When I was a kid, my sister used to laugh at how much my friend Debbie and I talked on the phone. She was right; we were always on the phone. Through elementary school, and most of high school, we talked on the phone every afternoon, or evening, about what had transpired at school during the day. 
I remember my sister saying she had a vision of Debbie’s and my future. We’d be like Lucy and Ethel. We’d both be married with small kids; our houses would be next door to each other; the supper would burn, and the kids would run wild while Debbie and I talked and talked over the backyard fence. Ha. Despite the dated preconceptions, I still love that image.
Grade eight in the photo booth at Zellers. 

When Debbie and I were older and we shared an apartment, even then, I’d call her at her work from my work (or vice versa) to discuss our shenanigans the previous night. Or to say something funny about a young man with whom one of us had been on a date. Those poor boys, once they were under our microscope, we showed no mercy. But that’s another story. 

The evening of our twentieth high school reunion in 1994, we arrived at the big dance together, both our husbands left behind in Ontario. I remember we were greeted by a guy, who neither of us knew, standing open-mouthed in the doorway, saying, “Are you two STILL always together?” Then he walked off shaking his head. “No, not always,” we chortled. But when we are, no matter how long we’ve been apart, it’s as if no time at all has passed. 
Do you have friends like that, backyard fence friends? I don’t have many, but those I do have I cherish.
Like my dear friend Colleen. That’s her below in the zebra striped top at our junior high reunion in 2016. We’ve been close since grade two, ever since the school bus driver used to climb down from his seat to lift little Colleen up onto that big first step on the bus. People used to think we were sisters because facially we look somewhat alike. In fact, I’ve always thought of her as my “little” sister because sisters could not be any closer, or have faced any more travails together, than she and I have.
Colleen and me at our high school reunion 2014
Some of our shared “travails” have been serious, and some less so. Back in 1983 when I ditched my big city job and moved back home for a year, Colleen and a co-worker drove all night from Fredericton to Ottawa to pick me up and bring me home. I’d stored my furniture at a friend’s in Ottawa, but Colleen’s little old car was still crammed to the roof. There was just room enough to wedge one of us into the back seat amongst all my clothes and suitcases before we set off. 
Thus began a fraught, exhausting, and hilarious twelve hour drive. Colleen’s battery went dead before we’d even cleared Ottawa city limits. We had to purchase a new one, and since the old battery had only recently been replaced, the mechanic wrapped it up and crammed it into a free spot in the trunk, so Colleen could get her money back. Then we drove through the afternoon and late into the night. Laughing, talking, stopping for coffee and snacks, smoking countless cigarettes, and swapping seats every so often to share the driving. 
On a dark stretch of road outside of Edmundston, New Brunswick it became clear that something was very wrong. The car engine roared like a Mack truck. Colleen was driving, and she signalled, and then eased the car onto the shoulder. I was in the back, and I’d been in mid-funny story when we’d all heard the roar. Now none of us spoke. Colleen shut off the car, pulled on the parking brake, then took a long drag on her cigarette, and turning around to me, said with a grin, “Please finish your story Susan. I think I’d like to have a good laugh before we face the music.” Maybe it was just Colleen’s irrepressible good humour, which has seen her through many difficult moments in her life, or maybe we were just all dippy and hyped up on caffeine, but I’ve never laughed harder in my life than I did at that moment. 
That was not the last break-down we’ve faced together. There have been several, too many to describe here. And I do believe I’ve earned a reputation in Colleen’s family as being very bad luck to have in the car. Ha. 
Not all of the women I consider kindred spirits are friends from my childhood. That’s my friend Eunice, on the right above. 
Eunice was my mentor when I first started teaching; you know, the slightly older co-worker who kindly takes the newbie under her wing and shepherds her through those scary few months of being in charge of a class for the first time. Her husband was my first principal, but I had no idea they were husband and wife. 
You see, Eunice and I both taught at an adult high school, where students and staff were on a first-name basis. So I had no idea that her last name was the same as the principal’s. No clue who she was, in fact. So when Hubby (who was only my boyfriend then) called me one night to say that he played hockey with my principal, who’d told Hubby that I should call his wife if I needed any help, I was aghast. “Oh, no,” I replied earnestly, “I won’t need to trouble Mr D’s wife. I’ve met this really nice lady who is helping me.” Ha. Took me almost a month to realize that they were husband and wife. Eunice loves that story. She always says she knows I liked her for herself and not because she was the boss’s wife. 
In fact, she and I were laughing about that story at the hockey Christmas party the other night. Which brings me to the rest of our conversation, and actually to the whole point of this post. 
At the party, Eunice and I mused about friendship, about our friendship, and the nature of friendship in general. And about those friends whom we cherish. Those friends who we may not see every day or even every month, but when we do it’s as if no time has passed at all.
It was a sad, but very restorative conversation. In many ways Eunice is still my mentor, and so I had sought her out partly to tell her of the recent death of my good friend Barbara. And partly because I simply wanted to speak of Barbara, and what she meant  to me, and I knew that Eunice would have a sympathetic ear. 
You see Barbara was one of those friends who I didn’t see very often, but who meant a lot to me. I met her when we worked together briefly back in the nineties, and we bonded instantly. We had long discussions about our classes, but mostly we talked about books and fashion. About my love of vintage hats, and her passion for Hermes scarves. About my growing up on the farm in New Brunswick, her childhood in Illinois, and her first teaching job in Newport, Rhode Island. She could do a perfect imitation of the accent of the well-heeled matrons of that city. And we talked and talked about books. In fact, Barb introduced me to the Mitford family. I still remember her surprise that I’d never heard the name, and her clasping her hands together and whispering, “Oh, my. You have such an adventure in reading ahead of you.” Yep, I sure did. Despite the difference in our ages, we got along like a house on fire, kindred spirits from the outset. I was in my early thirties, and Barb, well, Barb was a woman “of a certain age”, as she said at the time. Ha. That was the first time I’d ever heard anyone use that expression.  
For the past few years, Barb and I have caught up during a long and chatty lunch every summer. We swap books, take notes on what the other has read, and thus which titles we should try to procure, discuss our travels, and talk of our husbands, my mum, and her children and grand-children. We almost missed our lunch this past summer. She’d been ill, so we delayed; I came down with shingles, so we delayed again. But she was adamant that this lunch would happen. So we rescheduled for a third time, and because she was not well enough to drive, and I’d not long been back on the road either, her husband drove her the forty minutes out to the restaurant we had chosen in Manotick, and a few hours later drove all the way back to bring her home. She looked wonderful, immaculate as usual, in a new Hermes scarf, and we had a lovely afternoon together. Our last as it happened.
I will miss her terribly. Not every day, because I hadn’t seen her every day for years. But as Eunice said the other night, I will miss the idea of her being out there, a phone call or e-mail away. And I will miss our lunches, and her supportive, enthusiastic desire to hear all the myriad detail of whatever I was doing… no matter what it was. Because she was one of those backyard fence friends. 
Those friends who, every time you meet up, it’s as if no time has passed. As if you were Lucy and she Ethel. And you just stepped out the back door to hang a load of laundry on the clothesline and, instead, end up leaning over the backyard fence talking, talking, talking for an hour, or three. While the kids run wild and supper burns. 
If you’ll pardon the outdated imagery.
Singing a good-bye song to a retiring colleague in 1997. Mary-Lou, Peggy, Joanne, Barb, and me. 


