It didn’t matter if the kids were her age or several years older, and it didn’t matter if they expressed any interest whatsoever in what was going on in our little corner of the beach. If there were other children anywhere in sight, she would waddle over to their area in her adorable little swimsuit, promptly introduce herself, and then inquire whether they would like to play with her.
Usually, they did, and she would play for hours with her new friends, building sand castles with plastic buckets and little shovels and rakes, running back and forth from the ocean with buckets of saltwater to make the sand more fit for construction. By the end of the day, she would know their names, where they came from, their favorite cartoons, and the best place on the beach to get ice cream. Very often, she would end up playing with the same children several more times during our stay, and we would, in turn, spend some time getting to know their parents, sharing some laughs and stories between reapplications of sunscreen.
We did not realize — could not have realized — that this little dynamic would become a template for the next dozen years or more, and not just on vacations. Once Kayden started school, she was no less proactive about making friends than she was at the beach. Within a few weeks of the beginning of the school year, “friend candidates” had been identified, and playdates were arranged at the park. From there, it was a short skip to meeting at Scoops for ice cream.
Once that had been accomplished, the train was rolling on toward sleepovers, birthday parties, tea parties, slumber parties, doll parties, you name it. It was fascinating to observe the inevitable widening of the circle over the years until the “friend group” eventually defined its edges and then solidified like concrete drying in the sun.
Of course, all of this has profound implications for the parents as well as their children. For one thing, it means that you will soon be seeing the same parents over and over and over again at all of these functions, and as your children grow older and become involved in more and more extracurricular activities, these occasions multiply until you are spending a fairly stunning amount of time with people you did not choose, but who were, in effect, chosen for you by your children.
I think it must be considered a kind of miracle that we not only grew to like these parents, but to love them. There must be a lesson here, but we have been so busy planning parties, choosing themes, making lists, buying supplies, baking cakes, and blowing up balloons for so many years that we have not had time to absorb it. Pretty soon, we will.
On Saturday afternoon, after her graduation from Tuscola High School earlier in the day at the Ramsey Center on the campus of Western Carolina University, we co-hosted a party back in Waynesville for members of our daughter’s friend group, which has been together now for about a dozen years. No one wanted to say so, but there was just no getting around it. This would be one last function before they disperse, moving off to Charlotte, to Boone, to Michigan, to Florida, to other places and to other people when August rolls around.
After two years of unbridled excitement about graduating and moving on to college life, Kayden is suddenly not so sure. She’s not worried about the increased intensity of college classes, or that she can’t decide on a major, or that she’ll miss her room, her parents, her brother, or even her cat, Lucy. She’s worried about missing her friends, about losing them.
“I’ll never make friends like these,” she said.
I do my best to console her. I remind her that she has always been a natural at making new friends. I assure her that she’s just about to embark on what will surely be one of the most exciting, memorable years of her life. But I can’t deny the truth of what she is saying.
This is her tribe, and it has been for 12 years. They’ve grown up together. They’ve borne witness to each other’s becoming, the magical, wondrous transformation from childhood to adulthood. They’ve survived puberty, worked through squabbles, fretted over arguments, pondered the mystery of crushes and the dilemma of conflicting allegiances as the sand sometimes seemed to shift underneath their feet. They supported and cared for each other through illness and heartbreak, and they celebrated each other’s accomplishments, quirks, and fierce individuality. They were figuring it out apart, but together.
One of the vexing things about life is that somehow, you don’t really believe that time will run out on you even when you know that it will. And then it does.
I hope that they stay in touch. I hope that they go to their class reunions. Because she’ll never have friends again quite like these.