"Who's your best friend?" well-meaning friends or relations sometimes ask my daughter. Please don't ask her that, I want to tell them. She has many friends, which isn't a problem, until she thinks she needs one of them to be "best."
She takes her time to answer, scrunches up her little forehead as she ponders the choices, and then throws out a name or two, usually with the inflection that makes it sound as if she's answering with a question. It doesn't trouble her, this question, so why does it bother me so much?
"You know," I say, as I kneel down and look her in the eyes, giving the issue more emphasis than I should, "You don't have to have a best friend. It's great to have lots of friends, many different friends." I know that now. I wish I had known it then.
In my kindergarten, Karen and Sharon were inseparable; they colored a single picture together, heads bent over the paper, singing a song they made up and would later share with the class. I wanted so much to be part of a pair like that. Their moms even made them identical dresses. Although Karen and Sharon drifted apart, somewhere around fifth grade, that early best friend sighting stuck in my head and stayed there. It's an image I tried hard through most of my life to recreate.
While there have been pairings like this in my daughter's class, they've been short-lived and transitory and everyone truly plays with everyone else. Maybe it's the small size of the school and the environment of inclusion -- "we don't exclude here" is the modus operandi -- or maybe it's because there are only a handful of other seven-year-olds and the classes are multi-aged. "One of my friends, Richard, hasn't been at school all week and I'm really really sad," she told me last year when she was in kindergarten. I looked at the school roster and discovered that Richard was in eighth grade. She told him jokes, which made him laugh, and he made her laugh, too.
My daughter has already had close same-age friendships -- the always-present pal in preschool, and the school buddy she couldn't wait to see each day at camp or for all-day playdates -- but this year it's different, and there isn't just one. No best friend. She's branching out, I rationalize. It's good to see her reaching for new limbs on the friendship tree, choosing boys, beginning to define what she likes in a friend: a talent for singing and indoor fort-making, a willingness to try new things, and of course, "making jokes out of nothing." She has years ahead of her to find exclusivity, if she even decides that's what she wants to have.
I say and think all that, yet it doesn't stop me from sometimes yearning for the best-friends-for-life ideal for her. It would be so simple and straightforward, so much easier for both playdate-making and when choosing who to run to first when she gets to school. But then I remember how limiting it can be, the reliance on just one other person, the missing out on getting to know other ways of playing and relating.
At summer camp, when I was eight, my Indian name was White Swan. Our tribe found obsidian arrowheads in the dirt, made long painted sticks we clicked together in rhythmic beats, and chanted prayers to the sky and the trees. While my painted sticks were drying, the art counselor told me there was another White Swan in another tribe. She was my age, had the same color hair, and she had also drawn a swan on her sticks. At the end of camp that day, we met. She was in my grade and would be going to my school. She had green eyes, long brown hair, and was quiet like me, but not shy. We played together, pretending we were real Indian Princesses. "I think I have a best friend," I told my mother when she came to pick me up.
I pictured the two of us racing out to the monkey bars together at recess and laughing while we ate our lunches together. But, the next day there was another girl that looked exactly like my new friend. She had an identical twin sister. Imagine that -- someone who looks exactly like you, your same age and you get to live together! Forget about a best friend; this twin thing was so much better. The three of us played together at camp and at times I felt like I was part of a set of triplets. But back at school, I was disappointed to discover that neither one was in my class. I had to look for my twin somewhere else.
It wasn't the friend seated next to me who loved words so much that she spent the better part of a year copying the dictionary, and it wasn't my neighbor whose expansive Barbie collection lured me over to play. It wasn't one of those giggling girls who held hands with me, promising everlasting friendship, only to move right on to someone else. I wasn't a giggling, hand-holding girl, anyway. I was a book-reading one-on-one hopscotch-playing child who was so frightened of the clamor and loudness in the school cafeteria that I spent the first month of first grade eating lunch in the classroom alone with my teacher. It would have helped to have a best buddy for reinforcement in those early years.
I grew up, grew braver and found many compatible allies, whose photographed faces fill a scrapbook. We did some giggling and wrote "BFF" -- Best Friends Forever -- on the back of the school pictures we exchanged. While none were my twin, some were definitely "best," though that title changed hands over the years. I liked meeting new people, expanding my circle. "The more, the merrier" meant the more to choose from. And having choices was important, because friendship is not just about the one you like the most. It's about the one that likes you back the same way.
I feel lucky in my choices and in who chose me; the majority of those faces in the scrapbook are people I still know today, friends who make me laugh, who make jokes out of nothing; clever expressive people leading dynamic lives. Even if we are too far away or too busy with careers or mothering to be together as much as I'd like, an extended web exists. I like to think of it as a safety net, there to catch each other if we ever need it to fall into. It's something I hope for my daughter's future, as well as a good measure of giggling, hand-holding friendship moments.
"Mommy? Who's your best friend?" my daughter has asked me lately. "Well, besides me," she says, making my heart inflate with pride. "Or Daddy," she adds, as I've told her that sometimes you marry your best friend.
I've been responding with, "Who do you think it is?" and a different name comes up each time. The friend I used to teach with who just called and I said "I miss you" to, or the old pal from the mothers' group who had just come over, or the new friend I plopped down next to when our writing group went out to lunch. "Is that your best friend?" my daughter's asked, when I've stopped to hug a particularly special neighbor on the street.
To her, it's not always about shared history, or whom I've known the longest; it's about proximity -- the one who's there. Because maybe that's how it works with her. Best is who you're with. And why not?
My friend and her daughter will be in town this week and when we're together we talk non-stop and the kids play for hours on end and the rest of the world melts away.
If my daughter asks if that's my best friend, I think this time I'll just say "yes."