Over time, we realise certain friendships are rare – and very, very precious

My oldest friend sent me a gift for my birthday. It looked like a rug, folded and rolled and tied with a muted green ribbon. When I undid the ribbon and rolled out the material, I saw that it was a handmade patchwork quilt.

The dominant squares were a denim blue, surrounded by squares bearing floral patterns of red, white, green and gold. The rim was light green with white dots, and its backing a soft grey-blue that somehow matched all the colours. A pale apricot running stitch along each second row joined the patchwork front to the grey backing.

I imagined my friend, embarking on this secret project, carefully choosing patches with related colours, like an interior designer sourcing cushions to match the colours in an artwork.

Did she stitch in a sunny room with a view of the trees outside and the door open to allow a gentle breeze to waft through? Or did she work away sitting comfortably on the couch in the evenings with the television playing softly in the background? Either way, the time and care taken and my friend’s enjoyment in her work were evident in its thoughtful composition.

I took it to show my sister at her apartment and she promptly tested it out, snuggling under it on her couch. I showed it to my children and husband. Since that time, I have found my boys under it on the couch watching cricket late at night and my husband stretched out beneath it for a quick Sunday afternoon siesta. It has already become part of the fabric of my family.

With the quilt came a Certificate of Friendship witnessed by her husband in which she transcribed memories of our times together: navigating the school jungle safe in the knowledge she had a constant friend looking out for her; my family’s labyrinthine house, with the warmth of people talking, reading, listening; cupcakes fresh out of the oven – un-iced, hot and delicious.

For her birthday, I’d given her a gift too, a watercolour I’d painted depicting a librarian (that was her training, and a highly portable profession it had proven to be) standing on a ladder leaning against a bookcase full of books. The covers of the books on the shelves were different colours and each bore a title named after a place or event I knew was important in my friend’s life.

There was Au Pair a Paris, named for the time she was living in France looking after two small children and trying to educate them about the effect of colour additives in food. Opps Out West referred to the work opportunities she and her geologist husband had gone to pursue when they relocated to Western Australia (a diamond sat on one shelf in the painting as testimony to the nature of their explorations).

A multicoloured thick book titled Adventures Ahead sat on the lowest shelf. I didn’t know when I was five that the new girl in grade 1 would become a lifelong friend. We got off to a rocky start, according to the speech my friend gave at my 21st birthday party (themed fantasy and fairy-tale), when she recounted that I had not let her play atop the arched monkey bars. (I don’t remember denying her access, but I do remember being fond of that top position, so I suppose it’s possible. )

What I do remember clearly though, is the strong girl she was (and is), with a gift for getting along with everyone, a girl whose energy and playfulness seemed to light up the people around her. When I had appendicitis in grade 6, it was her I chose to sit with me in the fresh air as I waited for my mother to collect me. And I still have the pretty little vase with a violet painted on it that her mother gave me, full of violets, when she came to visit me in hospital.

We went to different secondary schools but our paths crossed on the morning tram when she had early singing rehearsals. They crossed again travelling to university on a rumbling, sighing bus through inner-city suburbs.

So many people in our lives come and go. Some will never advance beyond an outer rim of friendship and a lack of proximity usually sees such connections evaporate. But others seemed always marked for us, an undefinable energy always present that made the connection sparkle. When we’re young we think all friendships will be like this, but over the decades we realise these friendships are rare and very, very precious.

Such friends hold counterpart memories to our own and surprise us by saying things that trigger access to forgotten vaults in our mind, releasing wisps of memory that rise to the surface like brightly coloured balloons.

As I write this from my bed, sick with the flu, my voice as deep and hoarse as a gangster’s, my friend’s quilt is spread across my doona, its cheerful colours pleasing to the eye, and the care woven into it just as comforting.

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