…and the other gold
By MARGARET BURNS
Anyone who ever sat around a campfire in the evening and sang will recognize that phrase from the round, “Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver and the other gold.”
At this New Year’s morning brunch, the Olde Phartzes and their companions, The Ladies Who Lunch, had as our topic for creative discussion “Old Friends.” We were sad at the coming departure of our friends, Jacqueline and Tony Avellar, who are downsizing and moving to Sonoma County. It is bittersweet. We have had many interesting times together, especially the abortive Measure B bond for a new library that forged our friendships.
Three weeks later, on Sunday morning, Jan. 20, I was sucker-punched by an email headed “Greetings from Ursula Doss.” Ursula lives in Düsseldorf, Germany and we have been friends for almost 60 years.
It started as teenage pen pals. Scholastic Magazine had names and addresses of people in Europe who wanted to be pen pals. Ursula’s first letters were filled with photos, postcards, pictures from magazines, commentary on current movies, both American and French, museum shows of antiquities. I was thrilled to be writing to a person who lived in a foreign country and read lots of books and dreamed of becoming an archeologist.
She travelled to exotic places that I could never hope to see from my little hometown of Sharpsville, Pennsylvania. In 1958 she wanted to go to Corsica on vacation but decided to go to England and Ireland with a friend and improve her English. Her written English was excellent. She thought I was “intelligent and charming and maybe a little melancholy.” I know this for sure, because I still have three notebooks of the letters she wrote to me, and I know she has scrapbooks of all my letters.
Our letters changed as our lives changed, but were always charged with ideas. She went to Japan and learned Japanese to work at an international exposition. I went to graduate school and worked in science.
We first met in 1964 when I went to Europe for the first time. Over the years, we have met several times — in London one winter where we spent days going to museums, getting frozen, and talking and talking and talking. She teased me about my pronunciation of her name — Ersala, the Amurican version of the Germanic Ursula. The Main Man and I visited her in 1992 when we had a long European vacation – the last time we’ve met in person. Our occasional letters and rare phone calls continued over the years about politics, books, art and personal events.
I hadn’t heard from her for a couple of years and then, two years ago, had a call out of the blue. Ursula! As charming as usual, she told me her story of a terrible fall, and called herself “Titanium Lady” for all the metal she had in her bones. She repeated the story two or three times during the conversation. I thought she had not had an opportunity to speak English often and had focused on one story to tell me.
The email from Germany last Sunday told a different story. It was from one of her six “assistants” who care for her 24/7 because she has a combination of Parkinsonism and dementia. She looks physically well in the photos but has tears in her eyes.
This is, thankfully, the first time I have “lost” an old, old friend. I have lost, and am losing, acquaintances and more recent friends, but Ursula has been a friend and guide since we were teens. She was an important part of my becoming a mature adult. She helped shape my view of the world — what was important and what was not. Because of her influence, I was a Germanophile and studied regular German in college, when I could have gotten away with watered-down scientific German. One of my ideals has been to be a citizen of the world, in the way that she was aware of history, culture, geography. That’s what is so golden about old friends. They have helped make us what we are today. To know there’s someone out there who thinks like you is absolutely crucial to life.
A few years ago I wrote a column about the importance of “The Last Aunts” – those people who have known you growing up. They are the ones who can tell you what the weather was like the day you were born and how your father behaved when your mother was in labor. They can tell you about what your temperament was like when you were 4 years old.
Now I have a taste of the importance of those people who have been with us throughout our lives and helped make us who we are. When we lose someone like that, we lose a little bit of ourselves. When my college roommate, Diane, told me on November 20, 2006 that she had pancreatic cancer I wrote a poem that started, “This is the day I began to die.” That was true, but her story has a happy ending – she is a six-year survivor, free of cancer and a tireless advocate for new research.
On January 20, 2013, I have begun to die a little again with the virtual “loss” of my friend, Ursula.
This is how death happens, a little at a time, as we lose those who have given meaning to our lives – the golden friends.