Most of us in the world count among the people closest to us, our parents, our siblings, our spouses, our children. And in our world we all talk about the bonds of friendship and we experience these wonderful bonds but when push comes to shove it is our families that we love above all else.
But every once in a while, you do have a friend that truly is family, even when you don't share a drop of blood.
Karen my aunt Patty's girlfriend lived together in the 1970's - quite controversial to be living an openly gay lifestyle then for sure. Although I didn't even know what gay meant in the time when Karen came running into my life. Romantic relationships were not even in my sphere of consciousness. Aunt Patty lived in York, which was about 3 hours away from us. I remember her as a young child but I don't think we saw each other that often, at least until Karen came on the scene. I remember them visiting us several times in Washington, PA where we lived. My Aunt Patty was always sweet and silly but Karen was something else. She was uproariously funny and she is one of these people who just genuinely love being around kids. At any given time there were at least 10 kids running in and out of her house. She always was full of jokes and really funny stories, stories so funny that milkshakes come flying out your nose, I cannot tell you the number of times I almost choked to death in Karen's presence from exploding in laughter whenever I ate or drank something.
It's hard for me to explain but Karen just emulated this sense that she was in your corner no matter what. If she loved you, you were in for a life sentence of her love, whether you wanted it or not. Karen came into our lives at a time when my dad was completely preoccupied with finishing his Ph.D. and finding work as a college professor and although I loved my dad more than anything in those years he just wasn't around very often. Therefore Karen's injection into my life filled a hole. She and my mom were also very close too. Karen was (and is), funny and easy to be around and there is absolutely nothing she wouldn't do for the people she loves. Eventually I learned that she had 3 kids and was divorced and I remember going to York for the first time to visit them and meet Karen's 3 kids. They were a lot of fun. They lived in a neighborhood just full of genuine, hard working people of good Pennsylvania Dutch stock. At the time everyone ended their sentences with the phrase 'ya know it' and while I very much made fun of that when I was in York, secretly when I returned to Western Pennsylvania, I ended my sentences with 'ya know it' too.
I grew especially close in those years to Karen's daughter TJ, we took turns, as girls do, idolizing each other and fighting, but always came together. Karen's oldest son Steve was my first official boyfriend when I was 11. I think our relationship lasted a whole 3 days, maybe even a week. Before we were 'involved' we fought like cats and dogs all the time, arguing, teasing and outdoing one another at every turn. When he became my boyfriend we were too embarrassed to even look at each other and our big relationship pretty much consisted of us avoiding looking at each other all day while we played outside, or while we went to the pool or out for ice cream. In the evening we kissed goodnight and that was it. Soon it fizzled out, I was secretly miserable about it even though I broke it off and if I remember correctly he rebounded to the girl that lived across the street.
Karen struggled financially back then, she was putting herself through college, was divorced and had 3 kids. They ate a lot of spaghetti and something called chipped beef which I, in my middle class comfort of steak twice a week and brisket on Friday night, had never heard of. I am not sure Karen's kids ever ate steak unless they had it when they visited our house. It didn't matter one bit though. Me and my steak, we were unhappy. Even though they didn't have a lot but it was a lot happier and funner than my materially comfortable house. During the day they took us swimming or to the park or we played lots of games. At night we went in the basement where it was cooler, watched movies and ate popcorn. I remember one evening when Karen's kids went to visit their dad, she took me out to dinner and we went to a pretty fancy place and had surf 'n turf. My first lobster ever (and I was forever a convert, sorry Rabbi).
When we moved to Miami they visited us there and in the summers or on Christmas break from school I often went to York. When my parents separated we originally went to York. My mom who was pretty lost at the time let me choose the place and the thought of being around Karen and her kids seemed like the best possibility. It was always so much fun there I thought I could be there with them and not be sad at all. So we moved to York but my fantasy didn't really pan out. We ended up living on the other side of York, renting part of a house from one of Karen's friends and she was a nice woman but it was pretty isolating where she lived. My mom had to go back to work to help support us as my dad was giving her a difficult time and she found a nursing job but had to mostly work evenings from 3-11. At first I thought I could spend the time she was working at Karen's but that didn't' work out most of the time. My mom was depressed and not up for much, so in the hours she wasn't working she slept late and by the time she got up it was too late to go over to Karen's as she had to get ready for work. So I only saw them maybe once a week.
Going through my own pain and missing my dad, I was not really up for venturing out myself and trying to make friends in the neighborhood. I spent most of my time alone in the house we rented, watching tv or sitting outside and waiting for my mom to get home. The woman whose house it was was very nice but she had her own life so I was alone a lot of the time. After about 2 months I was completely miserable and told my dad I wanted to go be near him and he convinced my mom to move with me.
After that I didn't have a lot of contact with Karen. There was a lot of change in my life and by the time I really could have forged my own contact with Karen she and my aunt had broken up so I felt awkward about contacting her. It wasn't until almost 30 years later that we did enter each other's lives again. When my mom retired she decided to leave Miami again and move to York to be close to her brother and sister (and her other brother who also lived in FL made plans to move as well). I visited my mom many times in York and the first thing I thought of each time was to call Karen but at the time my mom moved there she told me Karen was fighting breast cancer so I didn't feel it was the right time.
It wasn't until a year and a half later that I just picked up the phone and called her, it was when my own mom was diagnosed with Pancreatic cancer and given only weeks to live. I decided right then and there that life was too short and I was just going to call her. I got her voicemail and left a message, in about a half hour she called me back and that was all she wrote. Although I was a kid and she was younger than I was at the time we last saw each other, not a second had passed. She was the same easy, fun, funny, generous, fantastic woman that I remembered. Although my mom died only about 6 weeks after I made that call Karen spent time with my mom and not a second had passed between them either. My mom was so grateful for Karen's presence in her life those last weeks.
When my mom was diagnosed my brothers and I went to be with her but she insisted that we visit for a few days and leave and not come back. She told me secretly that she thought she wouldn't be able to die if she felt she was leaving us and that she wanted to go peacefully. I didn't fully get her thinking but my brothers and I decided to respect her wishes. Her husband was caring well for her and she was under hospice care at home as well. In the few good weeks she had after I left her we spoke every day (as we had since the time I was pregnant with Maya) and she told me many times how she looked forward to Karen's visits the most.
Since her death Karen has again taken me in her arms both literally and figuratively. She counts me as one of her kids and is a force of love and support for Maya. Although she has not said it to me I think she feels that since my mom, for whom Maya was a constant source of joy in her often joyless life, feels the need to carry that torch for my mom and be there for Maya. She has been a source of unwavering support for me and my role as a parent, never judging, always encouraging and telling me not to be too hard on myself. Karen understood my mom better than most people and although we don't specifically talk about it, I often feel like Karen tells me the things that my mom wished she could have.
My own mom sometimes had trouble sharing her feelings or being demonstrative. She had a difficult life and a lot of sorrows which were difficult for her to put behind her. I am ever so grateful though that what she did do for me, was bring me a woman who could.