The truth be told, I was jealous of Phyllis when we were young. She always seemed so polished, mature, and grown-up. She liked watching old movies, and dressing in beautiful clothes. I liked watching the Phillies, and playing kickball in the street until dark. She had long, flowing hair and spoke with an air of sophistication. My hair was curly and unmanageable, and I spoke with a New York accent. She called her mom, “mother.” I called mine, “ma.” Our parents have stayed in touch over the years, yet I only heard about Phyllis when my mom shared the contents of Mr. Burke’s Christmas cards.
So, when I found her on Facebook, I immediately sent a friend-request, which she quickly accepted. Finding it difficult to catch up with an occasional message, Phyllis suggested a phone date, and I agreed. As I anticipated our conversation, I wondered: What do I say to the person I haven’t seen in 36 years? How do we continue a relationship in which our entire adult lives had been missing? These questions and more played in my mind as I considered what it would be like speaking to my childhood friend after so many years.
Amazingly, that’s all it took for us to reestablish relationship, and from there the dialogue flowed with ease. As a butterfly moves from flower to flower, our conversation touched on one remembrance after another. Phyllis recalled, “Some of my fondest memories are of being in the sunroom off of your kitchen. We would cut records from the back of cereal boxes and play them, dancing to the music in our go-go boots.”
I remembered visiting her new home after she and her family moved an hour away. While there I had heard a news report announcing Vince Lombardi’s death, and I was grieved. Not aware of the famous football coach, Phyllis asked, “Who is Vince Lombardi?” We laughed at our differences and marveled at how much we had in common, despite them. Our conversation turned to her mother—whom Phyllis refers to as “Delores”—and her death from breast cancer when Phyllis was 15 years old. I shared my memories of the beautiful woman, a former Ford Model with the big smile and lovely southern accent.
“Were you there for her funeral?” Phyllis asked.
“I was,” I responded. “I remember you telling me you weren’t going to cry.”
Perhaps because of losing her mom at such a young age, or perhaps by virtue of a strength given her by God, Phyllis is a survivor. As we continued our exchange, she shared that with the encouragement of her dad—whom she affectionately calls, “Phil”—she had graduated college with a marketing/business degree and worked as a sales rep for a number of years. Not feeling particularly inspired in that line of work, she decided to start a design firm. With no experience or education in that field, she took her vast interest and passion and created a hugely successful business with operations (and homes) in two states. When I asked if she was afraid to leave a safe, secure job to venture into unknown territory, her response inspired me.
“No, I was not afraid. You can always go home. I’m really good at not quitting.”
After a season of great success in design, the housing market crashed, and with it, so did her business. With help from her father, she kept her head above water, managing two homes in Minnesota and North Carolina, but “it was tough financially.” By now she and her husband of ten years had divorced, and she and her son were facing bankruptcy on their own. She knew she had to do something, and failure was not an option.
“I never said ‘no.’ I needed to live in possibility.”
She searched for jobs, but they were few and far between given the market conditions. She began pursuing careers outside of the United States, where an opportunity became available in Asia. She made the decision to move herself and her son to China for three years. He was schooled there, rode his first elephant, and learned to speak fluent Mandarin.
“The job was very difficult, but I stuck it out. I’m like Phil. I do what I have to do.”
We finished our lengthy phone conversation with the promise to chat again soon. About a month later, my husband and I were returning from a trip to Atlanta. After looking at a map, I realized that we could take a route that would lead us very close to Phyllis’s home in North Carolina. I reached out and she happily agreed to meet on a Thursday morning, though she would be returning home from Saudi Arabia late the night before. (Yes, I did say Saudi Arabia!)
Having entered the world market by taking a position in China, the Middle East opened up to her with an amazing opportunity. It involves commuting from the US to Saudi Arabia where she works for two weeks, and then returns to work from home for three. I asked her what she does there, and she responded, “I make beautiful retail stores!”
Phyllis is the Director of Visual Merchandising for a furniture company. The furniture is purchased from China and the United States, and brought to a number of stores where she creates a plan for each branch. All of this is done while 6,947 miles from home in a culture which treats women far differently than they are treated in the States. There, in temperatures which reach 120 degrees, she is not allowed to drive a car, shake hands, be seen in public with a man who is not her driver, date, or drink alcohol. “I like my wine, but I drink a lot of water and coffee in Saudi.”
Knowing all this before we met that late morning for lunch, I wondered what I would have to offer during our meeting. Would my life seem less exciting to a woman who commuted to Saudi Arabia each month?
