A Friend Is...

Mary, the art teacher and I decided to collaborate on publishing a student magazine. Her twelfth graders would provide the artwork; my Spanish students would write short pieces, maybe blank verse, in their new language. From Shakespeare's The Tempest, I lifted "Ariel" for the name of the magazine. "Ariel" the sprite -- airy, pointedly not commercial.

The theme one year was "Un amigo es..." ("A friend is...") It clicked with teenagers, and came offerings such as: "Un amigo es el que te ayuda cuando estas triste." ("A friend is someone who helps you when you're sad.") Cute drawings embellished the texts.

"Ariel" appeared for three or four years in the spring, each a compact ten pages or so. It always seemed to be more work than it looked. I thought the magazine was something its contributors would feel proud of if they looked back at it after high school.

Mary and I lived across town from each other and our school collaboration evolved into a friendship when we had retired from teaching. One year, she invited her friends to a cupcake-baking party in her apartment. On one of her Christmas cards, she wrote: "Every day is so important." I got to see in her a person who brought creativity to much of what she did.

A passionate ornithologist and even a poet, Mary's own paintings and drawings were skillful and original. I bought a couple of her drawings and a large batik of oranges and greens and browns that hangs in my bedroom years after I acquired it. Though Mary continued to paint, and her works never bogged down into repetitive, her work in the art world did not bring the recognition it deserved. She tried, but failed when it came to competing in commercial circles.

The woman with whom Mary lived was a person as dour as Mary was fun. That lady seemed to bring a dark cloud whenever she entered a room. Over time, I saw my friend's bright manner gradually darken, mirroring that of her partner. The two of them dived into a strange lifestyle, railing against society, dressing in old clothes, taking home uneaten rolls from a dinner table. Poverty, financial but also spiritual, seemed to feed them. They boxed many of their possessions with the plan to move to some place south near a bird sanctuary, but the boxes remained against the wall in their apartment, and the move never happened.

I imagined that the change in Mary was caused by the other woman's influence, but that was only my supposition. In any case, I visited them less and less, and then not at all. I'm ashamed to say that I let the friendship lapse, all the more since Mary died a year ago.

The address book I've been using for years has fallen into tatters, and I've brought out a new one that was a gift I'd been saving. Transferring names and addresses requires resolve; my old book contains names of people who have passed into and out of my life, and some whose lives are finished. Mary is gone, and her name won't be transferred, but seeing it in the old address book makes me sad once again that I ignored the years we had worked together and been friends, and I had retreated from our friendship.

What attracted Mary to a woman so diametrically opposite is a question beyond answering, but one that is hard for me to shake. Was it the dark nature in the other woman that appealed to Mary, that brought out a dark side in her?

Whatever the cause, Mary was hardly alone with a side counter to what she once showed the world. Maybe we all have that other side. I've had trouble making room for that part in me, but it persists, and needs recognition.

My friend was a person of value whom I foolishly discarded. I stopped at some point replying to her Christmas cards. I hope she didn't feel hurt, but likely she did. For her, I let "a friend is" become "a friend was."

Stanley Ely writes about a number of friends in his book, "Life Up Close, a Memoir," in paperback and ebook.