Several weeks ago I found out that my very first childhood friend had suddenly died. Though we hadn’t seen each other since we were thirteen, we’d recently connected on Facebook and the loss struck me deep and hard. She was one of the last friends who knew me as a child, before my brother died.
I met Ellen in nursery school. She had a playhouse fort in her backyard and she liked to play TV tag. We were inseparable.
We both had older brothers. We both had basements. We both had black cleaning ladies who sometimes stayed overnight in their own rooms.
Her mom, Jackie, had a wide, full, white-teeth smile and thick black hair with what seemed like natural curls, but I’d seen her with pink foam rollers in her hair on the morning after a sleepover.
Jackie let me call her by her first name. She never got mad at us. She always answered the phone “yell-o?” She’d hold the receiver in the crook of her neck while she stirred the pot of Spaghettios on the stove. The long curl of the phone cord stretched across the flower-wallpapered kitchen so we’d have to limbo underneath it to get to the table.
Ellen shared her bedroom with her younger sister Nancy, so we mostly played downstairs in the playroom. We gave our Barbies haircuts in the bathroom sink and played dress-up with her father’s suit jackets and Fedora.
The summer that my brother Lenny died, Ellen and her brother Marc and I went to the Young Traveler’s Day Camp together. We did arts and crafts and learned how to swim. I have a photo of us on Silly Hat Day, waiting for the bus in front of their house on Nassau Avenue.
Ellen was smart. Funny. A tomboy to play with. We both had pixie haircuts. We both wore PF Flyers. Her middle name was even Ruth.
She taught me how to ride a two-wheeler. She joined me and my mom on my sixth birthday to see Betsy Palmer in Peter Pan. We sat up in the balcony and we could see the strings that made everyone fly.
Ellen and I went to the same schools, but we were never in the same class. Still, we rode our bikes together and I invited her to all my birthday parties. But by fifth grade she had a different circle of friends. And then I moved to Arizona when I was fourteen and we lost touch completely.
But our moms wrote back and forth, so I knew that Ellen was living in Topanga Canyon and that she had changed how she spelled her name. And later, that she had gotten married, and her new last name was Belinski. My mother gave me her address in Riverside and I wrote her a letter. I was thrilled when she wrote back, a lovely note, how glad she was to hear from me and a bit about her life with Steve and her young daughter.
When the internet came around, she was the first person I searched for. She was now in Santa Barbara and a master gardener. I wrote again, shared about my 10-year relationship with my partner, Marika. And I didn’t hear back.
I couldn’t believe it, but I assumed my being gay was an issue for her. And then, about a year later she wrote me a letter, explaining that no, she was very happy for me, and that she’d been busy with things – that she’d had another baby!
Fast forward to Facebook, and we finally reconnected a few years ago. I loved seeing pictures of her family, her world travels and her paintings. It was fun to post old photos of her for her birthday. And I was glad to be there when she lost her mom to Alzheimer’s, and then her brother to cancer.
During one of our Words with Friends games, I asked Ellyn what she remembered about my own brother’s death. She didn’t remember much, just that he was there, and then he wasn’t. And that everything seemed pretty normal. She felt bad for not being able to tell me more, but I’m sure that her friendship then really did help make me feel pretty normal.
Last year I was going to be near Los Gatos where Ellyn was having an art show. We were both so excited that we were going to see each other after more than 40 years. But my plans changed and we didn’t meet. And we never did make another date.
To be honest, I had some reservations about meeting, I worried that our lives were too different, that we wouldn’t have anything in common. But, after reading everything her friends shared about the Ellyn they knew and loved, I realized that she was the same Ellen who was my best friend when we were five years old. And suddenly my loss was even deeper, because I missed out on having her as a friend in my adult life.
When Ellyn died, I thought I had lost that one-of-a-kind connection to my own childhood. But then I remembered how Ellyn and I had stayed in touch through all those many years of silence and absence. Because as long as I could see her in my mind’s eye and feel the energy of her being, she was with me.
And so, today, when I think I have lost her, I imagine her smiling face, with that wide, full, white-teeth smile, just like her mom. And she is laughing and happy and radiant. Simply radiant.