It had been 56 years since I had seen Viveca. We were standing near the intersection of Mackenzie and Avenue M, in San Angelo, Texas. The Mayflower truck, with its distinctive logo, was handy, the movers scurrying with our household items while mother stood nearby, nervous, smoking a cigarette. My father had become publisher of the Marshall (Texas) News Messenger and had moved ahead to secure the new position, a promotion. Our new home was some 408 miles east. My brother had returned to the University of Oklahoma. It was a hot day in July 1961.
We grew up across the street from one another, our friendship first catching on as kindergärtners at Trinity Lutheran School. We were virtually inseparable for five years. Our imaginations were usually alight with treasure hunts or reenactments of the Alamo siege. We trick-or-treated together. We played football and baseball in my front yard, the seven aligned pecan trees serving as the end zone or a home run fence. I was compelled by my mother to lay down for a mid-day nap during hot summers in my older brother’s room, the only one that was air-conditioned. After she fell asleep, Viveca would come over and under a large, sweeping mesquite tree, outside another bedroom down the hall, we would talk, quietly, through a screened window until it was time to go out and play again.
Once, after seeing the movie “Huckleberry Finn,” we built our own raft out of fireplace logs and lumber we had found from our fathers’ repair projects. We took the raft in my mother’s Buick to a neighborhood park that featured Sulphur Draw, a dank, mossy body of slow moving water to float. Mother smoked furiously as we climbed aboard, seeing disaster rather than fun or opportunity. It floated and we survived.
On Saturday mornings, I would go into Viveca’s house by sliding open the glass door and planting myself in front of the television for black-and-white cartoons (“Mighty Mouse”) and serial programming like “Fury” and “Sky King.” Her mother, Mayfair, was OK with all this. My mother, who was older, was always fussy about kids running through her house. There was much life in the neighborhood through children. Viveca had two younger brothers; the Copes with two kids lived next door, and the Currys were on the corner. A childless couple, the Wrights, lived in between and owned a local paint store and he was a carpenter. One day he lopped off a finger in his garage workshop and created a blood trail that just flat-out fascinated us kids. The digit was saved and reattached. Saturday afternoons were matinées at the Texas Theater where a quarter bought a ticket to newsreels, cartoons, a Western or an adventure movie, and a variety of snacks.
Then one day, the moving truck came. We struggled with awkward goodbyes and that was that. Fifty-six years flew right on by.
A few years ago, late at night, I went online and typed in her name, curious. It’s something Baby Boomers do: “the can’t sleep, whatever happened to?” ritual. Because of her unusual name, finding her was much easier than finding the will to call her. She was a high-ranking human resources executive in a major Texas city. The fear was simple: she could’ve long forgotten me. Five years of friendship when we were children just didn’t carry as much gravitas as friendships from high school, college or adulthood. So I thought. I dialed and talked with her administrative assistant, and left a message. Fifteen minutes later, Viveca called back. We talked again.
When Susan and I visited her brother, Dan, and his family in February, Viveca and I met for a memorable lunch. The 90 minutes, like the 56 years, went quickly. Her eyes, voice and smile were effortlessly familiar to memory. “Your leaving,” she said at one point, “was my first sense of loss.” Mine, too, I agreed. “Best” friends come and go as we all know. Some friendships wither from mutual neglect, some are high maintenance, hanging by a thread until there’s late in life nurturing; some just vanish cruelly. And yet there are those friends, challenged by time and distance, who hold fast. There’s only one first best friend.