L and I have been friends for a long time. It's one of those unusual friendships - we live in different parts of the country, she in the Centre of the Universe and I in God's Country. We met by phone calls: I was editing the magazine in which the organization for which she did PR was frequently featured. We had these long conversations, I remember, full of jokes and laughter and sharing before we got to the business part of things, and we became friends long before we ever met.
But meet we did, 10 years ago now or so, and we were just as good friends in person as we were on the phone. When I was pregnant, she was one of the first I told. My son's father left me soon after I told him about the pregnancy, and L was nothing but supportive of me, every day of those long lonely months. We spoke more while my life moved on, past that job and into others, as I re-imagined myself and my life, as I became a mother and as I moved into becoming a teacher. Her life changed, too: she got married to a lovely man, and they had two beautiful, bright sons, both a little younger than mine. We met again a couple of years ago, when I was in Toronto to see my brother, and we took our boys to the museum where they stared up at us, two women laughing together like the old friends we are, before running off together to play.
This is one of the things I remember about L, and one of the reasons I cherish her as a friend: we were on the phone one day just after a sensational news story had broken - a mother somewhere had left her toddler out in the snow on a night where the temperature had plunged well below -30. The little one had frozen, literally, solid, which was a good thing because it meant she could be thawed out slowly, and manage somehow to survive virtually unscathed.
"You know," said L to me over the phone, "that's the secret to parenthood. Just set the bar really low. As long as you don't leave your baby outside to flash freeze, you're doing great!"
I laughed then, and I often think of that conversation and laugh even now. I think L had a point: we have such crazy expectations of ourselves as parents that sometimes we just need to give ourselves a mental shake - as long as I have not accidentally locked my two-year-old outside overnight in February, I'm doing just fine, thank you very much.
So when a colleague loaned me "The Glass Castle" by Jeannette Walls, that's what I was thinking. The book is one of those stories of unutterable sadness: poverty; destitution; abuse; neglect. It's an autobiography, and the scenes of those children going from day to day without a bite to eat, cold and poor and essentially abandoned by their parents, turned my stomach. But all the way through, I kept thinking of L and her advice to set the bar low: I have never been rich (or even close to it), but my child has never gone to bed without his supper. He has never had to dig through the garbage cans at his school to get some lunch because there was no food at home. We have shopped in second-hand stores, but not because there is no other choice. We have never had to leave our home in the dead of night, one step in front of a landlord. Bill collectors have sometimes called my house, but they have never been looking for me.
I have never had a lot of money, but I had a life that is rich in other things.
Including my accidental, lucky, cherished friendship with L.