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26 thoughts on “Over the Backyard Fence: Musings on Friendship.”

  1. Oh yes, the old and dear friends. Some you see regularly, some not for years. Some you message daily, some on birthdays. But always when you get together, the same people you were when you met. While I have a fine crew of good friends around me, friends I have made in the last twenty-odd years, it is the pals of my youth, those with whom I have shared crises, hilarities, all the folderol of being young, who knew me before our lives really happened, who perhaps know me best, still. And, like you, the time is coming when some of them have started to leave us. That, maybe, is why I cherish these ties so much. Family is one thing (I'll say…) but our friends are our own thing. You have my sincerest sympathies in your loss but all those memories to cherish.

  2. So sorry for your loss and happy that you were able to see her one last time. I recently learned that a dear high school friend, one that I had not seen in years, died of ovarian cancer at age 60. I thought of her often,but we both moved so many times that we lost touch. She had a hard time; seizures would make her lose consciousness periodically so in every class someone was assigned to stay with her until she came out of it. Her parents did not believe in modern medicine so her life was much more limited than was true for the rest of us. My hope is that as an adult she found the care she needed — the last time I saw her she was still in the diagnosis stage. Thank you for helping us remember to try to keep in touch with our friends.

  3. So sorry for your loss. And a bit envious of the number of longtime friendships you continue to nurture. A bit curious, as well, about why this isn't the case for me. I'm having coffee this morning with the only friend I have whom I've known since high school. I have several other good friends whom I've known for nearly 30 years, and I still keep in touch (via the occasional email and FB) with one or two I've known for 40, but that's about it. Not sure if it's because of the three significant moves we made, or the way that those moves aligned with some big shifts in my focus (heading back to school and then grad school and then more grad school and then embarking on a new career) or what. I've tended to have a rich landscape of good friends in each place, to have kept up with them over a transition period, and then . . . .So there's been a continuity, but a staggered one, not nearly as close as what you describe. . . Another lovely, poignant post from you — thanks!

    1. Thanks. Frances. My contact with old friends has been sporadic over the years, especially when we first move away, or have children, or whatever. But I'm lucky that contact has never been permanently lost. That would be sad.

