The Adventure of Unlikely Friendships

I spend the better part of my week running around with a two-year-old. Our weeks are relatively unstructured, punctuated by a few meet-ups with friends, occasional mid-work-day lunches with Jordan, a few regular church and small group events, and a whole lot of me-and-Sam time. But there’s one thing we make time for every single week that has changed everything: we have lunch with a friend who happens to be a 92 year old man. 

It all started nearly a year ago, when we wandered into our neighborhood hardware store and were greeted by a kind elderly gentleman, who waved to Sam (who panicked at the sight of a stranger peering into his stroller and burst into tears). We chatted and bantered with the gentleman for a while, and he was just so kind and sweet that I kept thinking about him. That weekend, we had a big party, and I had piles of sweets left over, so the following Tuesday, I figured: hey! Let’s bring these by the hardware store. So Sam and I walked over, and, sure enough, Charles was behind the cash register. He was tickled pink at the sweets and got a little tear in his eye. I did, too, and I decided that this would be our new weekly adventure: a walk to the hardware store. We’d grab Starbucks hot chocolate for Charles on the way, or bring a little crayon drawing that Sam had made. Sometimes we’d stay for five minutes, but if the shop was quiet, we’d stand and chat for a long time, standing in the hardware aisle while Sam carefully rifled through boxes of washers and screws, and learn about Charles’ life, his wonderful wife who passed a few year ago, his career on submarines in the South Pacific. Then, one Tuesday in December, after a few months of visits, we got to talking about Christmas trees, and on a whim I invited Charles to go with us that weekend to go to a tree farm in the mountains to cut down trees, because no one should have to go buy a Christmas tree alone. Jordan, Sam and I picked him up on Saturday morning, spent the entire day together, bought trees, and have been fast friends ever since. These days, we just skip the hardware store and go straight to lunch. On Tuesdays, and whatever other day we feel like it, the three of us can be found munching away at our favorite local diner, or picnicking at the park that Charles and his wife fought the city of Palo Alto for (and which is now dedicated to them). Usually we go out for ice cream, too, because the great thing about the Greatest Generation is that they adore sweets. Or he’ll come over to play cards and read with Sam. Or we’ll pop over to his house to hang out, pick fruit off his trees (me), and rifle through his desk drawers (Sam). 

Here’s the thing, though: this isn’t a story about doing a nice bit of charity for someone else. At the beginning of this story, Sam and I did very little other than show up in the same place twice. Charles likes having us around, but the truth is, he doesn’t need us desperately; he’s in nearly perfect health, has a wonderful loving family, and has plenty of grandchildren. And Sam has blood great-grandparents who love him and whom he loves. None of these people live in Palo Alto right now, though. And so we need Charles. He needs us, too, because we all need each other more than we know. When we first started introducing Charles to our friends, people would sometimes say, “What a blessing you are to him!” and it frustrated me, because it assumed charity on one side and need on the other. And that was true, but the reverse was equally true: we were benefitting from Charles’ friendship just as much, if not more. I’d bring him cupcakes, but then he’d show up at my front door with a pie (on Pi Day!). I’d show up at the hardware store, but then he’d pay for my key copies out of his own wallet. I’d invite him over for ice cream, but then he’d surprise me with a brand-new ice cream scoop. I’d think we were cheering him up, but then he’d find us in our grumpiest moments and turn our day around.

A few weeks ago, Sam and I were have a disastrous Tuesday morning. I had been convinced that the Terrible Twos weren’t a real thing…until that Tuesday. I wanted to stay home in my frazzled state and not show my face to anyone. I also wanted to call the zoo to see if they had room for Sam. But we had plans with Charles, and we had some chocolate peanut butter cupcakes to deliver to him (oh, how I wanted to eat them for breakfast that day), so off we went. And do you know what happened? It was like flipping a switch: the instant we arrived at Charles’ house, Sam turned into his old self. Charles’ daughter happened to be visiting, so she and I chatted over a long cup of tea in the kitchen while Charles sat in his favorite chair and Sam sprawled on the couch across from him, showing off and grinning, for an hour. His daughter and I got to talking about apricots, which were in season and which were literally bursting from the tree in my yard, which naturally led to the subject of fruit pies, which led to plans for a day of pie-making the next day. We came back the next day, and Charles dug out a set of toy gears from a closet, and he and Sam sat at the kitchen table building elaborate machines while the gals made pies in the kitchen. We ended up spending the better part of our week over there. Charles was able to coax out the very best in Sam, which salvaged a miserable week. Week after week, I find that Charles gives us these great gifts. 

Yes, I love doing things alone with Sam. Yes, I love doing things together as a family. Yes, I need community with other moms and kids who are in the same stage. These are all things to be celebrated and cultivated. But we also need balance in this sometimes lopsided days as parents (conversing indefinitely with only a two-year-old, or endless mom talk…both are important but, man, both can get weird fast!), and I think one of the secrets to finding balance and sanity in parenthood is to seek out people who are doing different stuff than we’re doing. It’s important to do things for others purely for the sake of kindness and outreach without expecting anything in return. But if we approach people who are different from us with the mindset that “I should do something kind for them because they need me,” we are probably missing the best part: that we probably need them more than we realize. There is so much secret beauty to be found in cultivating unlikely friendships with people who appear different from us. And once we start to realize that, the possibilities are endless: Meeting working friends to grab lunch during their lunch break (I’m inspired by hearing about what they’re working on). Taking a walk with my dear friend who is 70 and widowed with grown children (she sees right to the core of things). Having breakfast with a brilliant single friend (Sam loves her best because she talks to him like a grown-up, because she didn’t hang out with babies much before). Befriending the young, kind grocery store bagger that helps us every week (maybe she can teach me some of her enormous kindness and patience). And this is just the beginning. 

At the end of that week of tantrums and apricot pies, Jordan said, remarking on Sam’s change in demeanor: “I guess it really does take a village.” It’s a cliché these days, but the truth is, Sam needs to see other faces. He needs me, and he needs kids his age, but he also needs great-grandfatherly men and energetic teenagers and singles without kids and big families and other parents and everyone in between. Making those friendships a part of our daily lives eases the load of parenthood. It shakes up the notion that once you become a mom, the only other people you’ll ever see are other moms. It gives us a little perspective, provides extra laughs, cultivates the best curiosity of all (a deep interest in the people God has made), and gives us an opportunity for adventure right here in our backyards. And these are adventures of the best sort: exploring the vast, valuable, and colorful beauty of the people circling the outskirts of our lives, and moving ourselves right into their paths.

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