Yesterday, while looking for an old insurance quote, I found a birthday card sent to me several years ago by a good friend. In the black-and-white photo on the front there are two older ladies, seated on the ground, dressed in fashions from the 1940s. The heavier one holds her purse in her lap. Her legs are crossed at the ankles. The skinny one has her knees pulled up to her chest and clasps her hands around her shins. Both have pulled their skirts over their knees, as a matter of decorum. They don't want anyone to be offended by an accidental glimpse of the undergarments that cover their nether regions.
Why are they sitting on the ground? There are no sandwiches and deviled eggs spread around them, no picnic blanket underneath them. The grass is ragged and the ground rather lumpy. It's not a comfortable spot, but these two ladies are deep in conversation. They sit side-by-side, shoulder-to-shoulder, but they lean in toward each other, each intent on the other. The brims of their bell-shaped hats almost touch. They are saying things meant only for each other. The more ample woman touches her chin with the knuckle of her forefinger, intensifying her air of concern.
These women remind me of my grandmother and my Great Aunt Clara, sisters who battled each other, cared for each other, stood by one another. They were always old ladies to me, though in just a few years I will be as old as my grandmother was when I was born. I'm sure that my friend who sent me the card saw the two of us in that picture. I'm the well-padded woman. She's the one with the skinny bosom, the crepey neck and the sensible shoes.
I tacked the card on the bulletin board behind the phone. On the shelf next to it sits a snapshot of me and another friend, grinning because we so rarely have our pictures taken together. It is encased in a ghastly purple and pink "Friends Forever" frame bequeathed to me by my daughter.
That daughter loves her own friends dearly, during peaceful times and conflict. Eliza also has imaginary friends, who live in her bedroom and lead lives that parallel hers, albeit much more eventful. There are weddings, showers, funerals and birthday parties every weekend in her room. It is a strange phenomenon. She is sixteen, well past the age of such overt pretending. But she and her real-life friends are all young women with developmental delays, mainly due to Down syndrome. They don't have the language skills needed for first-rate gossip or detailed accounts of their own feelings. But when they are together, they magnify each others' joy, excitement, anger and misery. Eliza feels more alive around her friends, so she makes sure there are plenty of them, even if she has to make them up.
Many of my friends are out of town this week. Perhaps I need an imaginary friend. I bet those two ladies sitting in the grass on that birthday care would understand.