By Jennifer Palmer
Mom is still someone in flux, someone continually being refined by life, by experience, by motherhood itself.
China, two years after the end of World War II. Two American couples, husbands both pilots for the Marine Corps, wives both new mothers. A shared love of flying, a shared enjoyment of golf. A shared language, not to be disregarded in a foreign land far from home. Superficial things on which to build anything lasting, perhaps, but these were the foundation for a lifelong friendship, one that spanned six decades and more.
It’s a bit of family lore now, the meeting in China, the friendship that bloomed there. John and Gloria—my husband’s paternal grandparents—spoke long and often about Roy and Shirley, about their shared history. Though they were well into their adult lives when they met, already parents and spouses, theirs was a friendship for the ages, of the type you only ever expect to find in fiction. Even when the Marine Corps sent them to Southern California and they returned to the familiar sights and sounds of the States, they chose to remain close to each other, sharing meals and stories and life.
When Roy died flying one of the planes he loved so much, John and Gloria were the support Shirley needed as she and her young sons picked up the pieces, providing love and advice and help during her darkest days. Later, she remarried, and John and Gloria celebrated with her, and welcomed her new husband into their lives.
Shirley remained in Southern California for the rest of her life; John and Gloria did not. When Uncle Sam sent John to Korea, Gloria returned to her native Missouri, and after retirement the couple finally settled in Northern California. Still, even when time and distance separated them, Shirley and Gloria found a way to maintain their friendship; until Shirley’s deteriorating health would no longer permit it, the two women spoke on the phone every day.
I never knew Shirley, but there were days when I felt as though I did. Gloria never failed to mention her at our weekly lunches, never failed to share some anecdote from their shared past. It hit her hard when her dear friend passed away; though it was not unexpected, it is no small thing to lose a companion of more than sixty years. When Gloria lost Shirley, she lost more than a gabbing partner. She lost a treasured friend, the one who understood her better than most everyone else.
Those of us who knew Shirley or Gloria think of them as lifelong friends, and, indeed, they were. It is nearly impossible to picture one of them without the other, to imagine what their lives would have been had they never met. And yet this struck me recently, as I looked into the face of my own sleeping infant: Shirley and Gloria met after they were married, after their boys were born, at a time when they were well into their adult lives. Their lifelong friendship, the relationship that came to define them in so many ways, wasn’t formed until they were mothers, until they were in a place in life that looked pretty similar to where I am now.
It is hard to wrap my mind around this concept, for I have lived thirty years on this earth, in all likelihood a full third of my life. To a large extent, my identity and character are established. I have likes and interests and friends and hobbies that have nothing to do with the fact that so much of my time and energy is wrapped up in keeping a small human alive and thriving. Though I know that, in the eyes of that small human and in the eyes of any who may come after her, I will be “Mom,” first and foremost, always and forever, my life and my identity precede children.
What I realize when I contemplate Gloria and Shirley, however, is this: “Mom” is still someone in flux, someone continually being refined by life, by experience, by motherhood itself. I may meet somebody tomorrow, or next week, or next year, who will become integral in my children’s lives, who will shape and mold me to the point that my kids will be unable to picture me without her. Some person or lesson or experience may yet come my way which will change me profoundly, leave me a different woman from the one I am today.
This idea inspires me, for it reminds me that even now, as an adult and a wife and a mother, my life is not static. I have the room and the opportunity to grow and to change and to learn. Who I will be in my daughter’s eyes, the woman she will remember when she is grown with children of her own, is yet to be defined.
More than that, though, Gloria and Shirley’s example shows me that it is not too late for me to form lasting new friendships or to rekindle old ones, that it is not too late to invest time in meaningful relationships with other women. This truth seems to contradict my everyday experience; even in the modern world of Facebook and email and Skype, these early days of motherhood are often quite lonely, and making time for friendships sometimes seems impossible. Gloria and Shirley demonstrated otherwise. Their friendship did not happen by accident; though they had young boys at home, they found a way to spend their hours and their days together, to build a lasting relationship. Their families and their lives were better for it.
Jennifer Palmer worked as an electrical engineer until her daughter was born, but has always been a writer at heart. She now scribbles in her journal between diaper changes, composes prose in her head as she rocks a baby to sleep, and blogs about finding the beauty in everyday life at choosingthismoment.com. She lives with her husband and daughter in the forested foothills of the Sierra Nevadas in Northern California.