Narratives of Friendship.

By: Jen Shoop

*Image via Garance Dore.

In first grade, I made fast friends with an Australian girl who wore her hair in “a side plait” tied off with a ribbon. She was funny, smart, and called candies “lollies,” sweaters “cardis,” and her diminutive, handicraft-adept mother “mum.” She had a fantastic, easy laugh that crescendoed in the backward toss of her head and caesura-ed in a loud and satisfied sigh. E. and I were inseparable for many years, and yet now, when I think of her, I think principally of that laugh, as though time has winnowed her down to a single sound, an auditory stick figure. When I take a minute to remember in greater detail, I recall many hot afternoons spent with her in the row of boxwood bushes behind my childhood home documenting the “suspicious” comings and goings of passersby, inspired by Harriet the Spy. She and I typed up screenplays on an ancient typewriter that belonged to her father, a journalist for Melbourne’s The Age newspaper. We were always academically oriented, and for some ill-conceived reason, permitted to work on dittos featuring “advanced” math and language lessons together, unsupervised, in the long blue first floor hallway of Annunciation school. Because we were bored and unchaperoned, she convinced me to surreptitiously (or so I thought at the time) tear out or — using a glue stick — affix together pages of these workbooks and then look at Ms. Curtain, our second grade teacher, in confused dismay. “The pages just aren’t there!” we’d shrug. I’m sure we were a joy for the overworked Ms. Curtain. On rare days our parents were delayed in picking us up, we would sneak down to the after care closet and take enormous handfuls of gummy bears out of the big plastic tub the teachers had there to give out as — rewards? — to the children who stayed after school. I can still remember the squeak of linoleum under my Converse hi-tops (inspired by Kristy Thomas of The Baby Sitter Club) as I rounded the dimly lit corner between the aftercare closet and the steps down to the gym, where we would sit in a corner, eating our plunder, laughing and catching our breath. I swear I spent nearly every weekend between the ages of 7 and 11 at her home. We’d sleep in her bed together, “topsy-tails,” as her Australian family called it, with her feet at my head and mine at hers. I’d enjoy Honeycomb cereal and guava juice at her breakfast table, alongside her affectionate parents, who called one another “pet” and seemed never without a cup of tea — exotic details I clung to as much as I clung to E. herself. I loved her family, all three of her siblings — especially my adoptive older sister, who taught me how to make friendship bracelets and weave “gimp” keychains — and her two bright and kind parents, too.

In fifth or sixth grade, E. transferred to a different school. We made promises to one another. She gave me Guatemalan worry dolls to place under my pillow and I gave her a friendship necklace to wear around her neck, and even still, our friendship faded within weeks. Years of inseparability seemed to pulverize against the thrill of middle school romantic entanglements and trips to Clare’s and Limited Too with my new friend Samantha. I do remember with clarity one of our final hangouts in her home on Cathedral Ave in N.W. D.C., just before they moved. We were huddled together on the floor of her bedroom making snarky comments about our classmates as we thumbed through the yearbook, and she looked at me and said: “Ah! Never change, Jennifer. Never change.”

That was the first of three big female friendships I have lost in my life. I lost another girlfriend to cancer and a third to — I don’t know what, but I have elsewhere explained the denouement of our relationship as follows: “I have spent over a decade feeling my way around the bruise, hypothesizing about the cause of injury. Even though our breakup felt in some ways like a slow motion car crash, both of us bracing ourselves well before impact, shards and debris visibly gleaming with danger before the sluicing, I still could not tell you the exact sequence of events, or who hit whom, or exactly when or where the collision took place. Just that, all these years later, I still find myself tender to touch when her name materializes.” I wrote earlier this year that perhaps I have finally moved beyond that failed friendship, but I think I was writing with white knuckles. I mourn her as I much as I mourn my other two lost friends, and I realized this earlier today while listening to Ann Patchett’s (excellent!) book of essays, These Precious Days. In her book, in various ways, Patchett paints portraits of lifelong friendships with women — the kind that involve showing up to sort through a deceased parent’s belongings together. That is, I thought to myself: the real kind of friendship. The friendship I wish I still had with my three lost friends.

