Monday, November 27, 2017

Letter from Harrisburg: Old Friends

Old friendships are life’s priceless gems

By Dorcas Smucker
Register-Guard columnist
NOV. 12, 2017

"I've made new friends, but there’s nothing quite like old friends who know you and your family and your past,” a friend of mine said wistfully on a recent visit to Oregon, at a lunch in her honor.

I agree. Most friendships are only for a season of our lives, it seems, but once in a while we are given a friend who was there early and never really leaves.

My cousin Kay is that sort of lifelong friend. From childhood family reunions to living in the far North as young moms to random events since, our paths keep diverging and then unexpectedly connecting again. Recently, we met once again, at a church women’s retreat in Colorado, where Kay lives with her family and I was invited to speak.

The event organizer, on finding out that we were cousins and longtime friends, asked Kay to talk briefly at the end of the weekend about our shared history. She told of living in Kansas and seeing these Minnesota cousins when we came to visit our grandparents, sharing a duplex and a private code with me years later, late-night ice cream, and much more.

“Who would ever have thought?” we said afterwards. Her sisters and mine have lost touch, for the most part, but she and I keep showing up at the same place and time, as though this gift is meant to continue.

My first memory of Kay is when I was 7 or 8 years old, at a family wedding or funeral in Kansas. She and her sister walked in wearing little pastel-colored plastic barrettes in their hair. Our family was too Amish for anything fancier than bobby pins, and I sat on the backless benches and envied Kay and Cheryl those gorgeous pink and yellow barrettes shaped like bows and flowers.

Kay was my sister Rebecca’s age, Cheryl and I were a year younger, and the four of us had a kinship that went beyond our common Yoder genes. We were all dreadfully poor, for one thing, unlike our comfortable relatives. We all attended public schools, when most of our Amish and Mennonite friends went to church schools, and we shared a sense of humor.

So we wrote each other letters, because all Amish and Mennonite girls had penpals back then, and we had wild slumber parties with cousins in Iowa. Dutiful visits to aged Amish relatives in Kansas were brightened by the prospect of seeing Kay and Cheryl’s family. When the sisters attended a short-term Bible school in Minnesota, Rebecca and I drove four hours through a snowstorm, at night, to spend a weekend with them. I slept in Cheryl’s bunk and whispered with her so much the dorm mom came and shushed me.

Our paths diverged, and I never saw Cheryl after my grandma’s funeral. Oddly, it was Kay, who had always been more my sister’s buddy, who formed a lasting friendship with me.

In her talk at the women’s retreat, Kay recalled the period that bonded us most — the year spent living in a duplex at a remote residential school for Native American students in Canada. Kay and her husband, Gaylord, and son Dallas were on one side of the house, and Paul and I and our son Matthew were on the other, with a shared basement. There were no phones to connect us to the outside world, but each building or apartment had an ancient crank phone and a specific pattern of long and short rings, like our own Morse code. Two longs and a short for the girls’ dorm, for example. Everyone heard every ring, and anyone could listen to the conversations.

Kay and I came up with a ring tone of our own: five short rings meant “Meet in the basement.” The whole campus was mystified about this strange ring tone that wasn’t on the list we all taped beside our phones. Our secret worked until someone caught on. One evening the phone clattered with five short rings, and she and I headed to the basement where we both waited, confused, for the other to say what they wanted.

It was a year not only of chats in the basement but also of tragedy. In January, someone set fire to the generator shed that supplied power to the campus. Not long after, the students erupted in anger one night, breaking windows and assaulting and seriously injuring dorm supervisors and other staff.

We were 125 miles from police, fire and medical services. Kay and I and our babies huddled and prayed, and ever after had that unique friendship that comes from surviving something terrifying together.

Those incidents made us question our roles in the North, the Native culture, and most of all in the school. It led Paul and me to move to a reservation even further north, at the chief’s request, to help them establish a school so the older kids wouldn’t have to move far away to get an education.

Oddly, there in that frozen village, the one food we almost never got was ice cream. So on a visit to the mission headquarters, where Gaylord and Kay now lived, I confided my ice cream cravings and Kay decided I must have some. Late in the evening we drove to town. Dairy Queen was closed and so was McDonalds. Finally we went to Safeway and bought a pint of ice cream, but we forgot completely about spoons. We tore up the lid into makeshift scoops and sat in the car in the snowy parking lot in our winter coats, in the dark, eating out of the same pint of ice cream, laughing and talking.

Eventually we lived on the same side of a lake in Canada, and our growing children played together. Mine got the most vicious case of chicken pox I’ve ever seen. Kay brought her kids over to expose them, then set up an infirmary just like mine in her living room. But instead of our crew’s week of blistered skin and high fevers, her children got about a dozen pox apiece and kept on playing outside.

When we hit a moose one night and our van burned up, Kay gave me support and courage, and Gaylord loaded up the shell of the van and hauled it away.

Then we parted ways again.

Years later, Kay mentored and mothered our daughter Emily when she moved to Colorado’s dry climate to fight depression and a long-term illness.

Last week, I stayed in Colorado an extra day after the retreat to have time to talk with Kay. As always, she was so busy with a stream of people coming to her house that we had to go away in the car to be alone.

We didn’t get ice cream, this time. Instead, we drove around the countryside and she showed me where her married children live and where a mutual friend died in a car accident five years ago.

As always, we talked fast and intensely. We discussed our children’s choices that make us either proud or worried. We talked of husbands and history, grief and growth, memories and milestones. We discussed our creative hobbies and extravagant hopes for the future.

When one of us said, “If I had the chance, I would do things differently,” the other assured her that we all did the best we could with what we knew.

In a world of transience and change, I am thankful for old friends. They understand, without long explanations, who you are and where you came from. They have read the entire story of your life and seen you at your youngest and your worst, but have stayed with you anyhow. They have invested deeply in your children.

Best of all, whenever you meet, they fill you up once again with grace and sympathy and laughter.

Kay and me


  1. On such friendships are so precious. I have such a friend in CA whom I misse dearly. Thank you Dorcas for tnis beautiful post. Kay sounds like a wonderful woman!

  2. What a beautiful post! I wish I had a lifetime friend to share with. it sure would have made a hard life a bit easier. God bless you!

  3. This was so interesting! I knew Kay and Cheryl from meeting them at that Bible School you talked about! They were one of the first ones to befriend me and show me around. I believe my bed was next to Cheryl's, so I was trying to remember if I recall any whispering girls, but I don't!

  4. This makes me feel teary-eyed for all the friendships through the years, the long lasting ones and the short term ones. Excellent post.