Strangers become real friends

Posted Nov. 08, 2009, at 9:19 p.m.

When you are the new family in town, as we were a little more than a year ago, people tend to make promises. “We should have you over to dinner,” they say, for example. But promises don’t always turn into invitations. An adage in the publishing world is that consumers need to see your book cover three times before they decide to buy it.

I think the same is true for potential new friends. On the first meeting, they make promises. On the second meeting, they make excuses for not meeting those promises. On the third meeting, they realize you aren’t going away, that you really do live around the corner, so they invite you over.

This isn’t the way it happened with my friend Steph. That’s how I knew we’d be good friends. I had heard about Steph during my first week in town because we both have three children, all the same ages. We finally met on the soccer field, and Steph suggested we get together with the kids. Another unfulfilled offer, I thought. By the time I got home from soccer practice, however, there was a message waiting for me on the answering machine. Steph had invited us over.

Meanwhile, I kept meeting one mother in a baseball cap at school pickup, and another mother with long, strawberry-blond hair at the football field. I liked both of these women, in part because they also had three children, whom I hadn’t met up close yet, of the same ages as mine. A week later, when the woman in the baseball cap invited me over for coffee, I realized that she and the woman with long hair were the same person: Heather.

It’s fitting that my introduction to Heather was marked by this confusion, because still, one year later, she continues to surprise me. Steph, Heather and I meet weekly for a play date with our youngest boys. Heather, who has never colored her hair or plucked her eyebrows and has the carefree, comfortable styling of a J.Crew model, always brings her planner and has an agenda. She knits, then she parties. She bakes, then she sings karaoke with a voice like Stevie Nicks, which we didn’t know she had.

As fast as Heather waves her hand in the air and says “oh, whatever,” she just as quickly brings Steph and me back to task with her list of items to be discussed. (In our individual lives, Steph and I are go-getters and competent mothers. Put us together — especially without Heather’s organizing influence — and we tend to regress into something like two teenagers who have skipped school.)

Steph, Heather and I have grown close in a relatively short period of time. Previously, I wasn’t sure such quick, strong connections could happen outside of the military-spouse realm, where you make fast, lifelong friends out of necessity to survive deployments and other hardships. I’ve always likened this phenomenon to being trapped in an elevator together. In the harshest of circumstances, bonds between strangers emerge.

Maybe last year’s hard winter brought Steph, Heather and me together. Maybe it is the insanity of us all being mothers to three children. In any case, these women have become friends that I depend upon greatly. It is exceptional to have these kinds of friends just one year after moving into a new city, but it speaks to the importance of reaching out and making connections.

Which brings us to IAs.

Although Dustin is technically on shore duty here in Bangor, individual augmentation assignments are a constant, sobering threat. When a service member is deployed for an IA, they are sent individually (as opposed to the usual process of leaving with a ship, unit or squadron) to support another currently deployed group overseas. IAs are generally anywhere from six to 12 months long. Often there is very little advance notice. I’ve heard stories of husbands coming home on a Friday and telling their family that on Monday they are leaving for a 12-month IA. Which is to say, shore-based service members like Dustin are a lot like toys waiting inside an arcade game, when suddenly the big claw comes down and snatches them.

I fear IAs like no other deployment because without a simultaneously deployed group, there is not a close, immediate support network for families left behind. So when Dustin uttered “IA” the other day — as in “be prepared that I could be sent on an IA at any time” — I panicked. I also cried. Then Steph came to check on me. And Heather called. I knew then that I would be all right.

Real friends — the kind that feel more like family — aren’t special to the military world. You just have to seek them, follow through on promises, and when the invitation is made, accept it.

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. She may be reached at sarah@sarahsmiley.com.

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