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  • Writer's pictureTracey Lee

Anatomy of friendship

Updated: Jul 1

Anatomy: the internal structure or internal workings of something

Friendship:  a state in which a person has a bond of mutual affection

A few weeks ago I was privileged to see a long-time friend on stage in the play Mother and Son. My trip to Tasmania was motivated by the discovery, by accident, by the alignment of the stars or skilled social media searching, that the play was on. Michelle Best on stage, taking the lead role in an Australian classic was too enticing an opportunity to miss. Catching up with a dear friend more motivating.

Michelle (Shell) and I met on our first day of uni. She appeared as a confident, striking young woman with the worst big toes I’d ever seen. They had been brutalised by surgery and I was mesmerised by them. When caught staring I covered the situation by complementing her sandals. She smiled. I’d been discovered. We laughed and stayed friends for 45years.

And I’ve often wondered how we have managed to wander out of each other’s lives and back in with profound ease. I’ve lived away from Tassie longer than I lived there. Shell has lived in the northwest most of her life. She is as much at home on stage as I would be in a lion’s den. Shell exudes a strength and sense of self that I’ve admired all the years I’ve known her. And while she is happy in the spotlight, she is not the sort of person who has ever taken all the illumination for herself. I’ve always felt that the invitation to join her in the light was extended to everyone around her.

The early years saw us in that liminal space between teenagers and adults. At times we were profoundly immature (Friday nights singing Meatloaf Bat Out of Hell), drinking the best wine we could afford (cheap cheap wine), driving around in my old bomb of a car (that we named Darryl), wondering about the future, dreaming about what we might achieve, feeling disillusioned and bereft on occasions. Two working class girls trying to be grown up, sophisticated women. I look at photos of us back then and think how young and unprepared for the world we were.

We carried our own doubts, burdens and sorrows. And when they were too heavy for one, we shared the load. There were plenty of tears.

A strong memory that stays with me was the trek up to Shell’s flat in the substantially named Cataract Court. It was the coldest place in Tasmania. A cement building with no insulation that refused to hold the warmth from one little blow heater. Hence the vigorous singing routines were not only entertaining but necessary to ward off hypothermia. We also spent some time with my family who just loved Shell. She made no judgements about anyone or any situation. She was as much at home in my mother’s kitchen as she would have been at king’s banquet.

So we survived those transition years. Both went on to be teachers. Met a couple reasonable humans and married them. Had children at about the same time (I was in Western Australia for this momentous event). And the cycle of connecting and reconnecting went on for years. Cards and letters at Christmas kept each of us informed about the ups and downs of life.

When my mother died not long after my father did it was Shell who arrived to help me make sense of the world. She had lost her parents in quick succession about ten years before. She organised food platters for the wake and then set to cleaning out the apartment. It was such a generous gift of her time and it was only twenty-one years later I thanked her for it. Quid pro quo. Shell explained that it was actually her way of thanking my mother for her kindness during the years she lived away from her own family. 

And this recent, yet brief encounter was as easy and as lovely as every other shared moment. Sure we have a few more signs of maturity (that’s how my skin doctor refers to ageing) but the girls we were still lurk close to the surface. That was never more evident in Shell’s performance of Maggie Bear. In the role she embodied the wily, conniving and yet vulnerable woman. She was so thoroughly convincing in her portrayal of the befuddling of the ageing mind but every so often I could see the twinkle of the girl with bad toes and extraordinary talent in her face, her movement and intonation. Talented, bold, beautiful and profoundly entertaining.

It was the last line of the play that we talked about after the curtain. Shell had added ‘take me home’ as Maggie and Arthur left the stage. She explained. ‘We are walking each other home now.’ We’ve done the career, the kids, the retirement and now we will see each other through to the end. Which will be a long time coming…after all we are not Maggie Bear’s age…but she was right. We will find ourselves catching up in the years (decades) to come with greater maturity, a little more rickety-ness, a struggle to remember the names of the long forgotten and a greater fondness for the stories of our pasts. We will walk each other home.

So what is the anatomy of friendship? It’s more than just that bond of mutual affection. We are the repositories of each other’s memories, we are the state in which learned to be ourselves, we are the moments in time when we were our bravest, our kindest, our best. And yes, our worst. Our friendships are not only the means by which we survived but the reflection of those young dreamers who became the women we are.

For that my friend, I thank you.


True friendship resists time, distance and silence.

Isabelle Allende

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