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Strangers and friends

An old picture hangs on my wall, a framed snapshot of two girls who scarcely know each other making a pizza. It is a photo of both dinner and friendship in the making. One of the girls is a much younger me. The other girl was one of my college roommates. We and a third girl — who took the picture — had met a few weeks earlier at summer orientation and discovered our mutual need for housing and someone to share it with.

With all the optimism of youth, on the basis of 15 minutes acquaintance we decided to share rent, household chores and bathroom privileges for the next school year. We needed a fourth, and we found a willing candidate on the university’s list of students in need of housing. She lived on the other side of the country, but a few phone calls confirmed her as the last member of our intrepid quartet. We met her the day she moved in.

The pizza picture was taken on our first evening in our new-to-us apartment, when we were too tired at the end of a long day of cleaning and unpacking to go out to dinner, and possibly too short of cash as well. Instead, we made pizza the old fashioned way, from a pizza kit my mom thoughtfully included in one of the boxes I brought from home.

In August, we were four strangers. By late October, we were a sisterhood, sharing long talks over tubs of ice cream, complaining about homework, quarrelling over housework and borrowing one another’s clothes. We roomed together for the rest of my college years, creating memories I wouldn’t trade and friendships I couldn’t replace.

As happens with college cohorts, our lives and careers took us in different directions after graduation. The separation was painful at the time, but years later we are still friends. We get together when we can to celebrate our lives and grieve our losses.

But once, we were strangers. As I look at the photograph, it’s hard for me to remember how little we knew of each other then. On that first day, we didn’t know how many silly things we would laugh about, how many difficult things we would live through together, how we would come to love each other.

The pizza picture reminds me that friends are strangers at the beginning and that a move across country doesn’t mean the end. I need that reassurance in the military life I live now, a life that makes deep binding friendships more challenging but no less necessary.

Like most military families, we’ve spent many summers packing, cleaning, moving, saying goodbye and watching our children say goodbye to good friends. In the summers when we don’t move, sometimes our friends do. Each separation makes me more hesitant to reach out and make new attachments.

When you arrive at a new location, with tearful farewells and final hugs from your last assignment still fresh on your mind, do you wonder if it would be easier not to get that close again? I do, but then I find that forgoing friendship comes at a higher price than a painful departure.

I could wait to make friends when our moving days are over in the sweet by and by, but I need friends for the nitty-gritty day to day. True, it is much easier to let go of friends if I hold them at arm’s length, rather than embrace them. But when I need a friend and my family is half the country or half the world away, what I want is a hug, not a handshake.

When I said goodbye to my college roomies, the strangers that became like sisters, I thought I would never find such close friendships again. Years of military life and many military spouses have proven me wrong.

When I think I’d rather let new acquaintances remain just that, I take a good look at my pizza picture and consider what I might be missing.

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