  4. At this time of year when the Christmas season is in full bloom it is so important to remember the friends, old and new, that grace our lives. Some friends we don't see for many months or years and yet when together it feels like mere days since we last sat together. Shared memories and discussion of the latest news on many fronts helps balance and provide perspective on our individual lives. It's well known that social meetings, large or small, are important to our emotional well being and it's sad to realize that there are many lonely people. Technology may be one way to connect but face-to-face get togethers are what is needed and sometimes missing in this busy whirlwind we call living…friendship is one of the keys to a fulfilling and happy life. I am very sorry that you have suffered the loss of a friend and hope that the memory of your times together is heartwarming and somewhat eases her loss….Warm thoughts, Alayne

  5. First of all, I'm so sorry for your loss. A good friend is a treasure indeed. As I read this, I was immediately reminded of two "backyard fence" friendships that have meant the world to me. Janis and I met in grade 8. Though from very different backgrounds, we quickly became BFFs. Over the years after high school, we both moved away, married, and had families. We completely lost track of one another twice, but the first time I contacted her parents to find out where she was and the second time I tracked her down through Facebook! Though separated by long distance, we've visited a few times over the years and when we're together, it's like we've never been apart. When I met my across the alley neighbour, Marion, we were both pregnant with our first children and living long distances from our families. For the next few years, we were like family to one another. It was heartbreaking when she and her young family moved across the country from Alberta to Ontario to be closer to her close-knit family. We've only seen each other three times in almost three decades, but again, when we get together we just seem to pick up where we left off!

  6. What a beautifully testament to friendship. Sadly I have not kept up with long distant old friends. Now I wonder why. You are very fortunate to have friends in your life that remember you when you were young and your parents were in their prime….they know your backstory.
    So sorry for the loss of your friend.

    1. Thanks, Ali. You know…. Facebook and Google make it much easier to find those people with whom we've lost touch. I just reconnected on Facebook with a women who was my buddy back in late high school and first year university. Plus because we had FB "friends" in common an old high school chum connected to me a couple of years ago, and we now see each other when I'm in New Brunswick. It's been wonderful to have these women back in my life.

  7. A very touching post. As others have offered, I too, send condolences on the loss of your friend. How glad I am that you were able to meet up one last time. From what you have written, it is clear that long established friendships have formed a valuable part of your life. This has not been the case for me, mainly due to the number of times I have moved. As a child, I went to seven elementary schools, two junior highs, and finally, one high school. These places were scattered across the UK, Germany and the US. My university years were split up, too, so no close friendships were developed there either. As an adult, I have lived in three different states. Most all of this took place long before communication was as easy as today. Only letter writing was possible and that contact usually only lasted for a year or so. As a result, I have no friends who knew knew when I was young. I can't regret my past and lack of long term friends, but I am happy this has not been the case for you as your friends have clearly enriched your life.

    1. Thanks very much Mary. Moving around does make keeping in touch so much more difficult. Hubby's dad was in the air force and they moved every 4 years. As a result, he doesn't have any contact with kids he met in school.

  8. Susan, I’m sorry for your loss. I so appreciate the wonderful sentiments in this post…its focus and timing made it a wonderful Christmas gift to me! On Monday I attended the funeral of my oldest friend; we met at the beginning of our freshman year of high school and were friends for 45 years. I feel blessed to have small groups of friends from different places and points in my life. My friend’s death and your post reminded me what a gift these friendships are.

  9. Oh your stories of friendship are just wonderful, Sue. Like you, I have found that my friendships with women, many of whom have been in my life for decades, have brought me great joy. Only recently I have realized I have been too out of touch with too many of them. I heard from one very dear very old friend recently – my Lucy partner in a Lucy and Ethel scenario – end it has been too long since she and I got together on Skype or face time or the telephone. We saw each other through a lot of adventures including marriage and divorce and job changes and moves and children and illnesses and so much more. I miss her and I haven’t told her that in a long time. Something I need to do now that it is holiday season, certainly.

    Love love loved this post!

    1. Thanks, DA. Every time I use that Lucy and Ethel metaphor, I wonder whether I'm Lucy or Ethel. Actually I think my friend Debbie and I are more like Laverne and Shirley, and I am definitely Shirley. Ha.

  10. So sorry for your loss,it is really sad to loose a good friend
    This was such a wonderful and emotional post.
    I met one of my oldest friends 49 years ago in primary school-we just had a coffee together this afternoom. Isn't it wonderful to have friends like this?
    Than,my friend was a girlfriend of my very good male friend-their love didn't last,but our friendship did
    The nucleus group of my friends,girls and boys, is from our highschool,now together with their partners (who are bored to death when we start with our memories….)
    Than there are some friends from university (my best university friend died unfortunately very young ),one very good friend from work,from my seaside little city….
    Some are lost and found again,some lost….. Life changes,but it is a blessing when you can carry on as nothing happend,sometimes years and years apart

  11. Lovely post Sue but first just wanted to say I am pleased the cataract op went so well. I have friends from school and college days as well as friends as a result of moving to Canada 20+ years ago. There are friends that were important at the time but have lost touch with and those that have seen us through everything from boyfriends to losses of close family. I think that friendship is a two-way street and both parties have to keep the friendship going. Sometimes it maybe years between contact. With modern technology it is very easy to stay in touch but you cannot beat face to face time when so much more can be said and enjoyed. When I visit the UK it's lovely to spend a day with an old friend and make new memories eg pruning her lemon tree, visiting galleries or just making art together. As one ages though we see dear friends that are facing health challenges and losses and we have to store all those precious memories. How lovely that you were able to meet up with your friend this summer and make more memories of your times together. You must remember those.

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