The most remarkable friend I ever had was my riding partner Laura Thomas, an Englishwoman I met 14 years ago when she was 83 and I was 39. "Mrs. T." and I shared a love of animals and the minutiae of horse care. But her age made her different -- in a positive sense. She was never in a rush to pick up the kids from soccer. She was never vibrating with the frustration of fighting heavy traffic after a long day at the office and she wasn't worried about making mortgage payments or sandwiches for the bridge club. Mrs. T. had reached a stage in her life when she could relax. She was happy with herself, yet she was never dull, and her joy in simply living every day to its fullest was pure inspiration for me.
Wit and honesy
When we went out riding, we talked politics and murder trials, fashions and the economy. She impressed me with her wit and her lack of pretense. And she made me laugh. Once when I got a really short haircut, she did a double take and actually yelled out, "My God, why did you do that to yourself?" Another time, when she survived a hard fall from her horse, I was so relieved that I cried. "Oh, Barbara," she chided me, "you are a soft touch."
Of all the friendships we make in our lives, it's our connection with women who are significantly older or younger than we are that can be the most profound and enlightening. This intergenerational bonding offers us a rare window on ourselves. It gives us new perspectives and insight. It also imparts a sense of the unusual in our often ordinary lives. It teaches us younger women to slow down and smell the roses, and it gives our older friends like Mrs. T. a sense of immediacy and currency.
Connecting the generations
As women age, they tend to realize time is finite, observes Lucy MacDonald, an author and counsellor in private practice in Montreal. They become more honest, and younger women are attracted by that quality and spirit. Older women impart a sense of meaning or history as well as "wisdom and sturdy values," says MacDonald. In turn, she adds, they are flattered and informed by the attentions of the young and "feel a part of something. These friendships also help to balance the disconnection between generations. And as long as there is reciprocal regard and affection, they are healthy."
MacDonald says these relationships can start with a mutual interest, such as riding, or a similar life experience, such as two women of different ages at a self-help group or craft session. The opportunities also abound in the workplace and on the volunteer front. "The initial bond is the shared experience," says MacDonald.
Many of us have been lucky enough to experience a special connection that has jumped a generation within our own families. I was better friends with my grandmother than my mother for most of my life, probably because she accepted me at face value and was always interested in the various plot developments of my life. But, of course, we don't choose our families. Friendship is voluntary, and that's what makes it so valuable.
Whenever I think of Mrs. T., I see us sitting under a tree one summer day after riding, drinking gin and tonic and talking about my precarious existence as a freelance writer. "Come on, Barb," she said, giving me a dig with her elbow. "You'll be all right. Just get on with it." Then she looked up and watched as the sky clouded over. "Well," she said with satisfaction, "we've had the best of the day."
The truth is my friendship with Mrs. T. was the best of many days. Another truth is opportunities to befriend women both older and younger than ourselves are all around us -- we just have to open our minds to the possibilities. They wait -- like the following stories of four unlikely women friends -- right under our noses.
Rev. Dr. Cheri DiNovo, 54, and Maya Zminkowska, 20
A keen joy for living along with a sharp intellect and a galvanizing energy are what attracted Maya Zminkowska, a student at the University of Toronto, to Rev. Dr. Cheri DiNovo, pastor of Emmanuel Howard Park United Church in Toronto. Cheri is a former owner of a high-powered job-placement agency and a minister for the past nine years. The two friends met three years ago when Maya was a member of Cheri's congregation. Maya then worked as a technician on a college radio show called "The Radical Reverend," which Cheri hosts once a week. They clicked instantly; Cheri is young for her age and Maya is an old soul. "I am 20 going on 40," says Maya, laughing. "Besides, I like older people. With friends my own age, I have fun. With older women, I have philosophical talks." Spirituality, religion, sex -- nothing is off limits for the two friends, probably because Cheri, a child of the '60s, has lived through many of Maya's current dilemmas and is not too proud to admit it. "I've tried to be honest with her about my growing upâ€¦trying drugs, sexual misadventures," says Cheri. "I have no time for hypocrisy."
An place to come home to
In the years since they met, Maya has been one of a number of young people who tried spreading her wings by renting a room in the sprawling DiNovo household after she left home. And now that Cheri has moved into a condo, Maya may crash on her couch when she is between apartments. In return for the open invitation, Maya asked Cheri to her high school graduation last year to hear her valedictorian speech. Cheri was flattered but also visited by a sense of dÃ©jÃ vu. "It was like I was watching myself grow up," she recalls. Yet in other ways she thinks Maya is similar to women her own age: "She is sophisticated and joyous to connect with." Cheri and Maya make it a point to keep their friendship alive. Maya house sat for Cheri over the holidays, and the two try to get together as often as possible.
Talking to each of them separately, you are struck by how alike they are. Each has a self-deprecating sense of humour, and they are both ambitious, although Cheri says her life as a wife, mother of two grown children and pastor is "solidly entrenched" while Maya is just beginning her life's journey. Still, Cheri sees a lot of herself in Maya. "In a way, I have experience being her and being me," says Cheri. And if she serves as a mentor, Cheri is happy for the insight she can offer. "Older men have been mentoring younger men for years. Women are finally catching up."
