This may sound completely bizarre, but as an adult in her late 40’s, right now I have no idea how to be a friend and what a true friendship really is. I have less than a handful of friends and at times I wonder if those friendships are what they are meant to be.
Having lost friends and gaining a few here and there, I have at times been utterly desperate to have a friend just to hang out with, someone just to ‘be with’, more so since I moved to the UK. I still tend to view every day friendships based on what I had as a child and based on two very dear adult friendships I had in South Africa, but as I have tried to replicate those friendships over here, I have failed on so many occasions to achieve this, this has left me questioning whether friendships have changed over the years, whether friendships are different in different countries or whether it is me that has changed. It was time for me to challenge my view of what friendship is all about.
As a child we moved around a lot which was not conducive to having lasting friendships. My dad worked for The Salvation Army and they attended Bible School in Johannesburg when I was 3. We spent 2.5 years living on the College premises where after we were transferred out to a town called Pietermartizburg and moved into a furnished house owned by the Salvation Army. Every year, or every couple of years, we would be transferred somewhere else, pretty much like the military moves their people around. Because of this lifestyle, we never owned our own home and we had very little of our own possessions. In fact my parents were required to sell their house and all their possessions when they joined the Salvation Army. They had this ridiculous skewed view of Christianity and that you had to prove you were a good person by being poor and by giving up all your worldly goods! (But that’s another story all on its own).
As a child, my mom turned every move into an adventure. I’m not quite sure if it was to alleviate our sense of loss at moving and leaving our friends behind or if it was genuinely something new and fun for her. But, I have to admit, because of the way she turned our moves into adventures, I really did love moving, I still do, I loved the newness, the new discoveries, the novelty and the change of it all. I guess it’s one of the reason I like change and why I love travelling to new countries so much.
Even though I loved the moving I also longed to have a ‘forever’ home like my cousins had. My need for variety was filled by us moving, but my need for stability is where my longing for our own home came from. My ‘forever’ home was my Grandma’s house, we would go there every Christmas and the whole family would be there. It was the busiest, noisiest, craziest, fun time of the year and I loved every minute of it. My cousins, Sharon, Shaun and Barbara lived just up the road from my Grandma and up until about ten years ago my aunt still lived in that house, in fact my late cousin Shaun’s wife still lives there. To me, owning your own home had that wonderful notion of having something that was familiar and yours, a place that represents your personality, a bedroom with your own things permanently there.
I had other cousins who I was close to, one in particular was my cousin Sulesda. She was a year younger than me and she became my foster sister for a while as well when she moved in with us as a teenager and stayed for two years. Sadly she died of the flu at the age of 26, it was devastating!
So, at the age of 9 we were transferred to a little town called Robertson in the Western Cape and this was where I was to make my first proper friend, a friend that was not one of my cousins.
I met my new friend at our very first church event. Whenever you moved to a new town, the church would hold a celebration type of get-together where you were introduced to all the members of the church and this is where I got to meet my new friend Judy, who was nearly two years older than me. The people in Robertson mostly spoke Afrikaans, there were a few who could converse in broken English, but Judy’s mom was fluent in English, so she understood the language quite well. I have always been a quick learner and with Judy’s help and within a year I became completely fluent in Afrikaans which was a good thing as the schools we attended (there was 1 of each, a boys school, a girl’s school and a high school) taught us in English and then after a year promptly told my dad that now we would be taught in Afrikaans.
Out of all the places we lived in, Robertson was my favourite. Here you felt safe, you could play in the streets until after dark, we had ‘gangs’ good gangs, not the violent kind, more like the Famous Five type, where we went on adventures, playing in the mud, building forts and getting up to all sorts of fun innocent nonsense. The town, at the time was quite ‘backward’ in the sense that girls were frowned upon if they wore trousers or shorts or even strappy dresses. That didn’t hold me back from our adventures. I played rugby in the park with the boys wearing a dress, often being tackled right at the side of the park where the leaky tap was, skidding across the field in a pool of mud. Fortunately my mom wasn’t bothered with dirt, she would merely get us to strip, tell us to get into the bath and then proceed to wash our clothes. She was the kind of mom that encouraged us to just be kids. I remember us sliding across the highly polished passage and dining room floor, or our red polished stoep (veranda), in our socks, whilst squealing with delight and falling down in heaps of giggles. She even encouraged us to play in the rain. Robertson’s Summer months were extremely hot, so hot that the tar on the roads melted and stuck to your shoes and bicycle wheels, so when the rain came down in the Summer months, there was nothing better than feeling those cold refreshing drops on your face and body whilst drenching your light summer clothes. Next to the side of the road, there were these massive ‘rain gutters’ to drain the excess water away. They were big enough for us kids to frolic in when they were over flowing and I recall the simple joy of just walking in them, splashing about.
