Not Enough Words for “Friend”
I’m from Canada. Up here, we’ve all heard that the indigenous people in the far North of our country, the Inuit, have hundreds of words for snow. Because snow is so important in their culture, they need to distinguish between hard-packed snow, fresh snow, snow in a blizzard and light snow, to name just a few possibilities. When your lives depend on something, you name it carefully and in great detail.
There are not enough words for friend in the English language. We can say friend, best friend, very dear friend, friend-of-a-friend, old friend, new friend and acquaintance. But that doesn’t begin to cover these special people in our lives who support and sustain us, laugh and cry with us, but aren’t exactly part of the family.
It seems like the mainstreaming of Facebook has rendered the original word, the one word we do have, almost meaningless. With a click of the mouse, you can ask to be ‘friends’ with almost anyone, whether the two of you share any kind of relationship or any important experiences. I mean really, does anyone actually have over 1000 friends?
But we do need to call the important people in our life something. Where would we be without them? Especially when we’re trying to raise our children, continue to be present with our partners and sustain some kind of independent self identity? We count on our friends in countless ways, but what do we call them that would do justice to their tremendous and specific significance?
What do we call the:
1.Friend whose daughter is a year older than yours and tells you what to expect from the age that’s just around the corner. This friend gave you the low down on kindergarten and had some great advice about easy to eat foods for kids with wiggly teeth. Being one step ahead of you, this friend had already thought up the whole Halloween Fairy story before your daughter even went trick-or-treating. For those of you without this specific friend in your life, the Halloween Fairy is a kindly fairy who drives a pumpkin car powered by candy. Kids who leave the Halloween Fairy almost all their candy to help her drive her pumpkin car receive a gift. It’s the fun of trick-or-treating without the ongoing battles about eating candy.
2.Friend who works with your husband. You don’t know her very well but she’s got a great sense of humour and you seek each other out whenever you’re both stuck at a work party.
3.Friend who gives you all her daughter’s hand-me-downs. I do mean all. The woman likes to shop and is very good at laundry. Your daughter is always well dressed and you don’t spend a dime. Sometimes you even have leftovers to share with other friends who don’t have this kind of benefactor in your life. Friends like this help you to stay home with your kids by dramatically reducing your budget and saving you time.
4.Friend who asked to drop her son off at your house if she went into labour with her daughter before her parents arrived from out of town. What an honour. The parents eventually arrived in time, but each night you took the portable phone upstairs at bedtime so you’d be ready for her call brought you two closer.
5.Friend who got your husband his first full-time job when the two of you had just moved to the city, recently married and jobless.
6.Friend who wanted you to be her doula but decided not to tell you she was in labour because it was happening at the same time as your first marathon and she knew how hard you trained. Her daughter was born at the exact moment you crossed the finish line and has a special place in your heart.
7.Friend who your child loves like her favourite aunt. You know that if your daughter ever enters an awkward teenage stage that involves not talking to mom, this friend will be your go between.
8.Friend who you used to see lots of but don’t anymore because you’re at different stages of life but you still care about each other deeply. You hope your paths will cross more often sometime soon, but for now you treasure whatever time you do get to spend together.
9.Friend who breastfed her son or daughter at the same time you were breastfeeding one of your children. You may not be part of a community that believes in offering each other’s children milk from a collective source, but the bond formed while breastfeeding at the same time is a deep one. You’ve shared full and satisfied babes, frequent night wakings, being able to quickly and easily comfort your children and finally weaning. When you breastfed in public together, it made mothering through breastfeeding both normal and sacred.
10.Friend who was one of your husband’s best friends growing up and quickly developed her own special relationship with you as soon as you met.
11.Friend who wasn’t afraid to suggest that your child needed medical help. This friend is especially dear because your son was tongue-tied and although your midwife suggested the tongue-tie would resolve itself, it was actually very difficult for your son to breastfeed. Most other friends who saw you and your son struggle through breastfeeding said kind and supportive words, but it was this friend’s advice that you really needed.
12.Friend who goes on vacation with you and your family three years in a row and even seems to enjoy herself.
13.Friend who drives you crazy but you still hang out with her on a regular basis although you’re not sure why.
14.Friend who makes you two separate dinners when your second child is born after checking to make sure the time she was going to drop off dinner was convenient for you.
15.Friend who was a very dear friend once upon a time and is not in the picture anymore. Neither of you is sure what happened, but continuing your friendship is more painful than not seeing each other anymore.
