in 1920s flapper style. Already engrossed in writing, she bent to her task with an air of confidence that I decidedly lacked.

When wed finished writing, we took turns reading our character sketches aloud. Thats how I learned that the woman Id written about had also chosen me as her subject. At the break, she and I talked about the coincidence, as yet unaware that a meaningful friendship would grow out of that synchronicity.

Forty years separated us in age, but we had similar outlooks on life and an easy rapport. Of my parents generation, Fern shared with me the wisdom and stability of her lifes experiences. I offered her the questing, questioning view of my generation, from which she felt isolated in the retirement community where she lived.

My first impression of her as an assured writer proved accurate. G.P. Putnams Sons had published three novels she wrote in the 1940s. Information about her, under her maiden name Fern Rives, can be found on the Web. Her books, though no longer in print, are still available through Amazon. Another site shows a sample of her signature.

After an early marriage and divorce, she taught intermediate school English in Los Angeles for many years. In her early 60s, she reconnected with Ed Simpson, whom shed known when both were students at the University of California at Berkeley. They hadnt seen each other since graduation in 1917.

Both single and free to act on the unrealized attraction theyd had for each other in college, Fern and Ed got married. They honeymooned in Europe and settled into a new life together in Santa Barbara. When they moved to northern California to be near Eds grandchildren, she decided to restart her dormant writing career.

Fern and I saw each other in class regularly, but we also got in the habit of going out for lunch every few months. She suggested that we alternate paying the bill; the person who paid chose the restaurant. She didnt drive, so I picked her up at her home, coming in with her after lunch to prolong our ruminations about writing. Ed was often around and joined us.

Fern boosted my spirits as I struggled to find my writing voice. I was trying to write short stories, and she offered to read and critique my work. One story featured an elderly couple who meet in a nursing home and fall in love. They want to share a room but are thwarted by administrators who refuse to approve their plan. Ed read it too, and she told me that they had agreed I should put the story aside until Id gained a clearer idea of what being old felt like. Know what you write, rang true in that case.

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