When Friends Move Away

by
Deborah Straw

After completing college, traveling in Europe and Canada, and living with two separate boyfriends, I
started my “real,” stable adult life in my late 20s and discovered, for the first time, the importance of
female friends.  Women were no longer people with whom to compete for men, but people with
whom to share my deepest feelings and secrets.  This discovery has in large part defined the rest of
my life.

Over the intervening 20-plus years, women friends have become increasingly important to me, not
just because of lost time, but because I am an only child and childless.  My women friends are part of
my family.  They understand me better than most of my relatives, with few of whom I have anything
in common.

When I’m not with these women friends, I’m often thinking of them, writing them, e-mailing them, or
planning our next phone call.  Presents like books, jewelry, or newspaper clippings about writers and
animals, cross paths in the mail often.

In her novel, Faithful Are the Wounds, May Sarton wrote that Americans don’t ask enough of their
friends.  In her estimation, European women spend more time with, and are more affectionate with,
their friends.  I am just the opposite of that typical American.  In fact, I may ask too much – too much
time, too much devotion.  With no children, and a sometimes frustratingly self-sufficient husband, I
have quite a lot of time and energy left over.  My husband has told me I expect too much of people.
Yet, I don’t think I ask for what I can’t give.

However, as with all fine things, there’s a downside to my increasing delight and trust in female
companionship.  My women friends keep moving away.

For the last thirty years, I have lived in a small New England university town.  One of the drawbacks
to this kind of setting is that people come and go at an alarming rate.  After finishing graduate school
or trying out their job skills, they move on to a more economically-promising spot.  There are few
high-paying, professional jobs here.  And, the climate is harsh: it is entirely too cold and gray.  These
drawbacks keep many people from putting down roots here, even though our small city is beautiful
and keeps winning awards for its livability.

Over the last fifteen years, four of the best women friends I have ever made have left this area – three
because of men, one because of health.  The fourth to leave was Mitzi, a woman my age whom I
deeply love, gone to help climb her husband’s career ladder.  (He subsequently thanked her by
leaving her for another woman in their new city, but that’s another story.)  When a final decision
must be made, most women choose to move with their partners, regardless of the condition of the
relationship, rather than stay in the old home setting with their friends and their own established
careers.  In general, I understand and approve of this. There’s far too much divorce in the United
States.  I, too, would go almost anywhere my husband wanted to go, particularly if there was also
stimulating work somewhere close by for me.

Since these four women have left, I’ve found maintaining close contact with them takes an inordinate
amount of energy, and it’s rarely as satisfying as seeing them face to face.  I’ve never been an avid
letter writer, but I am getting slightly better, especially since the advent of e-mail.  I’ve discovered the
importance of receiving news on a regular basis.  At least, I keep up with the big events – birthdays,
publications, new loves, births, and deaths.  E-mail allows us to chat at almost no cost much more
frequently, sometimes twice a day.

Because of distance, both physical and emotional, of the first three women who left the area, only one,
Nadenia, has remained in very close contact throughout the years.  An animal lover and a writer, N is
a decent, kind person.  She was also born the same year as I.  We like many of the same things –
antiques, books, jewelry, cats – and generally agree on social and political issues.  We’re liberal,
feminist, nature-lovers.  We love to travel and to take photographs.  I’ve never found anything we
couldn’t enjoy doing together.

The other two women have faded more into the category of “old” friends.  One is Julia, somewhat
estranged because she is so often far away (she has become somewhat of a gypsy, traveling for short-
term jobs), and has two children and five grandchildren.  The other, Diana, has a bad marriage, one
in which she has been unhappy for years, but one which she refuses to leave because of economic
dependence.  Her acceptance of her husband’s antiquated attitudes – he won’t let her work, and
expects a three-course dinner on the table each night at six – makes me uncomfortable.  I have lost
some respect for her, not a good position from which to continue an equal relationship.

Mitzi, the one who most recently left, remains extremely dear to me.  We talk and write surprisingly
often, although a bit less frequently as the years roll around.  I still call her in an instant if an
emergency occurs.  She always calls me “Sweetie,”when she first hears my voice, and often ends with
“Love you.”  Just last week, I phoned to vent about my husband’s and my on-going major house
renovations and my too-silent editors, two things that make me crazy these days.  Those three words
– and all the ones in between – definitely helped.

Mitzi and I share childlessness, a love of many women authors, a passion for cats, similar work values
and fields.  We love making crafts; we love the feel of silky fabric.  She’s fun to be with, stimulating
and loving, a toucher and a sympathizer.  I’d give anything to be able to convince her to come back
home, but I’ve stopped trying.  In many ways, I don’t blame her.  She’s living in a beautiful place,
mid-Virginia, with a much warmer and sunnier climate than northern Vermont.

For me, losing physical proximity to these four family members with whom I have spent so many
hours, and told so many secrets to, has been like losing a finger or a toe.  I’ve lost some of my sense of
balance, of well being.  I’m stable; I’ll survive.  But the sense of loss lingers, and daily life isn’t the
same.  Oddly, these female friendships which I formed in my early 30s remain the strongest I’ve ever
established.

My creative work has been positively influenced; sorrow and loss often do produce good writing.
Look at Sarton, Hemingway, Woolf, Carver, Plath.  I’m already filling many of the hours that might
have held intimate and rewarding conversations, with more inner dialogue, writing, and reading.  My
time is sometimes lonely, but it’s fulfilling in new ways.

Of course, I do have other good friends, women with whom I share a love of books, animals and
kindness.  They range in age from their 30s to their 70s; they work in many professions.  We attend
university lectures, movies that appeal mostly to women, and poetry readings; we search for
tchotchkas at flea markets; and we eat meals together.  But I haven’t known them as long as the
previous four.  The history isn’t there.  They didn’t come to my wedding, visit the hospital when I had
my hysterectomy, know my favorite cat, Misty, or help me through my graduate degree program.
And some of them, too, move away.  I’ve begun to automatically expect they will leave, so I no longer
feel able to become so committed in the first place.  Regrettably, I am no longer quite as open nor as
expectant.

I know this moving around is part of the upward mobility trend in the United States.  I understand
that making money and career advancement are much more important to many Americans than
maintaining roots and community.  My husband and I are probably in the minority; we’ve stayed in
one place half our lives.  I am disheartened at these transient attitudes, but I have to acknowledge that
they exist.  And, sometimes, I’m even jealous; I’d love to escape the cold winters here.

Yet, it’s unnerving to me that, as we age, we must constantly fill vacated heart spaces with new
people.  To me, this transience (and the resultant fragmenting of relationships) is one of the major
reasons that American society has been coming apart at the seams for at least a decade.

       * * *

My story does have a happy ending, of sorts.  Several years after the writing of the first draft of this
essay, Julia, the gypsy, has once again moved back to Vermont.  Her children are grown; she’s got
free time.  We have less in common than before; she’s no longer writing and has taken to circle
dancing around the world.  She’s still gone a lot, and I don’t dance.  But I still love her, and value her
wit, energy and enthusiasm.  The other two close friends, Nadenia and Mitzi, and I  have celebrated
two 50s birthday parties together, one in Chicago, the other in Ottawa.  I try to see each of them at
least once a year.  We continue to mail and call each other often.  It’s not the same as face to face
contact, but we have established a lifeline of sorts.

Life goes on, sometimes diminished, and sometimes enriched in unexpected ways; but never the
same, when friends move away.