I should have served a pickle.
The thought came during one of my favorite parts of having guests — basking in the left-behind warmth while cleaning up after they’ve gone home. An old friend had come over one afternoon to deliver a late birthday present.
She’d invited me to her table a few weeks earlier for a meal of homemade pizza and homemade blood-orange cake. There were gifts then, too, mostly consumables, partly for the fun of having several things to unwrap and try to guess what they were — dried cranberries, yogurt raisins, Teddy Grahams. And a cold glass jar. Preserves of some sort? What else comes in a glass jar, has some heft, and apparently just came out of the fridge? I laughed when I realized it was kosher dills.
Months earlier, I had served my friend a tray of finger foods, including two dill pickle halves. As we talked and nibbled, she asked for more pickles. I had to disappoint her. No more pickles in the jar! I split the last one between us.
These pickles were part joke, part promise that she’d be over again and would save me from the embarrassment of picklelessness. Remembering and cultivating little jokes like this has always been part of our long friendship.
I’ve been thinking about the particularities of friendship because of a little book that’s been on my table for a while. It’s a small hardback, Friendship Poems from Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets series. It was a gift, too, but not to me.
To my best friend —
these are some of
my favorite poems!
Who is Em? Who loved a friend and poetry enough to give her best friend a book of both? And who was the beloved recipient? What happened for the book to leave her (I’m guessing it’s her) possession, sometime between its 1995 publication and the fall day in 2016 when I bought it for $4 in a used bookstore? How did it get there?
Is the cover scratched, sticky, and creased from use or lack of care? It hardly seems read at all, but it’s possible to handle a well-made little hardback like this without breaking its spine.
The yellow ribbon lies between two poems, “My Old Friend Prepared a Chicken with Millet” by Men Hao-Jan (AD 689-740) and from an “Epistle Answering to One that Asked to Be Sealed of the Tribe of Ben” by Ben Jonson. There are two places where the book seems to fall open, just a few pages from each other: “Two Friends” by Norman MacCaig and “The Old Familiar Faces” by Charles Lamb.
So many questions. The book begins with the category “What Are Friends?”
Emily Dickinson gets the first word:
Nature assigns the Sun —
That — is Astronomy —
Nature cannot enact a Friend —
That — is Astrology.
What is friendship? What are friends?
Elizabeth Jennings says it’s a love impossible to analyze.
Tao Tschung Yu says it’s people who can quarrel with each other and then drop the argument and have a picnic.
Cole Porter says it’s coming to each other’s rescue when you’re in a jam or a mess or jail.
Ogden Nash says they’re people who’d dive deep and risk the bends to save you if you were being eaten by an octopus.
An Aztec poem says it’s like a fragrant flower, a heron feather, a bird song.
W.H. Auden says, “Come when you can: Your room will be ready.”
Emily Brontë says it’s more holly tree than wild rose, blooming in winter and evergreen the rest of the year.
Henry David Thoreau says it’s two sturdy oaks withstanding storms, wind, and tide side by side.
I think they all have a point.
On that afternoon when my friend — my first guest in the new year — brought me a belated birthday gift, our friendship was a house blessing. Friendship looked like her bringing me a cozy pair of mail-order mukluks, just because they looked like me. It was drinking tea together, asking one question and giving the space for a long answer. Instead of Men Hao-Jan’s chicken and millet, it was Irish soda bread and the last Cara Cara orange. And the bookend to post-visit tidying was pre-visit cleaning areas of my home that have been too long untouched, because although I knew she wouldn’t care, anticipating her visit awakened the care in me.
Next time she gets whole dills.