Mary Steward ponders the social smorgasbord.

‘Recently I saw a Facebook post inviting me to tag the person I was best friends with at the age of eight. Immediately, her face flashed into my mind. Sam was her name, and I can recall her scratch-and-sniff sticker collection as clear as day.

How big a deal is childhood friendship? Big, I reckon. Last year I did a show in Pietermaritzburg, and afterwards this elegant woman walked up to me with tears in her eyes. (Well, maybe they weren’t tears, but her eyes were definitely glistening, OK?) ‘Where did you go?’ she said. ‘I cried for weeks when you left school!’

She seemed familiar, but I wasn’t sure. But as I looked at this woman, I suddenly saw beyond the pearls. It was Lisa! I saw the sensible but giggling girl with lanky legs and eyes that disappeared when she smiled, the friend I always respected for balancing my crazy. Our family had moved at the end of Grade Four, and me with them, but memories returned instantly. Thirty years later, and I knew this woman. Close friendships developed in our formative years can be remarkable. Years can pass and you really can ‘pick up where you left off’. Bron, my best friend when I was thirteen, moved to Australia with her family, but because of the years we had shared and reasonable efforts to stay in touch (assisted in latter years by Facebook), after gaps of five years, weddings, new homes and new children we can still guffaw, sing all the words to cheesy Eighties songs and have heart-to-hearts, debriefing family and relationships.

Friendships that stand the test of time are like trusted brands. Black Cat peanut butter, if you will. Though other peanut butters will come along, new ones with interesting labels and extra nuts, with the old trusted brand you know what you’re getting, and it can feel like coming home.

But with childhood friends now dispersed around SA and various parts of the world, what about my day-to-day friends? Another Facebook post I saw recently claimed we’ll become like the five people we spend the most time with. It’s the friendship version of ‘you are what you eat’. Eish, I’d better choose wisely!

the junk food friend

There’s junk food which tastes amazing and is deliciously wicked. I might gorge on a gossip session with this friend (and possibly feast on chips and too much wine while doing it), but I’ll probably feel a bit guilty on the way home. Need to manage my portion sizes of this one!

Then there’s the sugary stuff that’s sweet at first: ‘You’re so wonderful, so special, Mary! What shall I do, tell me what to do!’ But too much, and I feel utterly dehydrated. I believe that we’re all here to help each other, but need to watch out that it doesn’t turn into enabling. That ‘Help me, help me’ can become a bottomless pit.

On to my Brussels sprout friend! I’m not that excited by the prospect, just like the veg that Mom forced me to eat at granny’s house (except this one stalks me in Pick n Pay). But when I relax and do actually go for coffee, it stops her feeling ignored and it can actually be fun. Surprise! Much like having a few of those sprouts: Mom’s happy and you realise they can be quite tasty.

Next up: gourmet friends. Some of them seemed a bit foreign and inaccessible at first, but they’re packed with wisdom. Like a truffle broth which I savour for its unique flavour, a mentor’s insight lingers on the taste buds. However, this cuisine is for special occasions, too much at once can be hard to digest!

But I’m starting to realise that the bulk of my diet needs to be that healthy friend. And for once, healthy doesn’t equal boring; I’m thinking grilled salmon or seared tuna with a sesame crust, and a fresh salad with bits of crunchy joy. These friends are a hearty bowl of soup on a cold day (ok, maybe with a crusty hot bread roll and a dab of melted butter, depending on my carb principles at the time). I feel good when I’ve spent time with this kind of friend. They hear me, I hear them, and like a good Wimbledon final, the exchange is fair and even. We laugh and cry, perhaps. Or not. But we’re real and honest, and when I drive away, I feel lighter. Satisfied, but not overloaded.

May we all have seared tuna friends! More than that, may we all endeavour to be them.’

Mary Steward is a comedic speaker, MC and corporate facilitator based in Cape Town.

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