When I first read this post I couldn’t tell if I loved it so much because of my personal connection to the writer and the subject or because it is so well written. After reading it again and loving it just as much, I realized that it’s both. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know Debra Bunch Ghosh, she has been my sister’s best friend for what seems like etermity. Theirs has been a relationship – spanning decades – that has served as a wonderful example of real, honest and loyal friendship and considering who these two women are, that’s saying something. Here is Debra in her own words:
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We Are Still Friends
She strutted into the classroom singing. Her skirt was stylishly mini and brightly colored. Her ‘fro was blossoming into Angela Davis magnificence. Her voice swooped and soared, graceful and self-absorbed as a bird in flight: “The moment I wake up . . . before I put on my make-up . . . I say a little prayer for you.”
She never even glanced at the unknown me; I gazed mesmerized, what the British might call “gob-smacked.” Sometimes we simply recognize Our People on first sight, seeing our personal destiny suddenly embodied before us.
Maybe you’ve been lucky enough to be blessed in this way.
That was sophomore year in high school, back in the Vietnam era. Look in our yearbooks and you’ll see lots of dashikis, Nehru jackets, thigh-high op-art dresses in blinding hues—and all that in a mid-sized Illinois town drowsing on the banks of the Mississippi. I’d see Vicki, but never quite enticed her into conversation—she might answer my tentative conversation starters with a quip and a loud laugh, pointing a long index fingernail at my confusion, but then she’d turn away. She was interested in everything, but most everything was more interesting than I was.
In junior year, we worked together on the newspaper and proximity and habituation eroded some barriers. “Do you know who Langston Hughes is?” she asked me one day. My ignorance distressed her; she introduced me to Simple, and then to a whole wealth of literature neglected by the curriculum. When she began to call me by my last name, Bunch, I was thrilled. It seemed to me that we were on our way to being friends.
Still, I could not believe my good fortune when, one frosty morning, she turned to me in English class and asked, “Bunch, are you going to the University of Illinois?” I confessed that I had no other choice. She was the smartest person in the class, a National Merit Scholar chosen to meet and be congratulated by Nixon (whom we despised, but who was still holding a pretty impressive job that year.) Today, the Ivies would be squabbling with one another to admit her with a free ride. In 1970, the reality was that she would be going to the same state school as her also-ran classmate. I couldn’t believe it. Nor I could I believe I was brave enough to venture “Well, maybe we could be roommates.” “Ha, ha!” she laughed. “MayBE. I’ll get back to you.”
She did. In a few months we were housed together in a tiny stark dorm room that we decorated largely with brightly colored tissue paper. She ordered a huge poster of Malcolm X to adorn the door; what was delivered was—inexplicably—a close-up of Joe Namath. “Hmm,” she said, examining it critically. “Bunch, we’ll just make it do.” She took a Magic Marker and printed, in huge black letters, “If it feels good, do it. If it’s fun, do it TO it.”
This was a difficult time for us to dwell in peace together. You may have surmised that Vicki was “Black and Proud,” while I was—and, I believe, still am–White and Confused. By the midpoint of the first semester, all the other “mixed” roommates had separated, generally not very congenially. I fretted about the future of our relationship. The people who spent time in our shared space used lots of vocabulary that I had to ask Vicki to explain later. You might think that “Da Bomb” would be self-explanatory. . .but I was a honky who had already humiliated herself by confusing “bud” (as in “get up offa some”) with “buzz.” Without Vicki’s patient instruction, I would never have known the wonderful phrase “See a fool, bump his head.” (I am still not 100% sure of all its implications, which may be why I have heard it so often during all these decades.)
And then, there was the impending Revolution. I couldn’t help growing uncomfortable when strategies for the imminent destruction of the melanin-deficient became the most popular topic. Vicki reassured me with a laugh. “Bunch, we will let you live. Somebody gonna have to do the hard work.”
I could go on revealing the highlights of our association—go on for quite a while, since we are talking about nearly half a century of history. I could discuss how we both disapproved of every boyfriend that the other acquired—ultimately, it was invariably demonstrated, with very good reason. Hers were too “triflin’” and sometimes too “beige” and generally too vain. Mine were pretty much the same, though the adjectives differed a bit. We agreed that all were “dogs.”
Or I could recount those all-night discussions of our past—remarkably similar, with working-class origins, eccentric relatives, and extensive experience of Baptist churches and congregations. Or the long planning sessions for our futures—including our weddings. Vicki wanted an elaborate, elegant ceremony and reception, followed by an amicable but immediate dissolution of the marriage at the conclusion. Or I might confide how sad and lonely I felt when my confidante graduated a year early (genius, remember?) and abandoned me. There’s a novel in our saga, and maybe several thick books.
What’s most important, though, is this: We are still friends. I have her photo on my desk and think of her daily; Vicki-withdrawal sets in if I go more than a week without talking to my other self. (And, thanks to her, I know what “jones-in’” is!) We’ve been friends through rough patches in the marital road, sharing secrets we hardly dared to admit to ourselves. We’ve shored up one another’s crumbling self-confidence during times of depression. We’ve comforted each other as we lost family members, lost youth, lost idealism, lost, sometimes, even hope. Even during the tense times our social fragmentation sometimes imposes on us (“Bunch, do NOT talk to me about O.J. Just don’t.”), we didn’t let the bond loosen too much. We talk. We listen. We laugh. On the night Obama was elected, we just got on the phone and cried, not saying much.
When I was diagnosed with cancer and all the good wishes and encouraging platitudes left me as exhausted as the chemo, I was most touched by Vicki’s simple declaration: “Well, Bunch, before you had the surgery, I just spent the day fasting and praying for you.” I felt halfway to healed.
She hauls me along on family vacations and exposes herself to gatherings of my well-meaning, embarrassing red-neck relations. (“Now is that Vicki? There was one of you in our church today, Vicki!”) Our conversations, increasingly, sound like the grumpy, repetitious old-folks’ complaints we used to mock during our young times—when Hector was a pup. We reinforce our mutual disapproval of the erosion of good grammar, home training, the work ethic, minimal respect, safety. We cackle and digress. We seldom arrive at any startling insights. But, of course, that’s no longer our intent.
We are still friends.
I hope that you, Gentle Reader, have someone like Vicki in your life—a constant, a sister, a good (if occasionally cantankerous) angel. I hope that you are half as blessed as I have been.
And if you are, don’t let yourself succumb to the temptation to underestimate the blessing, to let the connection lapse, to fail to find time in an over-crowded schedule to nourish what seems to thrive even when neglected.
Not everyone has been given the gift of someone who after so many changes, after so many years, there is still someone who is still as necessary (and unappreciated) as breath itself. . . someone willing to say a little prayer for you.
You know. A friend.
Debra Bunch Ghosh is a writer, editor, and teacher blessed with a handsome and hard-working husband, a brilliant and beautiful daughter, students who challenge and delight her, and friends who enrich her life in a thousand ways. She currently resides in the battleground state of Ohio.