FRIENDSHIPS FLOURISH, IN HER HEART AND ON HER COMPUTER SCREEN

Burlington County Times, December 24, 2001

This time of year always reminds me of friends, particularly of one friend. For several years, I spent every New Year’s Eve with my best friend Arlene. Her father was a musician in a nightclub, so she, her mother, her aunt, her grandmother, her little brother, and I would see the New Year in together.

After high school, Arlene and I drifted apart. After I moved from Boston, we saw each other only on my occasional visits to my parents. After a while, I lost track of Arlene, and it’’s been about ten years since we were in touch.

Ten years, that is until a few weeks ago, when I finally found her e-mail address. In a flurry of e-mails we caught up on the past ten years. Her father is still playing trumpet. Her aunt and brother are fine. She has a new job, has moved, is still living with the same guy.

In the meantime, I have a new group of friends. There are 24 of us, about half of whom are in contact daily. We range in age from ““baby”” Jo, who just turned 18, to Annamarie, who just turned 62. We are single, married, divorced; stay-at-home moms, work-outside moms, and childless. We live in Scotland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and all over the U.S., from California to Florida. We know each other better than we know some of our neighbors.
And we’ve never met.

We’ve never met in person, that is. But we meet almost every day on the Internet.

The only thing we all have in common, the one thing that brought us together, is that we’re all fans of a long-running British soap opera called ““EastEnders.”” We began chatting in a fan forum, and gradually our talk turned from whether Tiffany should leave Grant for Beppe to our favorite recipes, recommended movies, book reviews, and our own lives.

When someone began to steal Internet identities and tried to hack into some of the others’’ computers, we took ourselves into a private, unlisted club. Participation is by invitation only, limited to those we know we can trust. We’ve been together for about two years, or maybe it’s three. It’s hard to remember when you know so much about other people.

It’s become fashionable to decry the death of letter-writing, but the kind of communicating we do has revived that lost-art, complete with correct grammar and accurate spelling.

As in any true community of friends, we have been there for each other. We mourned with Marci when several of her friends were killed on September 11. We commiserate with her job woes, first in Denver and now in Florida. We try to assure Sue, from Wisconsin, that some day she and her husband will laugh about his breaking his elbow while hanging Christmas lights. We virtually hold Hedwig’s hand in the Hague as her nephew, born several weeks too soon, successfully fights off an infection. We worry this year about Connie, in Texas, who broke her arm and can’t get online, just as last year we awaited word on her husband’’s condition when he, a firefighter, was injured on the job.

We chuckle at Marlene’s picture of her “baby bump” and prepare for an online baby shower, scheduled for after the baby’s birth in Belgium. This will take place about two months after our second annual exchange of holiday cards, both electronically and via snail mail, and of real, not virtual gifts, in our “secret Santa” gift swap.

We share our customs and beliefs, religious as well as national and cultural. I’ve learned the difference between the Netherlands and Holland and the history of how Belgium came to be a national entity; about Sinterklaas and European birth rituals. I’ve taught them about Jewish holidays, what ““Kosher”” means, and how to prepare when your son becomes a Bar Mitzvah.

We send each other addresses of useful web sites. Sometimes, they’re just silly web sites. We post jokes and stories, both touching and humorous and sometimes off-color.

We complain about diets, compare notes about what to buy a 13-year-old boy (the consensus is cash), male bash, laugh about menopause and grey hair, exchange gardening tips, talk about which actors we like. We talk about shopping and clothes and shoes. And, yes, we still recommend recipes, books, and movies.

In other words, we do what any group of women does when it gets together.

I missed Arlene in the years we weren’t in touch. I would miss this group of women if we stopped writing.

To all my friends –– long-lost, newly discovered, online, on-the-phone –– I wish a happy, healthy, peaceful New Year. And these days, we need all the friends we can get.

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