The Honest-to-Goodness Friend

We all have a friend like her: the one who tells you what you need to hear, even when it hurts. The author recalls an unwelcome gift and a tough conversation―and the unexpected blessings brought by both.

  • Elizabeth Berg
I live in Chicago, and one of my best friends, Phyllis, lives in San Francisco, so we aren’t able to see each other as often as we would like. The times we do get together, we like to live it up, and for us, living it up always involves chowing down. So last January, when Phyllis sent me an e-mail saying she was coming for the weekend, I knew exactly what restaurant I wanted to take her to. It’s called Tom’s Steak House. Most of its customers have been coming for decades; the waitresses have a good-hearted, cigarette-scented toughness about them; the steaks are the size of Cook County; and the salad dressings are served from a twirling “carousel,” so that you can legitimately play with your food. It’s the kind of place that’s frozen in time, where you just have to order a Rob Roy. After Phyllis arrived, I told her where we were headed that night. “You’re going to love this place,” I kept saying, and Phyllis, in turn, kept saying, “Oh boy.”

But as the hour approached, a kind of lethargy set in. It was freezing outside, and we were so cozy inside, dressed in comfortable, slouchy clothes, listening to good music, turning on lights against a darkening winter sky. I asked Phyllis if she would mind if we stayed home. “We can have martinis and I’ll cook, OK?” I said, and she readily agreed.

What to make? I wondered. Suddenly I remembered that my neighbor Suzie had given me a recipe, saying, “I really liked this, and I think you will, too.” It was for a sausage and bean ragout, and when I read the list of ingredients, I thought, Hmm. This does sound good. It’s easy to make and even low-fat. I’m going to make it! Then I never did. But now Suzie’s recipe seemed just right for the occasion, even though neither Phyllis nor I, experienced (and good) cooks both, knew exactly what a “ragout” was.

I mixed up some martinis, put a CD on the stereo, cranked up the volume, and tied on my apron. While I browned spicy turkey sausage and onion and garlic, Phyllis sang along with the singer-songwriter Duffy and danced around the dining-room table. It is one thing to see your friend dance around a table when she’s 25, quite another thing to see her doing it when she’s 62. I love a 62-year-old woman who doesn’t shy from thrusting her pelvis out all over the place; I couldn’t stop smiling.

Then Phyllis lowered the volume on the stereo and came to sit down at the kitchen table. “I need to talk to you about something,” she said. I stopped chopping basil and looked over at her. “It’s very embarrassing for me,” she said, and I saw tears well in her eyes. Phyllis is an extremely honest person, often quite blunt. For the most part, I truly appreciate that kind of honesty, and so I’m willing to suffer whatever consequences may come along with it. But I got a little nervous. I stood still, waiting. I thought she was going to criticize me, and I hoped that I could listen with an open mind and heart. Instead, what she said, in a very small, tremulous voice, was “I don’t think you liked what I gave you for your birthday.”
 
One month earlier, I had celebrated my 60th birthday―a big one, I think most would agree―and I had been excited to get Phyllis’s gift. She’s good at coming up with things you never would have thought of for yourself but instantly love.

What she gave me was letters I had written her over our many-years-long friendship. She had bound them into a book and then done something to every page―enhanced it with color, with silver sprinkles of confetti, with little candy hearts, with autumn leaves, with rubber stamps of coffee cups, with cutout ads from vintage magazines, with collages of various sorts. It was a true work of art, a labor-intensive wonder, and I loved everything about it―except the person I was in most of those letters.

Many of the pages represented a time of life when I was desperate and unhappy; I had written to her of pain and grief and fear and frustration, because she was my dear friend and I needed to talk to her, if not in person, then on paper.

So when I opened the book, I felt as if I had been given tapes from therapy sessions. I felt caught between gratitude and appreciation, and embarrassment and despair. I tried to convey my admiration at the time, but Phyllis would have been completely insensitive not to pick up on my ambivalence, and she is anything but insensitive.

So now, with us alone and in our stocking feet in my kitchen, she told me of her own sadness, of how she had told other friends that I had not liked what she had so earnestly and carefully and creatively done. I came over to embrace her, weeping myself. I said, “It’s not your gift I didn’t like―it was me I wasn’t so crazy about.”

While the ragout simmered on the stove, we talked for some time. Phyllis reminded me that at one point she had offered me my letters back and I had told her I didn’t want them, but she decided to go ahead and give them to me anyway―with the best of intentions. “I wanted to show you how you had changed,” she said.
 
True enough. The person who wrote those letters spent an awful lot of time feeling bad: about herself, about choices she had made, about life in general. That person did not look upon planet earth as a particularly good place to be, and in fact had articulated more than once the wish to be done with it all. The person I am now may have her share of dreary days―who doesn’t?―but she is routinely dazzled by the truth of a simple equation: Life offers far more good than bad.

I had placed the gift in my study, in a place hidden from view but close at hand. I wanted it to be there whenever I was ready to look at it: to accept it as best I could, until I could accept it fully. And some time after my birthday, I found myself paging through Phyllis’s gift. It wasn’t a fun read, exactly, but I was surprised by what I found. Certainly the letters showed how sad I had been, but they also illustrated that even in those dark days I had a pretty dang good sense of humor and a deep love for many things: my children, nature, art, food, the eccentricities and vulnerabilities of people.

I told Phyllis that I was sorry for how I had made her feel and that I hadn’t told her I had come to appreciate the gift. We wiped away tears, forgave each other, and freshened our drinks.

Suzie’s recipe was divine. We both kept saying, “Man, this is sensational,” then smacking our lips and taking more. But the gift Phyllis and I enjoyed that day would never have happened if we had been out in public. We needed to be in our stocking feet, comfortable in the way that being in your best friend’s kitchen makes you be.

I know now that the dictionary definition of ragout is “a richly seasoned stew of meat and vegetables.” For me, it will always suggest another kind of mix: a warm kitchen on a winter’s day, an old friend’s candor and absolute trust, and a new friend’s generosity in giving me a recipe, which is always about more than it seems. That’s because sharing the things that nourish us helps to fill an empty place. Sometimes that place is the stomach. Sometimes it’s the heart. And sometimes, the best times, it’s both.