I’ve crossed paths with E. a couple of times in my adult life, in part because my brother and hers remain close friends. When I lived in New York, I ran into her in Soho, on Prince Street, and we hugged one another and stared, wide-eyed, at how far we’d come since the echo of Annunciation corridors. She is now, as then, lovely, hilarious, and smart. And yet life and geography seem destined to pre-empt a resumption of intimacy. As I listened to Patchett, I regretted that we had not maintained our childhood friendship and the fact that it now feels as though entire universes of experience separate us. I thought ruefully to myself: the friends we make in our youth will never come back to us. You can always make new friends, but you will never be able to find ones who will understand with pin-prick specificity what it is like to wear Enrique Lopez’s starter jacket while on the asphalt waiting for school to begin, or the peculiar thrill of stealing candy from a school closet. That is: she bore witness to many maiden interactions with my adolescent self as I tested boundaries and tried on romance for size, and, it seems to me, therefore knows me on an empirically more intimate level than many of my newer friends, who see only a Jen who has shed hundreds of exoskeletons of curiosity, insecurity, failure, and the like.

And yet.

Almost immediately, I thought of my dear friends I made in college and beyond. These are not childhood friends but they might as well be. I thought, for example, of my friend W., whom I met at UVA. One spring morning, I ascended the stairs to my second floor bedroom in a shanty on Gordon Street in Charlottesville that I incomprehensibly shared with nine other girls. My housemate M. was rifling through my closet — not uncommon and happily sanctioned — with a petite red-head I did not know. “Hey, Bombsh,” said M. (an abbreviation for “bombshell,” which we called one another at the time), “This is W. and we both need dresses for a date function tonight.” I took an instant liking to W., who was enthusiastic, warm, and inquisitive — and also, like M., almost exactly my size. We were three pint-sized dolls: one brunette, one auburn, and one ginger. W. and I crossed friendly paths occasionally the rest of our time at UVA, and then one afternoon years later she emailed me out of the blue to let me know she and her husband had moved to Chicago, where Mr. Magpie and I were temporarily marooned, and added that she knew nobody, and would I be open to having dinner?

Over dinner a few days later, secrets I had not even told my own sisters tumbled out of my mouth, including the contours of grief I was living through at the time. I have never been so candid with anyone right out of the gate. I am usually more circumspect, shy, withholding at the beginning. I try often to make space for the other party to share her story first, aiming to issue more questions than personal anecdotes. With her, however, my heart sprang open and out, and she sat there in compassion and said all the right things, which, as many of us know, often means saying nothing at all and instead quietly nodding.

We do not speak all that frequently — we are now on opposite coasts — but when she calls, it’s one of those soul sister calls that goes there. We will talk about God, and schools for our children, and the death of her grandfather, as easily as we will talk about skincare, and that Amazon sweater everyone loves, and whether or not we like Golden Goose sneakers. I wrote the other day that tough times beckon angels and I think God gave her to me at a time when I was consumed with a private grief that she was anointed to see me through. To reduce her in this way feels unkind: she extends as a wide sea beyond the kindness she showed me during that time of my life. She is wise, observant, humble despite her many achievements, talents, and ridiculous good looks, insightful, quick-on-the-draw, emotionally and spiritually resilient, does not suffer fools, and possesses that kind of radiant kinetic energy of the truly bright. Mainly, though, she is a Good Person, capital G and P. The kind of person you can depend on to see things clearly.

And so, I sit here, and think how foolish and short-sighted I am, to cling with such ferocity to a model of female friendship born of shared childhood experience, as though that is the only brand on the shelf?

No. Some friendships we quietly outgrow. An unlucky few end in flames. Some persist steadily over years and years but never reach a deep level of intimacy. Some, I joyfully learned this past year, fade for a bit and then rekindle later in life. Some we tumble into mid-life, haphazardly, when we least expect it and simply know we will hang on to for good — I feel that way about several friends from New York and Bethesda in the past few years. (“Ah, you —!” I have said to myself about many of these women, as though I recognize them immediately. It has felt so easy!) Still others start slow or trivial and then metamorphose into something profound — I have a college girlfriend who has become, over time, persona number one in my “motherhood support group.” I always loved her and we shared many great times in our younger years, but I could not have foreseen how desperately I would cling to her advice and support since becoming a mom, how much I would need her in my life.

