Phantom Friends

Friends come and go in our lives. Some stick around, seemingly forever. A childhood friend, or a college buddy, or even a hospital roommate. Parting words, “We’ll definitely stay in touch” are so sincere when first uttered, but many times, despite the best intentions, the bond becomes nothing more than a treasured memory. Some lost friends are more than a memory–a few are like phantom limbs which, even though they were amputated long ago, their presence is still oddly there and felt in a very real way.

I have a few friends that are often present in spirit, but I no longer know where they are. Here’s three of them. If by some odd quirk of synchronicity they read this and identify themselves, I hope they let me know.

Roger
Roger was a high school friend. We never hung out in the same circles, we shared very little actual time together, but that transcendent bond was definitely there. 

When I was a freshman in high school I was in my first school play. It was a very exciting experience, and I quickly learned about the bonds of community formed by the cast and crew of a theatrical production. I was particularly fond of one particular actor–and I guess I spoke of him often at home, because my mother became very anxious to see the young man that her daughter was so enamored with. The night of the play, she ran down the cast of characters in the program so that she could identify this Roger person. As she was to laughingly relate to her friends later, when he came out on stage she nearly fell out of her chair, because Roger was black. I am a Connecticut Yankee. white-bread Anglo-Saxon, and came of age in the 60s. Martin Luther King, Jr. had barely delivered his I Have a Dream speech. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner hadn’t hit the box office yet. So, while I truly never heard my mother every utter a racist comment in her life, I can appreciate how unexpected her daughter’s first crush was to her.

Roger had so much promise, he was a highly respected school leader with a totally charismatic personality. I’ve often wondered how he chose to use his skills and this is what I would love to ask him now, if he were here with me.

Harriet
They say the mentors are key to success. Everyone needs someone to take them under their wing, advise them, believe in them.

One of the jobs I took after graduating with a pretty useless degree in Drama Criticism was  secretary to the Director of Communication at an upscale liberal arts college in Westchester, NY. I took that particular job, not because it paid well (because it certainly didn’t), but because the academic environment was a) beautiful and b) intellectually stimulating.

Harriet ran the Communications Office and edited the campus newsletter. I drooled at the thought of having a job like hers. My tasks were clerical and administrative, and I wondered how I would make it to the next level, and ultimately to a job like Harriet’s.

One day she asked me if I would mind interviewing one of the campus employees as part of an employee spotlight series she ran. I jumped at the chance, and a few days later turned in the short profile with a knot in my stomach, wondering whether the editing would be minor, or a complete back-to-the-drawing board revamp.

She gave it back to me and told me to set it up in the newsletter. It had no edits. I said to her, “You don’t have to be nice to me if it’s not good.” She said,

“Don’t worry. I wouldn’t risk my job to be nice to you. It’s really good–you have talent.”

If anyone, especially the young and insecure, has had the good fortune to have someone look them in the eye and say “You have talent,” you know how much mileage that represents in terms of motivation and self-esteem. I think I carried those three words in my pocket for several years, until I had the confidence to know it for myself.

Harriet was a friend and a mentor, and to say that that offhand reply was responsible for a significant part of my future success, I wouldn’t be exaggerating, and I’ve always wanted to be able to thank her for that.

Donna

When I was at the sandlot stage in my life, with regular visits to the playground with my kids and long chats with the other mothers, I met Donna, an au pair from Grenada.  She had left her own two daughters behind with her mother so that she could come to America, earn a green card, and create a better life for her family.   She sacrificed three years of time with her own children, watching the child of a professional family here in the States.  Her employer was a lawyer, and though he was not an immigration lawyer, he promised her that he would help her, and in exchange every month she gave him $100 towards his fee–a considerable part of her small salary.

Two years into her stay, she was asked to leave on a moment’s notice.  Not only that, but when she asked them about the progress of her green card, turns out the employer had done nothing to advance it, so Donna was out the money as well as the precious time with her children.   

I saw her when she was on her way to live with her sister in Brooklyn until she found a place and a job, but I never saw her after that.  All I have left of our friendship is a crocheted table topper that she made me for Christmas one year, and every time I look at it it reminds me of the love and sacrifice Donna’s life was made of.   If I had the chance to see her again, I would love to know if she ever got her kids here, and if they are happy.

 

Those are three of my phantom friends.   You are in all probability not one of the ones I’ve mentioned here, but you must be someone’s phantom friend.  If so, reach out to them.   You never know if they are on the other end, feeling your presence, and wondering how you are.

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