All my first friends were stuffed. Fuzzy the Bear, a shaggy, bright orange, early-70s monstrosity that would give today’s kids nightmares for days. Jingle, a velvety soft stuffed gingerbread man with ricrac trim and felt buttons who, thanks to a bell in his tum, really did jingle. The worn, pink wind-up sitting donkey that was my first toy and whom I never actually named. Above all, Sunshiney, the yellow-and-white calico doll who accompanied me everywhere, including the hospital when I had my tonsils removed at two. I sang to her every day for years: “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine…”
My second friends were books, many of which I read to Sunshiney and the gang. There was a board book about colors and another about getting your tonsils out and so many fairy tales and fables. Eventually, Snow White gave way to Nancy Drew who, in turn, led me to Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple and many, many more. I’d read the same books over and over again, not just because I loved the stories, but because the characters served a very real purpose for me. They were comforting when I’d had a bad day, familiar when I’d changed schools yet again, distracting when the world was too much to handle. A simple trip to the library offered me the chance to make thousands of new friends who wouldn’t care that I had a hard time with interpersonal relationships or could be way too literal at times or was fascinated by all the things most kids find utterly boring.
I did have human friends. There were Elizabeth and Nancy, my Montessori BFFs. Stacey, who lived next door to my godmother. Mrs. Kay Lynn Odle-Moore, the third-grade teacher I genuinely considered a friend. Manfred and Elizabeth and Pierre, a pair of English sheepdogs and their miniature poodle overlord, who belonged to my mom’s friend Art.
When I was seven, there was Emma Jane Keels, who took me under her wing and invited me to my first stay-over despite the fact that she was an impressive three years older than me. In middle school, there was Heidi Burns, a laughing, vibrant redhead who did amazing things like play Annie in local theater productions and loved The Goonies as much as me and patiently read every single draft of the sequel screenplay I eventually sent to Steven Spielberg. And there was my cousin Elizabeth, whom I’ve always considered to be my first best friend. I have dozens of handwritten letters from both Heidi and Elizabeth. They are some of my greatest treasures. In high school, there were Amy and Jamie and Angie and Laura and Heather and Nikki and Kim and Chanteé. Drama club friends. Yearbook staff friends. Never more than one or two at any time, but friends nonetheless.
In adulthood, there was Aleshia, the first hire I made in my career, who turned out to be a gem in more ways than one. Marsha and Amy and Mary and Kari and Carla, sorority sisters from the tiny college I started out in. People I worked with, people my husbands worked with over the years, people I met through volunteering or belonging to various groups.
Yet, somehow, I never seemed to find my “tribe,” that group of people you just fit with and who feel like home. Not until I went back to the beginning and found myself. Not until I took writing seriously. The moment that happened, I stepped into a marketing role at a state university and ran right smack into my BFF April, an artist who’s merely amused by my need to know what every abstract painting is supposed to be, who tolerates my longwinded philosophical ramblings as long as I give her chips and salsa, and who isn’t the least bit intimidated by my Websteresque vocabulary. “Yeah, I don’t know what that means, try again,” she’ll say calmly. Or, “I’m about to vent, don’t give me solutions.” She gets me, you see. Gets and accepts and even likes.
Then there’s Cheryl, whom I met in a writing group, then started critiquing with, and still reads for me sometimes today. Eventually she became one of my dearest friends. She brings me bookmarks from her trips across the globe and asks questions about my social and political stances, which are often quite different than she’s used to. We’ve more than once gone to breakfast, started talking personality theory or plotting or who knows what, and talked so long we had to find lunch. She hears what I’m saying, even when I’m saying it badly. Hears and accepts and says amazing things like “love you.”
There’s also my cousin Katy. Growing up, we were just far enough in age to have trouble relating. But now that she’s forty and I’m… somewhat older…the five-year difference means nothing. A practical academic who loves fiction, nonfiction, and research as much as I do, Kate is one of those amazing gifts the universe sometimes bestows: family who’s also a close friend. And she sees me in ways people often don’t: vulnerable, unsure, confused, exhausted. She sees me and validates me and buys me sweet potato pancakes.
Most recently, there’s Romily, my writing partner. We’ve known each other casually for years, but we started critiquing together less than two years ago and, almost immediately, we morphed into something like family. “Dude, you’re holding back, go deeper,” she’ll say when she’s read a chapter I got lazy about. “Baby, I love you but that’s crazy talk,” she’ll insist when the negative voices in my head start spouting off. She even named the crazy. “Tell Brenda to shut up and sit down,” she’ll say sternly. “We have things to do and a world to conquer.” She knows me, because dear lord we’re so alike. She knows me, she pushes me, and she makes me better.
I still read when I’m down or stressed out or exhausted. The characters in my favorite mysteries are still familiar, still comforting, and always available. So is my dog, Jazzy, whose fur is much softer than Fuzzy’s ever was (and much less likely to wear thin in patches). But I have options now, people to call or text or grab coffee with. People who never judge. They are my grown-up sunshine. They make me happy when skies are grey.
You’ll never know, dears, how much I love you. But I’ll keep repeating it anyway.