She was waiting in her car when Joe and I pulled into the lot at the lovely restaurant she’d suggested. I jumped out before Joe could turn off the engine and embraced my friend who said, “I’d know you anywhere!”
“Phyllis, you look exactly the same!”
“So do you!”
She led us into the building and confidently addressed the host, “We have a reservation under Burke. Can you give us a comfortable booth, please?” Phyllis was taller than I remembered, or perhaps it was the air that surrounded her which made her seem higher than the norm. She was lovely, wearing a beautifully-fitted dress, stylish heels, and elegant jewelry. Her hair—which had turned curly since childhood—was long, blonde, and fitting with her outgoing personality. Even with her sophistication, she did not make me feel uncomfortable in my jean shorts and Free People Peasant Blouse. In fact, she was embracing and engaging, often interrupting my barrage of questions to ask Joe and I how we met. She ordered a sweet tea and made recommendations about the menu. “You must try this bread. I don’t normally eat it, but this bread is amazing.”
She was articulate and easygoing, pushing her hair aside as she told us about her father. He is her rock, and one whom she admires deeply. She recalled something he said to her and her siblings when they were younger: “If you ever do something illegal, I will turn you in—but I’ll visit you in jail.”
When we were about twelve years old, I went on vacation with her family to the Jersey Shore. The Burkes had hired a babysitter to look after us. Phyllis said, “Remember how she told us about the birds and the bees? When my father found out, he told her to get in the car, and he drove her all the way back home. When we got up the next morning, she was gone!” He has been there to protect, support, strengthen, and encourage her, and the thought of ever losing him brought tears to her eyes.
Like the flow of silk fabric, our conversation smoothly moved from children to extended family to work to interests and to memories. Phyllis remembered the joy of sharing Sunday dinners at my house. “It was such an honor to be invited to dinner at the Marotta house where I would get an Italian meal of macaroni, meatballs, sausage, braciole, gravy, salad, and Italian bread. My mother cooked southern food, so eating an Italian meal was such a treat.”
All the while, as we reminisced she was fully aware of her surroundings, often addressing the server and returning to our conversation without missing a beat. As we ate our meals, she explained the process of setting up the stores in Saudi: sourcing fabric, having curtains made, choosing the right rugs, setting furniture in display rooms. “The men were putting a black rug with a green couch. No, no, no.”
Phyllis is a capable woman, working in a country where men may have four wives in arranged marriages. While the women are treated politely, they are also policed to be sure they are wearing head coverings and Abayas (long black dresses which cover the body from neck to ankles) when in public. “I wear a lot of makeup in Saudi, because the face is the only part of the body which may be seen.”
My friend is a world-traveler and a highly successful businesswoman; she is also down-to-earth, caring, and gentle. When she had traveled for months at a time, she hired her sister’s mother-in-law to live at her house and care for her dogs. She makes the eight-hour-round-trip drive to visit her dad and step-mom each time she returns to her home in NC. She is a devoted and loving mother, providing for her son who is preparing to enter college. She is strong in a way that doesn’t turn people away, but rather embraces them. She is flexible, making changes when needed. In fact, we were to meet at her home that morning, but when she arrived the previous night, tired from her trip, she realized that she didn’t have the energy to clean the house before we came. “I didn’t want to have you over and see all the dog hair. I would have been up all night getting the house ready and been tired for our visit.” Instead she texted me, “I’m thinking let’s meet so I can relax and just enjoy you.” Perfect.
As our server cleared the table, we declined dessert, but ordered coffees—Joe’s black, mine with cream, and Phyllis’s a latte. We leaned back and took a deep breath, aware of the time that had passed, embracing what we now shared, and looking ahead at the times to come.
Phyllis has faced challenges in life, and has met them head on. She has not allowed loss or fear to keep her from moving forward. When her mother died, she gained strength from her father. When divorce and bankruptcy loomed, she pursued employment in China. After three years of challenging, yet secure work, she accepted a position in Saudi Arabia. Phyllis’s transitions have taken many forms, and I sense that she is not finished yet. And while she has grown and conquered, she has not lost the ability to connect, relate, and love. Though our lives have taken different paths, we value what the other brings. She is as interested in me, as I am in her. We love our children, families, pets, and memories. We are passionate about what lies ahead. I am inspired by my friend and her willingness to grow. It’s hard to fail when you “live in possibility.”