Such relationships are treasures in our lives. And one of my most treasured friendships began in less than promising circumstances.
It was windy with bone-chilling cold and blowing snow that night -- so long ago -- when my college classmate Tim Schellhardt and I met at the Evanston L station for a ride into Chicago to catch a train to a town well south of the city.
Starting out, we weren't especially pleased to be making this trip together. We didn't know each other very well and first impressions -- that he was a farm boy with a corny sense of humor and I a know-it-all snob from L.A. -- weren't especially favorable. But Elizabeth Swayne, our writing instructor, had paired us for an assignment with an agenda in mind: our strengths and weaknesses dovetailed nicely. I was terrified of interviews and actually wept during my first solo venture out; Tim, though still in his teens, was an expert interviewer. We were both excellent writers, but our teacher thought that Tim needed a bit of coaching on structuring a story -- and that was my strength.
We were assigned to interview and write a story about the Lemme family in Dolton, IL who had recently moved into a comfortable two story home on a nice street in Dolton -- and were, not so incidentally, the first African-American residents in town. It was the fall of 1964 and crosses were being burned on their lawn. Neighbors were shunning them and no classmates would walk home from school with their six-year-old daughter Pamela.
We were charged not only with learning from the Lemmes and trying to see the world through their eyes, but also with learning from each other.
On the train, after a few minutes of sullen, uneasy silence, Tim and I began to talk....and talk and talk. We realized, somewhere en route, that we had a great deal in common, that we shared a lot of interests and goals. His sense of humor was keen, not corny. He learned that I was shy, not a snob. We laughed and enjoyed each other's company more with each mile.
Somewhere along the way, while changing trains, I lost one of my gloves. He gave me one of his, then plunged his hand into my coat pocket. We took turns with the glove and the pocket game. We laughed a lot.
And by the time we reached Dolton, we were dear friends.
As I watched Tim do the interview with this brave and wonderful family, I began to understand, at last, what a good interview should be: not an inquisition with a list of questions, but a warm connection, a good conversation. It was a marvelous and memorable evening with the Lemmes. I was moved by their courage and intelligence -- and their generosity in sharing their insights and experiences with us. And I was filled with admiration at Tim's interviewing skills.
He was in similar awe when I started putting the story together, weaving elements of his interview together in ways he had never imagined.
We became each other's biggest fans and knew that somehow we would always share a deep and loving friendship.
It wasn't always easy. There was a time when I yearned for much more than friendship while his heart went in another direction altogether. Our lives took very different turns after graduation.
Tim married young and headed to Washington, D.C. for a stellar career as a political reporter for the Wall Street Journal, spending a number of years as the White House reporter for the Journal, traveling with and getting to know a variety of presidents.
I went back to L.A., stayed single into my thirties, worked for 'TEEN Magazine and began to write for national women's magazines and to write books for and about adolescents.
Tim and his wife Barbe had four wonderful children. I married Bob very happily in my thirties and we remained childless.
But our friendship persisted through the years and all the changes in our lives and careers.
Every Christmas, I would paste photos of his children in a memory book, watching them grow up in these treasured annual pictures.
We never lived close enough geographically for frequent visits: I was in California and now Arizona. Tim lived for many years in the East and then back in Chicago. But we kept in touch by phone, by mail and more recently by email and Facebook.
Tim and I would visit when our business travel brought us closer -- when I was in Washington on an assignment or when he came with a President to California. And later, after he moved to Chicago as the Wall Street Journal's bureau chief, I would see him when I traveled back to Chicago annually for meetings connected with my part time job in admissions for Northwestern. Each time, we'd have lunch, talk and laugh a lot -- and marvel at how time fell away and we could converse with the ease of having just seen each other the day before -- even if several years had come between our meetings. Each time we've seen each other in person over the years, we've had a renewed sense of just how special, how precious, our warm connection has been.
I watched with delight as his children grew up. His eldest daughter Laura is an award-winning playwright and teaches playwriting at Northwestern now. His second daughter Mary Kate is an accomplished film and television actress, whose career began in her teens when she played the younger sister of Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio in "What's Eating Gilbert Grape?" and Tom Hanks' oldest daughter in "Apollo 13." His third daughter Eliza is a talented and beloved middle school music and drama teacher in Colorado. His son Stephen is an amazing singer and actor in musical theatre. Even more significantly, however, they are loving and caring people.
I'll never forget the evening that I met Tim and his daughter Laura for dinner just as she was starting her freshman year of college. "Tell me the story about that train ride," she said suddenly. "I've heard the story from Dad so many times. I'd love to hear it from your point of view. And I hope, now that I'm in college, that somewhere, somehow, I'll find and keep a friendship as wonderful as the one you and Dad share."
I hope she found such a friendship.
Tim has cheered me on through career ups and downs and quickly established a warm connection with my husband. Bob was charmed immediately by the humility and down-to-earth qualities of this bright and talented man. Bob even named his all-time favorite cat -- a sweet and loving Burmese mix kitten -- Timmy after our lovely friend.
Neither Tim nor I have been immune to the pressures and losses of aging. Our waistlines have grown. We've faced professional challenges and personal regrets and the loss of significant loved ones. I'm struggling to take my writing career in a new direction. He is in the process of ending his 44-year marriage with a poignant mixture of deep sadness and relief. Our communications have taken on a somber tone of late.
So when I received the notice of our 45th reunion scheduled for the end of October at Northwestern, I hesitated. Would this be the time to meet and greet and celebrate with classmates we hadn't seen in years? And then I thought "Why not?" I sensed that, above all, Tim and I needed to check in with each other for loving reassurance. Tim agreed with just a hint of hesitation.
It was a marvelous, magical, memorable weekend. We did enjoy seeing classmates from years ago and strolling the same tree-lined paths we had walked together as students so many decades ago. We cheered the Homecoming Parade and Pep Rally but mostly cheered each other as we talked and cried and laughed through the weekend. It was a time to remember the past with a smile and to embrace the present together, feeling smarter and more of everything -- kind and funny and edgy and loving -- because we had this time together. "Oh, dear friend," Tim told me just before I left to return to Arizona.
"I feel 1,000 percent more alive..."
So did I, as we returned to our respective and quite different lives wonderfully renewed and re-energized by our time together.
And I've been thinking a lot today about the special friendships in all our lives and how they live on in a continuing circle of joyous coming together and bittersweet parting, how much they keep us connected to the past and to the present -- and feeling so very much alive.