On my first day of the second grade, I was the last one to arrive to class. I was the new kid and there was only one seat left, next to a girl with a short haircut identical to my own, and a gap between her two front teeth that braces would close years later.
Almost thirty-two years of friendship with her, I am thinking about friendships that last. As in most long-standing friendships, this one has seen its seasons of drift, sending closeness dormant as lives go in different directions, then suddenly come together again as friendship grows green and alive from softening, unfrozen ground. But if you are lucky, you have at least one friendship that has endured all the angles and phases and years of people who, over time, are welded like iron into shape after shape by the fire of life’s changes and circumstances.
When I first met Meredith Rhodes Pecci (a.k.a. Mer), she was an eight year-old Meredith Rhodes. I was one of six, and she was an only child. In a household of eight, you develop a relatively high tolerance for noise and chaos that can be jarring for an only child and her parents. On her first night sleeping over at my house, after a dinner of reaching and grabbing and maybe some running around the house chasing each other beforehand, Meredith whimpered could we call her father please because she wanted to go home.
Fortunately she came back. She got used to our chaos, but I’m not sure her parents ever did. When I stayed over at her house for the first time, I was very pleased with myself when I made her laugh so hard at the dinner table that she spat milk out her mouth and nose, spraying all the way across to her dad’s plate.
It was then that I first heard a phrase I would become accustomed to at 33 Chapin Road, the always calm, always patiently stated refrain from her mother: “We don’t do that in our house, Kaitlin.”
In middle school, I thought it would be a nice birthday surprise to unleash a bag of confetti in the (plush carpeted, wicker chaired) dining room at the end of singing “Happy Birthday” at her party. Her mom just shook her head and smiled, then handed me the vacuum after everyone else had left. Years later, in college every so often I would receive a friendly card from her mom, in which she had taped a piece of confetti she had just found in the shifting wicker as it aged.
In my family, other than the rule to stay on the block (or within shouting distance) and to be home “by the time the streetlights came on,” we ran around for long periods of time unsupervised. Playing “Manhunt” or some other game with other neighborhood kids, I remember a lot of time spent surveying the neighborhood from the tops of trees, and running through people’s yards while yelling at decibels I don’t know how the neighbors tolerated.
I imagine it did not inspire confidence when my father sometimes called Mer’s mother and asked, “Is Kaitlin by any chance over at your house?”
As Mer got used to the noise and chaos of my house, I learned to savor the relative quiet and structure at hers. In her side yard there was a tree with a branch at a perfect height for jumping into piles of leaves, and every fall we spent hours jumping over and over again into a pile we painstakingly built as high as we could.
In elementary school we played Weeble Wobbles in her living room, carving roads and treehouse towns into the rug with our fingers. In high school we splayed out on the same carpet with home-made milkshakes to watch the soap opera “Santa Barbara,” always at her house because I wasn’t allowed to watch soap operas.
She was a friend who “found out if someone liked me” in middle school, who fueled first crushes and eased first heartbreaks in high school. As we grew up our romances did too, and after college I introduced her to her husband, and still take credit for the union whenever I can (It is common knowledge that if you introduce three couples who marry, you get a free ticket into Heaven. Or so I heard. So far I only have this one, but as I do the math, they did chalk up three kids over the years, each of which is a big boon of goodness to the universe, so my one good deed is threefold, surely enough to open the golden gates for me).
We live in different states and I do not see her as often as I wish, but today I am grateful for the forty years of life she has been given, thirty-two of which have been spent in friendship with me. Steadfast and true, Meredith is a friend who, if you hurt me, will stay mad at you long after I’ve let it go (We may need to forgive to move on from the bad behavior of others ourselves, but it’s a whole lot easier when you have a friend who has your back into eternity, who holds onto the grudge for you!)
From the lightness of childhood and years of spitting-out-milk-through-your-nose laughter, to the depths of pain delivered in every life and the strong shoulders of friends we need to bear it, in this friendship, my cup runneth over. Outside her childhood home, the tree we used to jump from has long since died. But more than three decades after our second grade teacher instructed me to take the empty seat beside her, Meredith Pecci is still a place of joy and home. Thank God for forty years of this beautiful and strong woman, open and giving in her friendship, enduring with her love. Happy Birthday Mer!