All of this to say:

There are many narratives of friendship, and we can be grateful for them all — even the ones that singe us in the end, but especially the ones that fall into our lap and unfold with a kind of grace and ease at just the right time. We will lose some to time, death, missteps, and laziness. But better to cup our hands lightly around the ones we have, and to let those relationships take on whatever unique shape that satisfies.


+Building friendships through motherhood.

+On balancing friendships.

+Female friendships and the things that matter.

Shopping Break.

+A great $20 sundress — I own this in a khaki color and love its versatility.

+Staud is killing it this season. Add this to the list of wedding guest dress contenders!

+Chic and affordable set of woven coasters. Hostess gift?

+The Great has some fabulous new hiking pieces — as you know, Mr. Magpie have been hiking most Monday mornings for the past few weeks. I think I need this floral hiking anorak and these hiking shorts.

+Love the color of these fitness shorts.

+Unfussy children’s bike/scooting helmets in great colors.

+Adorable striped dress for under $130.

+In love with everything from new-to-me label Flora Sardalos!

+Love and loose-fitting, bold caftan for summer days, like this cheerful mini.

+Gap has some home products (?!) at Walmart and I love this gingham set for a little one’s room. More affordable bedding here.

+I know the quality will not be the same as my beloved set from Slip, but H&M has some silky hair ties that look similar for a lot less.

+These Americana-striped pajamas are in my cart for my children.

+Pretty and nearly-sold-out white linen mini.

+ADORE these fun $25 earrings!

+Brides: for your rehearsal dinner.

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15 thoughts on “Narratives of Friendship.

  1. This is such a gorgeous piece of writing, Jen! Like everyone else, I deeply relate to what you’ve written. I just recently spent a two-hour bike ride thinking of my closest friend from elementary school, whom I last saw for lunch in Paris in 2009 — and I regret not keeping in touch with her! Anyway, I absolutely love how you’ve captured these feelings and situations that probably all women in their 30s can relate to — just a stunning way to capture a near-universal experience!

    Speaking of Ann Patchett and friendship — have you read Truth & Beauty, her memoir of her friendship with Lucy Grealy? It was published in 2004 but I think you would really enjoy it. It blew me away when I read it in college. Probably time for a re-read!


  2. Thank you for taking the time to share this, Jen. I relate though in ways I struggle to articulate neatly in a comment; I think I’ll be mulling over this for quite some time. And thanks for the reminder that there are some Ann Patchett essays I need to read!! xo.

    1. You will SO enjoy the essays, Joyce. I’m at the very end of the book and am simultaneously anxious to finish and sad its over. She has such a great voice, such an eye for detail and a heart for people.


  3. I’m reading the comments to this wonderful post of yours and realizing many (if not all) women go through this “friendship process” and feel so alone. Your opening up and expressing your feelings helps your readers realize that these are not things I am experiencing alone. Interesting how we women need to open up to other women and share more. Hmmmmm. Makes me think…

    1. Yes, I so agree, Cynthia! I can’t tell you how many times I have felt tender and vulnerable sharing posts on something very specific only to find so many Magpies reply to say: “I feel the same way!” Makes life feel so much less intimidating knowing there are lots of people going through it with me.


  4. Wow, this (as many others have commented) resonates deeply with me, too. I’m at seemingly transition-filled timeframe with some friendships, as we navigate first children, new moves, and shifting futures. I’m lucky to have a few incredibly solid anchors from childhood & college, but have been feeling unsettled with the changing contours of other friendships in my life. This post helped me realize I’m not alone, yet also gives me hope for future new and rekindled female friendships.

    On a different note, echoing that I, too, LOVE what Staud has been doing! I snagged a couple of Staud & Sea pieces before a babymoon(!) to the Cotswolds a few weeks ago (per one of your sale alerts!) and they made me so happy. I find them incredibly forgiving with my changing shape and look forward to wearing them for years to come.

    1. I’m so glad this has resonated with several of you today. Yes, for sure – it has been such a gift to find myself settle into old friendships that had gone slack over the years. It gave me a lot of comfort.


  5. Loved, LOVED this post – thank you. But also, I would like to be either one of those two women in that picture from Garance when I “grow up” – or at least own that black blazer!

    1. I’m so glad this resonated. Talking about the ends of relationships can be so uncomfortable — glad this landed for you! xx

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