When introducing a lifelong friend to a co-worker in our magazine’s office last spring, I never expected the chance encounter would lead to one of the most involved stories ever published by American Profile—based on the largest reader response in the 11-year history of our publication.
Bumping into a fellow editor before heading to lunch that day, I had tried to convey the significance of my 42-year friendship with Patti Hutchinson, who lived down the street from me while growing up in Murfreesboro, Tenn. (pop. 66,816).
“We played together as children, went to school together, were in each other’s weddings,” I explained as Patti stood by and smiled. “We’ve known each other since the third grade, and we’re still friends today.”
Later that day, the brief introduction sparked a conversation among our editors about true friendships that last a lifetime. Would a cover story about lifelong friendship resonate with our readers? And would our readers respond if we asked them to write us letters about their own best friends who have stayed faithful through life’s ups and downs, joys and sorrows?
Two reader solicitations and six months later, we had amassed more than 1,200 letters—five times our typical response. The reading task ahead was so overwhelming that it seemed only appropriate to recruit several of my own childhood chums to help search for the most heartwarming stories of friendship.
As children, Patti, Kathy Huddleston and I had shared many days in our neighborhood building houses out of leaves, riding bicycles, climbing trees, baking cookies, and playing four-square, kick-the-can and tennis. Now grown up with grown children of our own, we spent one day last autumn around Patti’s kitchen table with pizza and Cokes and a box of tissues while reading letter after letter about friends recalling similar childhood experiences.
We were amazed at the sheer volume of mail, but also at the writers’ care in describing what their best friends mean to them. The years and hometowns were different, but the same qualities and values emerged over and over—laughter, acceptance, support, trust, loyalty and dependability—across a lifetime of friendship through good times and bad.
With boxes of letters still to be read, I turned to someone who exemplifies the best qualities of friendship—my daughter, Courtney Aldrich, 22, who recruited high school and college pals Morgan Thomas, Kree Woods and Jenna Binion, along with Kree’s mother, Jane, for another evening of pizza and letters.
I could not help but wonder what these young friends thought as they read about friendships that began amid giggles and games, grew through graduations and weddings, and often faced career disappointments, divorce, illness and other adversities as adults. Frequently, we all felt compelled to read bits and pieces aloud to everyone at our table—entries that seemed too funny or poignant to keep to ourselves. Occasionally, we’d hold up black-and-white photographs of two friends from a bygone era to say, “Look at this one!” or “Isn’t this amazing?”
When I finally sat down to digest the 50 or so chosen stories, I found myself picturing my own close friends over the years—some of whom surprisingly disappeared from my life and others such as Patti and Kathy who remained. The difference, I think, were those relationships that fostered a sense of mutual understanding, appreciation and loyalty during our formative years—inspiring deeds and an unspoken message that we each matter enough to work at and nurture our friendships, if only through a quick phone call during our hectic diaper-changing days or a random “HUG” texted at a stressful juncture.
Underlying all these relationships is another important part of the story of friendship—gratitude—amazing gratitude, that we are not walking this earth alone, and that we have someone from our past with whom to share and appreciate today’s joys and sorrows.
Thanks to American Profile readers who took the time to nurture their friendships with a letter of love. And thanks to Patti, Kathy and all you other true lifelong friends. (You know who you are!)