I am in the midst of motherhood when the phone rings and I see the name of a childhood friend on my caller ID: a woman whom I have known since I was five years old but have seen only a few times since we were 18. I hear her voice and it sounds like home.
I still think of us as girls. I can see us on picture day in kindergarten and I remember her smile outlined in dimples. I see us years later walking home from junior high school together (no, it was not called middle school in the '70s). We had matching Dr. Scholl's sandals and ate grilled cheese sandwiches stuffed with pickles for our after-school snack.
I was in her wedding in the early 1980s and wore a green dress. In those days we dyed satin shoes to match the bridesmaid dresses, and as we talk on the phone I realize that I've still got those green shoes; my daughter played dress up in them for years. I wonder if I've held onto them for a reason.
She tells me that she is now divorced, that she is finding a new life and that she is in transition. She says that she is "getting herself back" and though I am delighted to hear from her, I do not yet fully understand what she means or why she has chosen this particular time to reconnect.
Months pass and I hear the voice of a different childhood friend on my answering machine. I remember us as teenagers: we sit cross-legged on the floor of her basement agonizing over boys and listening to albums. I can see the cover of the great first Boston album: guitars as spaceships hovering in a black sky. She also married in the early '80s and I stood by her side in purple taffeta.
She says that she has been thinking about me since her daughter is now a teenager and is burning CDs for her boyfriend. It has reminded her of our days in her basement. She tells me that her kids are growing and for the first time in a long while, she has some time to herself; she is in transition. She says she remembers our special friendship and that she has never really found anything like it since.
Years pass and I stay busy in the throes of motherhood. I am wrapped in the cocoon of the comfort of daily routines, the laughter of young children and my role as a mother.
Then I begin a transition of my own. My kids are nearly grown, I start to let go and I try to figure out who I am now and what is next. I think about the phone calls from my childhood friends and I begin to understand what they were looking for.
I buy the Boston album (wow, it's on CD now). I turn up the volume and alone in my car, I try to remember the girl I once was. I dig out high school yearbooks from the attic and open the 1978 edition. I see a photo of another friend from our gang. She is laughing. I can almost hear the lilt in her voice and the sight of her face makes me smile. I wonder if she is still funny; I have not seen her in more than 30 years.
I read what she wrote on her photo: "I'll always remember you even in years to come. Please keep in touch from time to time."
I copy her words and send them to her in a Facebook message.
"This is what you wrote in my yearbook. I think I am going to cry," I write.
She writes back: "I'm going to cry too! We all MUST get together."
All of us are still here, most of us are now 50, and we discover that we all live within driving distance of each other. We make plans to meet.
Weeks pass and then I am in my car, driving four hours north and singing along to my Boston CD. I cannot wait to see them.
They surprise me by bringing another classmate. She looks just the same with her signature short hairstyle. She says she uses a flat iron now and we howl; we remember when she used scotch tape to flatten her hair overnight so that it would be straight by morning.
The five of us spend the weekend sprawled out on the sofa eating chili and flipping through yearbook pages. My friends are still funny and still listening to rock 'n roll. They still have dimples and still straighten their hair. It is so good to see them.
I hear them speak my name and I am just Amy, as I always was to them, before my role as a mother. It is so good to be just me again; it feels like home.
Only one of us is not yet 50 but she will be this September. Last week, she sent us all a message:
"My brother is having a blowout for my 50th. Please make plans to attend."
Her message reminds me of her words in my yearbook; words that took me more than 30 years to notice and then nearly made us cry. I plan to be there for her birthday.
What you want is someone to hang with near where you live. Approach this scientifically. Having a friend who lives an hour's drive away will mean you won't see them as much as the person who lives closer. So think global, but stay local. That means your local coffee shop, the local branch of the public library, they local chapter of the Sierra Club, or the local college that offers evening courses.
If you play tennis, join a club or take a few lessons at the community center. If you like to throw parties, volunteer to run the annual fund-raiser at your synagogue or church; when the board thanks you publicly at the dinner, everyone will learn your name. If you hike, join the Sierra Club. If you bicycle, join a biking group or enter a race in your age category. Here's the one caveat about following your interests: Nobody ever met anyone while watching "American Idol" from the couch.
Be open to the idea that it's OK to have friends who are older or younger. The fact that they are in different stages in life just means they bring a different perspective to the table. While a 14-year-old won't be interested in socializing with a toddler, that 10-year age gap dissipates when they get older. Why not say yes to the 30-somethings who invite you to join them for drinks after work? Invite them over for dinner with their families and get to know their kids. Their views on the world may not match yours precisely, but variety is the spice of life.
If you are post 50 and uncoupled, you might find that traveling isn't as much fun. Call it the Noah's Ark theory, but in general, we like to go places paired up. There are services that will help you find a travel room-mate. Not only does this give you someone to talk to over dinner, it cuts down those single supplements that some tours and cruises charge. Friendly Planet runs one such pairing-up service. Road Scholar offers many active adult adventure vacations here -- offers to find you a roommate if you want. Their programs and generally educationally based and draw a well-heeled and educated crowd. Cruise ships do a pretty good job of making sure solo travelers find people to hang out with; group dining arrangements go a long way toward conversational icebreaking.
Even if you've never been a joiner, now may be the time to get yourself out there. Got a new puppy or an old dog who needs some new tricks? Find a community dog-training class. If you like to cook, take a cooking class. Participate in the 5K run for charity, even if you walk the final three.
Keep your smart phone with you and ask for numbers. Sure it may feel a little awkward to say to someone you just met "Hey, I really enjoyed talking to you on this Sierra Club hike but the next one isn't for two months. Would you like to get together for a hike before that?" Worst they can say is no.
With Skype and apps like FaceTime, it's easier than ever to have face-to-face visits. Don't assume your old friends are too busy to talk to you on the phone. Most cellphone plans include free long-distance calls and for those that don't, there's Skype. Invite friends who live a great distance to come and stay with you. Show them your city. Friendships are like gardens; it's often easier to tend to an existing one than grow a new one from seeds.
Follow Amy Ruhlin on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@AmyRuhlin