Judy and I did everything together. We had sleepovers at each others houses. We would hang out at the local park and have picnics high up in, or under, a very large tree in the corner of the park. On Saturdays we would ride our bikes into town to spend our 25c per week pocket money. Usually we would go the local trading store where we could sit down at the counter and enjoy a coke float together (a glass of Coke with a Scoop of Vanilla Ice Cream in it). Or we would go to the local chippy and buy a massive bag of steaming hot ‘slap’ chips laced with vinegar and salt (slap means soft and soggy). Judy and I confided in each other about everything, I don’t think there was anything we did not tell each other, secrets, fears, hurts, crushes on boys, (she had a massive one on my older brother Roland), and as she was older than me, she developed quicker so she was the friend who told me about periods and how babies were made. We went on holiday together to the seaside, we helped each other with homework and we even helped each other with our chores. I recall one of her chores was to help her mom with the washing. Her mom never had a washing machine, so all the clothes were put in the bath along with a good dose of Sunlight Soap washing powder and then you had to physically get into the bath and tread on it. Oh boy was that fun, walking on the wet squidgy clothes with your bare feet whilst laughing and chatting to your best friend, it never felt like a chore at all!
Judy’s home was my second home and I have the fondest memories of sitting in her kitchen perched up on the warm lid of the old aga stove in my pajamas watching her mom, aunty Cynthia, brew a new pot of coffee whilst chattering away. Her mom also used to dry fruit and make fruit rolls which was called ‘tammaletjie’. She roasted all her own coffee, made home made boerewors (sausage) and ground her own mince and she baked the most delicious home made bread. I learnt so much from Aunty Cynthia and a couple of years ago when I took my husband back to South Africa to show him my roots and where I grew up, I went and introduced him to her. She was living in a new home but still in the same town. As she opened the door, she did not immediately recognise me, but the minute I said ‘hello Aunty Cynthia’ she instantly knew who I was and invited us in, plying us with her beautiful homemade bredie (stew) and coffee.
Four wonderful years we spent at Robertson, where after we were transferred to a place called Greenbushes, which was just outside of Port Elizabeth. I was incredibly sad to leave my friend behind, but Port Elizabeth was only 30 minutes away from my Ouma’s (which means older mother and is the Afrikaans name for Grandma) house. My mom was ecstatic about living close to her family again and I focussed on being closer to my ‘forever home’ so I tried not to think about the loss of my friend and our friendship. Tragically, about a year after moving to Greenbushes, my Ouma suddenly passed away at the age of 63, I was only 12. My mother was devastated and my ‘forever home’ would never be the same again.
The initial excitement of living in Greenbushes soon wore off after my Ouma’s death and it became the place that destroyed my view of friendships for the following 25 years. For some reason, unbeknownst to myself, the girls at our new church and at the school were mean to me. This is the place that ‘innocent me’ learnt about bitchiness, jealousy, backstabbing and cattiness. It came as a massive shock to me. I would make friends and then a few days later my new friend would be awful to me. This happened time and time again. I would forgive and move on and be friends again, but it wounded me deeply and having such a trusting friendship with Judy, I was really confused about these girls in ‘the big city’. There were some nice moments of friendship I remember, with my two school friends Lara and Wilma, but the wounds and nastiness that I generally experienced since moving to Greenbushes stopped me from forming deeper bonds of friendships like the one I had shared with Judy. Judy and I kept in touch, she came to visit me and I went back to visit her, but the last time I saw her was when I was about 18.
Four years later we left Greenbushes, I finished school, started to work, got married, had kids, got divorced and along the way I made some friends, but they were still not the same. I opted to do things you would usually do with friends, with my brothers instead. With them I felt safe and that I could just be me. My older brother Roland went to the army, it was compulsory then and when he came on pass, he would take me to clubs, shopping and parties. It was with him that got drunk me drunk the first time and I hated it! I recall one really special moment when he was on pass and I was working as a nurse on nightshift. I hated working the night shift, every one else was going out when I had to go to work and the nights were long and sometimes scary as I was working in a ‘heart problem’ ward so there was lots of deaths. One night he went and bought me a massive big pizza which we then shared in my office whilst chatting away for hours and hours whilst my patients slept. My younger brother and I did other things together, he took me to see my first Indiana Jones movie, we went ice skating together for the first time, we went out for lunch, we went to bars and listened to music and danced. He also loved hanging out at our house and often used to baby sit for me. My brothers were my friends and I felt safe with them. But it was inevitable that things would change when they got married and started having lives of their own with their own families. In my twenties, I made a few friends at work, we had some good times together, but the bonds were still not quite the same.
