Guest Blog by Sybil Kelly Wartenberg
The year I was 10, I was sick for the first week of school, and upon my return, the only empty seat was across a table from a girl named Tracy. She had been in my class for the past few grades, but not really a part of the established circle of kids I’d known since kindergarten.
I don’t remember how we first bonded, but we just clicked, and easily found a rhythm to joint projects and sleepovers and inside jokes. Together, we organized fundraisers for the class trip, established a successful Mini Society business, and commanded the traffic squad. We loved each other, and said so out loud. We were like a young, white Oprah and Gayle.
Decades later, Tracy told me that transferring to our tight-knit elementary school had been difficult and that I’d “kind of saved her.” But for me, the opposite was true. My parents were divorced, and that year I found myself the chief lab rat in the most ill-advised custody experiment of all time. I took refuge at Tracy’s house, where her mother always had bagels and cream cheese, and we would we giggle and dress up, stay up late talking and watching TV, playing board games and wondering when we would be old enough to shave our legs.
The safety and acceptance I found with Tracy surely lessened the years I would spend in therapy later in life. It also provided an early model for what girlfriends should be: supportive, caring, honest, and able to make you laugh until you think you might pee in your pants. This high bar provided me with friends I would gladly drop everything to pick up on any random street corner, no questions asked, and protected me from competitive “frenemies” and Mean Girls looking for victims.
My friendship with Tracy endured through the horror of junior high gym class, student council elections, summer camps and boyfriends. We remained close even when we found ourselves at different high schools, forging other friendships that would also stand the test of time. Even as our interests diverged, Tracy was my touchstone, my BFF.
College put an entire continent between us. Tracy went to Bard and grew dreadlocks and drove cross-country one summer by herself, taking pictures and going home for dinner with people she met at one-room churches in the Deep South. I went to UC Santa Barbara, went to the beach, worked as a camp counselor and joined a sorority.
Tracy lived in New Mexico and Colorado and Japan making art, cooking, and ran for mayor of a small Wisconsin town. I rode the dot-com wave in the Bay Area, working late at a PR agency, obsessively checking my email and diving into the local real estate market.
There were times that all we seemed to have in common was each other, but we never “drifted apart.” Like being at a big party with someone who is your ride home, we always remained in each other’s peripheral vision. Tracy and I wouldn’t talk for months or even a year, but then we’d find ourselves out for tea, telling stories of vastly different lives, without judgment, as if no time had passed.
Tracy visited me when I was going through chemotherapy, indulging my obsession with how long it would take my hair to grow back (“You had to shave your dreadlocks, right? When was it long enough to put in a ponytail again?”). I funneled her media lists and wrote press releases for her cooking programs.
When my colicky son was born, Tracy came to dinner and patiently bounced His Fussiness while I ate. Five year later, her baby boy fell asleep on me, and I continued chatting without even a hint of the jealous rage I generally feel toward parents of placid infants.
Two months ago, I found myself at a table with other childhood friends as guests gave speeches about fierce, true, enduring love at Tracy’s wedding. A microphone was passed and other toasts were solicited, but I was literally sobbing into my napkin and couldn’t speak.
Some people are lucky to find one person, one friend, that they will know over the course of decades and continue to learn from, to celebrate with and who can still make them laugh until they pee – just a little. I am blessed to have enough of these friends to host a fairly packed brunch. And if I do, I will save a seat for Tracy, serve bagels and cream cheese and raise a glass to my first BFF.