An empowering mentor
For her part, Maya describes Cheri in glowing terms. "She is the sweetest, most compassionate and open-minded person I know. I don't feel the need to hide anything from Cheri. Her advice differs from situation to situation, but when I talk to her, I always end up feeling motivated and empowered, knowing that no situation is permanent or impenetrable. Knowing that I can stay with Cheri if I have to makes me feel like someone really cares about me and like I have some serious, dependable options. That is pretty freeing."
Cheri says the secret to attracting younger friends is "rigorous humility." In other words, you always need to remember who you were when you were young. While Maya grew up in a home in which her parents and their friends treated the children with equality and, as a result, she is inclined to like and trust adults, Cheri remembers when she was Maya's age, she didn't like -- or respect -- adults.
The cause of many intergenerational problems
"As a kid I always thought grown-ups were dishonest," she says. It's a feeling that pervades society now because her generation -- like those before -- has lost its revolutionary fervour and adopted a feeling of entitlement, which young people find particularly irksome. Worse, she thinks many older women forget their own youth and become judgmental. "The young have time on their side," she says. "And when they have brains, too, older women may look at them as competitors. It's sad. They could be capitalizing on a wealth of experience to be mentors and real friends."
Cheri enjoys and embraces the welcome robustness and vitality of younger friends. They are an injection of energy and in touch with the pulse of the world. An added treat, young women give their older friends currency in culture, says Cheri. In music, movies, clothes and vocabulary, they are right on top of the latest styles. "I am fascinated by that," adds Cheri. "How do they know?"
For Cheri the friendship is about much more than skirt lengths, of course. Like me and Mrs. T., Cheri's closeness with Maya brings a special reward. It's a confirmation of a life well lived. Says Cheri: "If Maya can look at me and see my honesty, that is a terrific gift."
Joan Leighton, early 70s, and Debra Kobe, 43
May-December friendships can start with any mutual interest, even one as simple as dog walking. Joan Leighton, a realtor, met Debra Kobe, an office worker, three years ago in the High Park area of Toronto when Joan was walking her dog, Harley. "She was such an attractive girl," says Joan, "I noticed her right away." At first, Debra was pushing a baby in a stroller and towing her German short-haired pointer, Muskett. After awhile the stroller disappeared, and Joan worked up the courage to introduce herself and ask why. "It turned out her daughter, Paige (now five years old), was in day care," says Joan.
Concentrating on their dogs (who also get along famously), the two women soon made arrangements to walk and talk. "Even when I had Paige along and she was out of sorts, Joan didn't mind," says Debra. "Screaming babies didn't faze her." Since Joan was a mother of three herself, Debra's new friend was immediately supportive. "I would tell her that it wore me down sometimes," says Debra. "And she would encourage me by saying, â€˜You'll get through this.' She was so cheerful, she always made me feel better."
A weekend away
Sometimes, sans pooches, they had lunch or dinner in a local restaurant. A highlight was a girls' and dogs' weekend at Joan's cottage on Lake Huron. "We sat on the deck and talked," says Joan. "We walked on the beach and talked some more, swam, ate well and had a little wine. It was relaxing and pleasant." They never ran out of topics for conversation, remembers Debra. "We talked about all the homes she had sold, her kids and my marriage. I could tell her anything. Joan felt like a mother in some ways. She was always generous with her time."
A lesson in confidence
Joan relished her role as a sounding board. "Debra had her ups and downs with her marriage. I just listened and sympathized with what men do sometimes," says Joan. "We women need warmth. Debra is a sweet girl, but she is cautious. I taught her the value of a smile. I told her everybody loves vivacious, outgoing people and that fear was her worst enemy. I encouraged her to open up more." Says Debra: "I am intimidated by people who have a lot going for them. But Joan has everything going for her, and she showed me that she was willing to be my friend. I felt better about myself."
For Joan, Debra was also refreshing and youthful. "Some women, when they get older, sit back and practically wait to die," says Joan. "They let themselves get out of the loop. I have always been attracted by the exuberance of the young."
A special lady
Like Mrs. T., Joan is remarkable for her age. She is sharp and friendly. She is also a go-getter who is still active in the real-estate business. She has two grown-up daughters and a son with whom she is close; but the girls live on the West Coast, and she doesn't see them often. Still, she says, like her mother before her, she spent a lot of time with her children when they were young and counts them as friends today.
Debra's upbringing was not as family-oriented. Her mom was busy working to support the family because Debra's father wasn't around. "We were alone a lot," remembers Debra. With Joan, Debra could rewrite her own childhood history, open up about her problems and get positive feedback. "Older women are more understanding and nurturing," says Debra. "I always feel comfortable talking to Joan. When I see her she says, â€˜Hi, Debs,' and gives me a quick hug and I'm happy." The payoff was profound: Debra began to gain confidence.
Since meeting Joan, Debra has made it a point to get more involved in her community. She has joined a local church, where she teaches Sunday school and sings in the choir. And she found another new friend: a 71-year-old woman who has become her swimming buddy. Whenever she can, Debra sits down and talks to older women because "they have lived through things, such as the Second World War, that I will never see." Besides the history lessons, Joan says older women can teach the young a sense of optimism. "When you reach a certain age, a lot of life's baggage drops away. You look at the world in a different light and say, â€˜Hey, this is pretty great.'"