Since 1983, I have kept in my jewelry box a picture of the girl who was my dearest friend in 6th grade. Paula had moved with her family to my hometown. Our teacher, Alice Hill, assigned her the empty seat next to mine, and asked me to look out for her and acquaint her with our school and routines. Paula and I became instant best friends. We liked the same books, had the same sense of humor, enjoyed the same foods, excelled in the same subjects in school and shared secret crushes on two boys who were also best friends. We spent the night at each other’s house, doing homework, watching television, eating potato chips, and making plans for the future lives we would lead.
Paula’s father was stationed at a nearby military base, and the next year, when he was reassigned, he moved his family again, and Paula and I were heartbroken to be separated. We exchanged addresses and promised we’d stay in touch, and over the years we did, writing letters. One summer, when we were in high school, Paula came to visit, briefly, with her boyfriend. She later mailed me her senior photo and I sent her mine, and then, as graduation, jobs, and life prevailed on our time and energy, we lost track of each other. I kept her picture in the same place, and each time I opened my jewelry box and saw her face I would miss her, say a little prayer, and wish I knew where she was and how her life was going.
This week, with the nation practically on shutdown because of a pandemic virus, I quietly celebrated my fifty-fifth birthday with family on St. Patrick’s Day, and when I opened my jewelry box to take out my shamrock earrings, there was Paula’s smiling face. I determined I would find her. I put her picture on my social media page, with a paragraph explaining who she was and why I wanted to find her again. Immediately, several friends offered suggestions as to how to accomplish my goal. Unfortunately, I could not remember Paula’s father’s name or rank, either of her sister’s names, nor did I know for sure which high school she had attended. Several people shared my post, but with no responses.
The next day, determined to continue the search that had really only just begun, I searched Paula out by her maiden name, and held up the picture I had, from 1983, beside each photo I saw on the social media platform I was using. After about twenty names, I saw a slightly familiar, more mature face, but in each of the sparse pictures, the woman was looking away, or wearing shades, or the picture was a little out of focus. It was impossible to be sure. I continued down the list, and after about twenty more of the same name and variations of it, I went back to the almost familiar face. I decided to take a chance and message her explaining who I was and why I wanted to know who she was. After I sent the message I noticed that the woman had not posted anything in almost five years. I returned to her personal information and found the names of two relatives she listed and messaged them as well, explaining my purpose and my hope.
Within thirty minutes my phone dinged and another woman said simply, “Paula is my sister.” I gave more details, trying to determine if I had the correct Paula. She asked, “What was your maiden name?” When I told her, she responded immediately, “She really wants to talk to you – here is her number!” At the same time my phone dinged again, and it was Paula asking, “May I call you?” I gave her my number and the phone rang within seconds.
The years melted away instantly, and Paula and I were best friends again, sharing a book together in Mrs. Hill’s class, riding bikes up to The Cupboard to buy Cokes or to the Chuck Wagon for a hotdog, chewing green apple bubble gum, watching our secret crushes, Jim and Brent, a couple of tables over as they ate lunch, unaware. We shared news of our lives, who we had married, (who we had divorced,) how many children we have, where our birth families and siblings are now. She learned of my cancer diagnosis, I of her stroke. She learned of my career teaching and I learned of her time in Germany, married to a United States Marine. We laughed over and over, each of us exclaiming, “Oh my gosh I cannot believe we are talking! I’ve thought of you so often!” I was most happy to learn that she lives just ninety minutes from me, and as soon as the pandemic passes, I am going to go see her. She can no longer drive because of her stroke, but I will be glad to pick her up and take us to lunch, sharing a ride, just as she let me share her bike seat so many years ago.
I am overjoyed to have reconnected with my long-lost friend, answering the hope with which I looked at her youthful face, peering out at me from under my earrings. The world seems to be in disturbing turmoil at the moment, but this day I have experienced a great peace hearing Paula’s voice again, for the first time in almost forty years. I cannot wait to see the light shining from her beautiful green eyes. The passage of time will surely have dimmed our eyesight, silvered our hair, and creased our faces, but don’t be fooled by the wrinkles and grays – we will be the two giggling girls, laughing about our crushes, sharing our lunch and a ride, and making all kinds of plans for the future.
“There is no better looking-glass than an old friend.” ~ Thomas Fuller