I had a sweet experience last week visiting my mom’s friend and neighbor, Shelia, who was my mom’s walking partner for over 30 years.
Now, I’ve had some good walking partners but never one with that kind of consistency or longevity.
Thirty years of walks five days a week is remarkable — especially with someone who is not just your walking companion but your confident, counselor, and cherished friend.
I visited Shelia to gather some of her memories of my mom, knowing she would have a unique perspective on her as a long-time friend.
Shelia invited me into her living room and as we settled in for a good visit, I turned on a voice recorder and started asking her questions. I wanted to know everything — what was Mom like as a friend? What were her priorities in life? What funny experiences did you have together? What would you say were her strengths? How did she get through her many trials?
I wanted to know as much as I could in the time we had together.
Not only did I learn some good stories about my mom, I felt like without even trying, Shelia welcomed me into the warm, intimate space of their unique friendship.
I actually felt sad to leave because I didn’t want the sweetness of that experience to end. I’ve always known Shelia to be wise, spiritual, creative, and smart, and I’ve appreciated her role in my mom’s and my family’s life. But while sitting with her in her living room, I felt some of what my mom must have felt to have her as a friend, and the word that kept coming to my mind was “lucky.”
My mom was one lucky woman to have had a friend like Shelia, and Shelia was lucky to have had a friend like my mom.
While I might not have a Shelia that lives around the corner that I can walk and talk face-to-face with every day, I have many other friends that have walked the miles with me.
I walked for years with my friend, Laura, in Virginia. After we both moved, we were sad that our walking ritual had to end. We too covered a lot of territory — not just on the paths and streets of Northern Virginia but in each other’s lives.
When she and her husband were called to serve a three-year mission for our church, I went to hear them speak before they left. As I approached Laura to tell her goodbye and wish her well on her mission, her husband stopped me and said, “If I were you, I’d just walk out that door, go to your car and leave.”
What he meant was that he knew it was about to get ugly, and I should just cut my losses and leave before Laura and I broke down in messy tears. We survived the three years, and now we are surviving the thousands of miles between us, but the fiber of the friendship is still there, and it gives me a little taste of what it might have been like for my mom and Shelia with their long history as walking partners.
Every morning, at 5:45, they met at the corner and canvassed the town, and as they walked, they talked about everything on their minds and in their hearts.
As Shelia told me her memories of Mom, I realized she knew everything about our family. There were no secrets between them. She knew every heartbreak and every triumph in my mother’s life – down to the oft-repeated detail that I was my mother’s hardest child to raise.
I told Shelia I couldn’t understand why my mother thought I was so difficult to raise. Shelia kindly said, “Well, with children like you, sometimes mothers want to say, ‘Hey, I’m the mother here!”
Oh, so that’s what she meant…
She said my mom was more than a friend to her. “Sandra was a friend, neighbor, sister, mother, and therapist all in one.”
Not only did they share all their secrets and help each other through their challenges, they had some interesting encounters, like the morning Shelia was attacked by a white owl or when they were almost charged by a deer, or when my mom had some choice words to say at and about barking and unleashed dogs on their walking routes.
She reminded me of my mother’s obsession with neatness. She didn’t like anything to be out of place – her house, her yard, even her hair. She had a short, pixie cut and had to rush to her hair dresser Helen as soon as she felt the slightest bit of growth changing her neatly coiffed style.
Mom hated litter of all kinds. It just made her blood boil. Shelia said as they walked, Mom picked up all the stray bits of trash she saw along the way, and again, probably used some colorful words to describe the despicable people that would dare leave their garbage on her beautiful streets.
She felt a special kind of ownership of Main Street after working on Main at several places over the years — 224 clothing store, Town & Country home decor store, The Book Mark, and the Chamber of Commerce.
As she would say, it “irritates me right to death when they don’t take care of Main Street.” So, when Shelia and Mom walked on Main, Mom felt compelled to pull weeds, and deadhead flowers, and even leave reminders to water the plants!
She didn’t like seeing a dead plant through the window of one of the stores, so she made up a sign that said, “Please water your indoor plant.” Then, she taped it on the store door.
She told Shelia she was going to bring a little shovel and some gardening tools to clean things up along their walk. Shelia said, “I drew the line there, and said, ‘Sandra, we’re NOT doing that.” Shelia was so glad when Mom finally dropped that idea.
She did, however, make up awards for beautiful yards, and leave them on the porches of homes along their travels. She never missed a beautiful garden, a pretty porch, or a well-trimmed lawn! Even when I went home to visit, she would take me on a walk and make herself right at home showing me someone else’s yard.
I thoroughly enjoyed being wrapped in the warmth of Mom and Shelia’s lifelong friendship, and could only imagine what it must have been like for the two of them to see each other daily and “solve the world’s problems,” as my mom always said.
I called my daughter, Annie when I got home, and told her about my experience. She said, “Mom, we need a Shelia!”
As we talked, we realized we have wonderful friends, but our Shelias look different. Our friends are not always living next door or across the street — especially for 30-year stretches. And, our communications are different — more texting, or communicating through social media instead of walking together five times a week.
But, we sure envy and admire the Shelia-Sandra 30-year friendship ideal!
When my mom died, Shelia came to her viewing with a flower arrangement inside of a walking shoe. That said it all. It was a simple, beautiful symbol that captured a friendship that covered a lot of miles and a lot of life experiences.
Jane Fonda said, “Friendship between women is different than friendship between men. We talk about different things. We delve deep. We go under, even if we haven’t seen each other for years… It’s my women friends that keep starch in my spine and without them, I don’t know where I would be. We have to just hang together and help each other.”
Shelia and my mom were the starch in each other’s spines, and isn’t that a treasured gift?
Who are the friends in your life that put the starch in your spine?
My visit with Shelia reminded me of the friends who have been and still are my “starch.” They may not fit the Sandra-Shelia standard of meeting at the corner at 5:45 ever day for 30 years but they surely have walked the miles with me.
I was reminded of some of my starch-like friends last week — one that talked to me from across the country about the challenges of parenting adult children, and then getting together with a group of cherished friends I met during my freshman year at college. We are all still walking the miles with each other.
So, thank you Shelia for welcoming me into the sacred space of your friendship with my mom, reminding me of her fun personality, strengths, and wisdom; and for reminding me of the value of friends.
Oh, and for teaching me why I was so difficult to raise, I think I get it now…