It was in 2005 that I finally made a new friend with a friendship that was like the one I had with Judy. I was just about to finish my first book ‘The Relationship Magnet’ when I decided I would attend a writing course ‘to check if I was actually doing it right’ when I met Carol. Carol sat at the same table as me; she was a bit nervous and skittish of meeting new people. But over the next couple of weeks, we discovered that we lived a mere 5 minutes away from each other so we started driving to our writing course together every Saturday which gave us plenty of time to get to know each other. I invited her around to my house for dinner and our friendship started to develop from there. She was the first girl that I trusted again to be my friend. Carol is a ‘human vault’, your secrets were completely secure with her, she would not judge you and you could completely be yourself with her. She was the type of friend that would go the extra mile for you. We were both in a difficult stage in our lives where we were wrestling with our relationships with our families, so we became each other’s family. I was fiercely protective over her and vice versa. She even interrogated my husband’s intentions when she first met him! With Carol I had once again found that friend who I could just ‘be with’ and feel safe with’. I had finally found myself a new ‘Judy’.
Things changed when I moved away; first to New Zealand for 18 months and then to the UK in December 2010. Having my cousin and his family in New Zealand and my daughter and her family in the UK was a godsend, but I was still longing for a friendship like I had had with Judy and Carol. Soon after moving here I met Pam, a fellow South African who is in a similar situation to me. Half her family lives in the UK and the other lives over here. We became friends at her daughter’s wedding and soon discovered we had similar interests. We try and spend as much time together as possible, but as she lives a two hour trip away, it’s not always easy. I have also become really good friends with Jane, my son in-laws mum, I love her dearly and we do get to see each other quite a bit. I made another friend Deb, a few years ago, she lives in the Essex, we met in Tenerife whilst Paul and I were on holiday over there and Deb and I get to see each once a year or twice a year or so. But even with these lovely people in my life, I still longed for another Judy who lived close by. Was I being unrealistic, would it ever happen? I had to ask myself, was it because I still had a wall of self-protection up and that I was not allowing this to happen? This is what brought me to this moment in time where I started questioning if it was time to define friendship.
I realised that when I moved to the UK and into my husband’s home and life, my desperate loneliness and the need to fit in had me going about finding friendships in all the wrong ways. First I sought to become accepted and part of Paul’s friendship circle by inviting all of his friends, in batches, to our house for a meal. But as it was seldomly reciprocated and I never heard from them again, I figured they weren’t interest in my friendship, so I stopped doing that. Then I went about trying to befriend the women in town, but once again, I was trying too hard. I kept offering advice and help and soon I was know as the ‘go to girl’ for relationship and parenting issues, I readily gave out advice when it was asked for but soon, I tired of that as I wanted more, I wanted friendship. I didn’t merely want to be the ‘Go To Girl’, I wanted to be the girl that you just wanted to hang out with, the girl that you invited to go and see a movie or to your house for a meal because you enjoyed her company. But….it was not to be.
Two years ago, I returned to South Africa and met up once again with my dear friend Judy. I hadn’t seen her 25+ years, in fact I think she said the last time we saw each other was when I was pregnant with my son, who turned 30 this past December. Judy still looked exactly the same and we picked up exactly where we left off, it was wonderful. Paul and I had a lovely meal with her and her family and we slept over at her house that night. Would you believe that she still had the same big four poster bed we slept on together as kids!!! which my husband and I got to sleep on that night. Our time together was short, but one thing I realised is that when you have a true friend like that, no amount of time would change it, you may live in different places and have different lives, but the bond that we had as kids, was still there.
So coming back to my question as to whether it was time for me to redefine friendships. I have realised that friendship did not need to be redefined, it was my perception of what friendship is that needed to be changed. All friendships are not alike. I have also realised that the more I let my own walls down and once I truly forgave those who hurt me as a child and as a teenager that my own heart would be more open for true friendships with others. I have also realised that the sooner I valued my own friendship, was when others would value it too.