by Jeannie Prinsen
A number of years ago when my mother was visiting me, we were paging through my photo albums. Suddenly she said, “You’re very lucky to have so many friends. That’s something I’ve always felt I missed out on in my life.”
Her words surprised me because I had not really thought of myself as having a lot of friends. But I realized that at that point in my life at least, I did. My husband and I were in the early years of our marriage at that time, and we had a large circle of couple and single friends in our age group at church. My mother’s remark made me appreciate these connections even more.
But I wonder now if she was selling herself short at the same time as she was commending me.
My mother was a housewife who didn’t drive, so she probably never had the social life she might have wanted. And maybe she never had one of those “best friends” that you can call and commiserate with at any time, that you consider as close as family.
But I saw, as she grew older, how many people of all ages considered my mom their friend. The week before she died, her and Dad’s apartment was flooded with people saying their good-byes. I remember three young women she knew from church, all in their twenties, going into her room with wide, tear-filled eyes. I didn’t listen to those last conversations, but I know they were expressions of friendship. These were girls from close families; they weren’t looking for another mom. They saw her as a friend.
My mother’s active interest in other people and what they were doing allowed her to form these intergenerational bonds. She liked hosting people, whether just for meals or overnight. Was a young person in the church going on a mission trip? She would have the map out, following their progress, printing off and reading their email updates. She embraced contemporary worship music and was (with some exceptions, of course) OK with whatever the young people in the church were doing.
I’m very different from my mom in some ways: less social, more reserved. But I see her as a positive role model for befriending younger women.
There are many ways this befriending can happen: giving advice, sharing an encouraging word, offering practical help (child care, financial support, etc.) – all dependent of course on the specifics of the people involved and what feels appropriate in the relationship.
But to me, one of the primary qualities of a good intergenerational friendship is solidarity.
I find a great example of this in the Biblical story of two cousins: Elizabeth and Mary. One was probably at least sixty years old, the other no more than a teen, but they both found themselves unexpectedly pregnant for the first time: Elizabeth with John who would become John the Baptist, and Mary with Jesus, the Son of God. Luke 1 tells us that Mary spent the first three months of her pregnancy at Elizabeth’s house, and I like to imagine the friendship that might have developed between these two women. Though they were years apart in age, their common experience as first-time mothers put them on the same level. Elizabeth had no years of mothering experience to pass on to Mary, no hard-won advice about childbirth and nursing and raising children. They learned how to be mothers together.
What I take from this example, though, is not that we must be in the identical place physically and circumstantially in order to be friends with women of different generations. Rather, that in the specific relationship we feel called to cultivate, we focus on what we have in common – not just on what we have to offer as “older and wiser” women. In my experience, it can be so bonding just to say, honestly and vulnerably, to a younger woman,
“I feel really sad sometimes.”
“I have days where I am so overwhelmed and really don’t know what to do.”
“I came to church this morning feeling like a wreck, too.”
“I know what you mean about having more questions than answers.”
We don’t need to be wise sages to be friends with younger women. I don’t think my mother thought of herself as having a steady supply of wisdom to dispense, and I don’t think Elizabeth welcomed Mary in because she could “teach her a thing or two.” They embodied warmth, acceptance, and a humble solidarity that placed them on the same level as everyone else they met.
This is the kind of friend I want to be to the younger people in my life.
Jeannie Prinsen lives in Kingston, Ontario with her husband and two teenagers. She teaches an online course in essay-writing at Queen’s University, writes fiction and poetry, and blogs about family, faith, books, and whatever else interests her at Little house on the circle. She can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.