16. Friend who trades babysitting with you. Both of you are invested in raising each other’s kids because you both love them too.
17. Friend who goes for a run with you in the middle of winter, even when it’s so cold out that your eyelashes are freezing together. Even when she has to peel children off her legs to leave the house.
18.Friend who finds it easy to be glamorous.
19.Friend who organizes all the girls when it’s time for a night out.
20.Friend who moved away to Panama for two years but didn’t sell her house with its backyard kitty-corner to yours. Now she’s back and both your families are delighted and the kids are plotting a double ladder so they can scale the fence that separates them and play whenever they like. This is not just a neighbour.
21.Friend who entrusted you with the only spare key to her apartment when she was diagnosed with terminal cancer.
22.Friend you can call when your husband’s feeling down and needs to be invited to go mountain biking by her husband. You do this for each other.
23.Friend whose name you don’t actually know but she gave you a hug after you and your daughter were almost hit by a car when your daughter was an infant in your arms. Whenever you see this friend around thee neighbourhood, you are deeply grateful.
24.Friend who calls himself your brother. This friend is a contractor, complete with steel toed boots. He is your son’s first mentor. If your son’s not home, he’s probably in this friend’s living room, watching cable and hanging out. This friend does not eat organic anything, but he loves your family and can always be counted on.
25.Friend who hired you to work at her baby shop when you were desperate for a job but didn’t want to leave your clingy child behind. This friend gave you the first pay cheque you earned in years and the dignity that goes with paying at least a little of your own way.
26.Friend you worked with at summer camp. From the moment you met, you clicked. Sometimes you wonder if she’s now a mother too. Someday you’ll look her up on Facebook.
These are a few of my favourite friends. Most continue to be an important part of my life. But even those who have moved on are still an essential part of my story.
They have names, their very own names, of course. But I think they also deserve a special title that defines the depth and significance of our relationship. Something to give our friendship a context. I realize this would be confusing because each of us is at once many different friends to many different people who are, in turn, all kinds of different friends to another whole different set of friends. But it’s an important puzzle that I think we should work on.
Our family moved from our home in Toronto to Northern India for a year when I was in high school. We learned enough Punjabi and Hindi when we were there to know that the uncle who is your mother’s youngest brother has his own special title. And that every person who is your senior – from the gentleman selling mangoes at the market to your classmate’s mother — should be addressed as “Uncle” or “Auntie,” out of respect.
When I was pregnant with my daughter, one of my best friends, originally from Mexico, started calling me ‘comadre.’ Every time she called me that, she was promising to be another mother to my unborn daughter. She was letting me know that I could depend on her to go shopping for maternity clothes with me and to baby sit when the time came. As my comadre, this friend was also entitled to give me advice about prenatal nutrition whether I asked for it or not.
I was recently a bridesmaid for a very dear friend. When I started counting back to grade nine, when we met each other, I realized we have been friends for twenty years. So now she’s my faithful-friend-of-twenty-years. But it’s not just about the decades we’ve stood by each other. This woman is one of my best friends because of the experiences we’ve shared during those years together. We wrote a play together in grade twelve. The play was awful, but writing it together was wonderful. So she’s actually my faithful-friend-of-twenty-years-and-co-author-of-a-lousy-play.
At Christmas, Thanksgiving and Easter, my husband and I are called by our respective families to drive long distances to take our places at our family dinner tables. No matter how long the drive or how treacherous the driving conditions or whether we’d rather go on camping trip with our immediate family, we almost always attend. It’s Christmas (or whatever holiday), after all and it’s family. This is what you do.
I vote we name our friends more deeply and more specifically so we can summon each other to the table, so to speak, whenever the need arises. As I explained to my husband who stayed home and took care of the kids, of course I needed to make three five-hour trips from Ottawa to Toronto for my friend’s wedding. This was my faithful-friend-of-twenty-years-and-co-author-of-a-lousy-play. And I was one of her bridesmaids.
We say ‘it takes a village to raise a child.’ And this is true. But it’s also true that it takes a village of friends to keep a woman going through the challenges and celebrations of life that motherhood brings. And these friends are each special and unique. Sometimes they stretch us. Sometimes they make demands on our time and energy. Usually they listen to us. And they definitely deserve names of their own that tell a little bit about who they are to us. A name to introduce our story.
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