The following conversation occurred late on a summer afternoon about fifteen years ago at a house on the shores of Lake Gaston, North Carolina. The participants were a guileless pre-pubescent girl named Victoria and her two much older auditors, Vicki and Worth:
Victoria: There’s a boy in my class who can’t speak any English at all.
Worth: What language does he speak?
Victoria: Spanish. I’m trying to help him learn English.
Worth: How do you do that?
Victoria: Well, I show him something like a book or a pencil and then say the word to him and ask him to say it back to me. Sometimes I even write the words down for him.
Vicki: Does he ever tell you how to say the words in Spanish?
Victoria: Yes. He told me libro for book and lápiz for pencil. He wrote them down for me too, but I don’t remember how to spell them.
Worth: Does it seem to be helping him?
Victoria: No, he really can’t remember his English at all. Everyone in his family speaks Spanish, so they can’t help him at home, and all his other friends speak Spanish too. And everyone else laughs at him because he can’t understand what they say.
Vicki: Oh, that’s too bad. What’s his name?
Yes, Wilmer. . . . WILMER.
Expecting Juan or Jesus or just about anything but Wilmer–especially as intoned by the deadpan Victoria in her North Carolina drawl–Worth and I burst into uncontrollable laughter. It may have continued for an hour, assisted, perhaps, by our free-flowing liquid friend, Captain Morgan. We repeatedly came up for air, glanced at one another, and began to laugh again. Victoria was completely beside herself: “Why are you laughing at my friend?” Nor could Gaynell, Worth’s wife and the other (the only?) adult in the room, quite fathom the unending source of merriment. Only exhausted muscles of cheek and belly finally forced a return to something resembling decorum.
A couple of weeks ago as I passed through a department store, I saw a small piece of wall décor on the clearance rack. In muted colors of gray and teal, it read, “Memories are made at the lake.” I immediately laid down my $5.99 and then posted it to my dear friends, accompanied by a handwritten message: “From Wilmer, the Captain, and Vicki.”
Last Thursday, I had the great pleasure of beginning a long-postponed four-day sojourn at the same house on the lake with the same dear friends, renewing a friendship that has deepened and matured since we first met in December 1996. I learned face to face the grim details surrounding their younger son’s severe stroke just over a year ago–and saw in person the miraculous recovery he is making. We imbibed a bit more Captain Morgan as we shared news of our personal lives and stories of mutual friends; after all these years, there are many. We spoke of my sister in Arizona and Gaynell’s in Pennsylvania, both of whom we visited together many years ago in the attempt to know as much of each other as we possibly could. We reminisced about scenes from favorite movies and passages from remembered sermons. Smiling with joy and looking into their eyes as they administered the sacraments, I knelt at the altar and received the Holy Eucharist from Worth (“The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life”) and Gaynell (“The Blood of Christ, the cup of salvation”). We talked about plays we were in together and the ride we took in a hot-air balloon. We made jokes to and about each other, knowing that the gibes we parried were simply additional fruit of our long relationship with each other.
I suppose the moment that the significance of all this shared past became so clear to me occurred when they were discussing an upcoming family trip to Towanda, Pennsylvania. “Will you be there for the corn roast?” I asked, and suddenly the overwhelming blessing of shared language and shared lives became fully apparent. I have never been to Lake Wesauking, where Worth spent the summers of his childhood. But I know the layout of the family cottage, which remains in the family, I know things that happened there many decades ago, and I know that people who grew up in that idyllic location reunite the first weekend of each August for a corn roast on the shores of the lake where they made their childhood memories. In turn, Worth and Gaynell recognize my stories about Globe, Arizona, without explanation; they know my best friend from high school, Emily Rayes; Gaynell has eaten my favorite meal, a regular burro enchilada style at La Casita, the storied restaurant that has been on Broad Street in Globe since 1947–and she is even a member of the Facebook group “I Love Globe-Miami Mexican Food.”
For une femme d’un certain âge, childless and rootless, 2,000 miles from the only place she ever called home, these shared associations mean more than I can possibly convey. I once quipped that I didn’t care whether my dentist is on the list of preferred providers in my dental insurance plan; I will continue to see him and pay the added surcharge because I have known him longer than anyone else I now see on a regular basis–which remains a sad fact of my existence. But the longevity of my friendship with Worth and Gaynell is not much shorter, and we are certainly more a part of each other’s lives than can be had from twice-a-year chatter after a session of preventive dentistry.
I am grateful for my friends, for the ballast they provide in the unstable waters of my life, for the knowledge that they will continue to love me despite my transgressions, for the mutual prayers we lift up for each other, for the past and the present and the future. Mostly, I suppose, I am grateful that we can always take up our conversation after a the most recent semicolon, no matter how long the ellipsis.