Making new friends under stress

Posted Dec. 21, 2008, at 6:48 p.m.

I used to compare meeting and connecting with other military spouses to being trapped in an elevator with strangers and then emerging close friends who know each other’s secrets, history, fears and, possibly, dress size. Drastic situations tend to force quick acquaintances.

After living in Florida for a decade, however, I changed that analogy to say that the tendency for military spouses to become fast, lifelong friends could be compared to people bonding over a charcoal grill and soon-to-spoil meat after a hurricane. The actual hurricane is bad enough, but what comes after — lost power (specifically air conditioning), no running water, gas shortages — can be just as bad and drags on for weeks, sometimes months. It seems strange to remember such times now, as I sit here in Maine, where outside temperatures make my freezer seem warm. But the images are burned into my mind like an afterimage from the sun.

Our family (minus Dustin, who at the last minute had to hurrivac an airplane from NAS Whiting Field in Pace, Fla., to Memphis, Tenn.) escaped Hurricane Ivan by seeking shelter at my grandmother’s retirement home in Birmingham, Ala. I lived there with two small children and a dog that wasn’t yet housebroken for almost two weeks. I became fast friends with my grandmother’s elderly neighbors and the staff at the retirement home.

We escaped to my grandmother’s place again for Hurricane Dennis, but this time, because I also had my mother-in-law visiting, we had to return to Pensacola much sooner, before power, gasoline and running water had been restored. In those first few days, when we had nowhere to go and nothing to do, we spent our time sitting on lawn chairs with our neighbors and grilling food from our refrigerators that soon would spoil. When there’s no power or running water, no one wears makeup or blow-dries their hair. And when the temperatures are up in the high 90s, this means no one looks — or smells — great. But you’re in it together. Over candlelit games of Scrabble on the driveway, you get to know your neighbors. You help them cut up downed limbs. You share your bottled water.

In the worst of times in Pensacola, much like during the worst of times in the military (when spouses are deployed), I was reminded of the goodness of people.

When we moved to Maine, I worried that my neighbors might stay shut away in their homes, either because they are Northerners (an as yet unfounded stereotype) or because the outside is cold. How will I connect with people without those hot summer nights sitting on someone else’s driveway and talking about the weather? I wondered.

Turns out, Maine provides a different opportunity for people to bond. There aren’t many hurricanes (although one did come through the first week I lived here — coincidence?), but last week, I woke up to 9 degree temperatures and a backyard that was covered in ice.

Almost immediately, the neighbors began to call to check on one another. People were clearing walkways for people who could not. And friends huddled over mugs of hot chocolate to get through the day (made much more difficult because school was canceled and the kids were going wild at home) together.

The day after the ice storm, I was pulling out of the driveway when Ford, 8, said, “Why do you have the fireplace going when we are leaving the house?”

“We don’t have a fireplace,” I said.

“Then why is smoke coming out of the chimney?”

Silly me, I didn’t even realize we had a chimney. But sure enough, white stuff was billowing out of it. After checking the house for smoke and finding none, I took the kids to school and then headed straight to the gym to ask for advice because, of course, Dustin was away on duty. Several people, many of whom don’t know me at all, eagerly offered their assistance with the “smoke” coming out of my chimney. Turns out, my furnace vents through the chimney. But the point is a handful of strangers took time out of their day to help another stranger. We bonded over an unexpected situation. You might say that we emerged from the “elevator” as friends.

This Christmas, I am reminded once again that North or South, civilian or military, hot or cold, in good times and in bad, your neighbor can be your friend — if you only take the time and ask.

Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. Sarah Smiley’s new book “I’m Just Saying …” is available wherever books are sold. You may reach Sarah at sarah@sarahsmiley.com.

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