In 1991 I landed a job in the admissions department of a small Lutheran college in New Jersey. The fact that I knew nothing about college admissions wasn’t nearly as strange as the fact that I was the only Jewish staff member, and most likely, the only Jewish person on campus.
I picked up on the way things were done and grew comfortable in my role handling computer issues, desktop publishing, and learning the admissions business. One day, waiting for a staff meeting to begin, we talked about our weekends, and subsequently our meals. And although the details before this elude me, I must have mentioned brisket. A somewhat tanned, dark-haired woman turned to me. I’d seen her in the office before. She was new, but we hadn’t met.
“Did you say brisket?” she asked.
“Are you Jewish?”
“I am.” I wasn’t sure if this was a trick question.
“I’m Catholic,” she said, “I love brisket.” She moved from her seat next to me, and leaned in. “And lox and bagels. I’m the only non-Jewish person in line for bagels on Christmas morning.”
I wasn’t sure if she was just trying to make me, the lone Jew, feel at home or if she truly felt a kinship and wanted to bond over brisket and bagels.
“How do you make it. You know, the brisket.”
And so I told her.
That was over 21 years ago. I was pregnant with my son and my new friend, Renee, was thinking about getting divorced. She was 32 – practically ancient to my 27 – but we were close friends from that moment on. She was a seasoned (as seasoned as one can be at 32) admissions counselor and showed me the ropes. Renee introduced me to Martha Stewart, country clubs and Eggs Benedict. I taught her the Russian-Jewish custom of tying a red ribbon to something to ward off the evil eye (i.e. her mother-in-law). That next Christmas – the last with her ex – she decorated her house with big red velveteen bows. That was right around the time I started coordinating table clothes and napkins for dinner parties.
Renee was there the day my son was born and took a hearty dose of allergy medicine to attend his Bris (she was allergic to our dog). She reveled in my new parenthood and I listened as she mourned the loss of her single home, her Laura Ashley adorned bedroom and at times, even her ex-husband.
Our friendship, the way I remember it, just happened. There were no mommy cards, no texting, no cell phones. There was no email. At least there wasn’t for me. Our campus and local diner lunches took us away from campus and enabled us to find our similarities and revel in our differences. The potluck dinners brought varied friends together. Maybe it had something to do with being young. I think it really just had to do with it being a much simpler time – or maybe back then, I just knew simpler people. And I mean that in a good way.
But then I stopped working to be a stay-at-home mom. The college closed and Renee got a new job. I moved several times. We lost touch somewhere between Renee getting her master’s degree and me and my family moving to Cleveland. I couldn’t find her even though I was online, because I didn’t know where she was. This was before the days when you could find almost anyone on Google. Her parents were unlisted. Can you imagine? As creepy as Internet access can be, it lends an element of permanence to relationships. It is really hard to lose track of someone these days. But not back then.
Renee and I lost track of one another, found one another and then lost track again. And then one day – about fourteen years ago — I received an unexpected phone call. From Renee! She was packing her apartment for another move to another city and came across my parents’ phone number. She called them and they gave her my number.
That night we talked and talked like we were sitting across the table in her kitchen, her dad playing with my son, sticking ten dollar bills into his one-year-old pockets. She and I filled in all the blanks – or so I thought — until I mentioned my four-year-old daughter and Renee said, “Who?” She didn’t even know I’d had a daughter.
We remedied the situation and saw Renee on a planned trip to Florida, where she lived. Another time she flew from to meet us on a different vacation. She and I spent a girlfriend weekend in Chicago. Renee is one of the only friends who read an edited version of my novel, and she was the inspiration behind some special additions to the final draft.
Fourteen years since that unexpected phone call reunion of two unexpected friends, we have not lost touch again – on the contrary. Through more moves, job losses, my divorce and both families’ tragedies, we are more connected and closer than ever.
And it’s something I’ve come to expect.
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