A Treasured Vintage

A 20-something reflects on how friendship can bridge decades

By Hayley Phelan

Debra is like a lot of my friends. We drink wine together, talk about men, trade gossip. The only difference is Debra’s lived a lot longer. She’s in her sixties and I’m in the twilight of my twenties.

I first met Debra when I was in high school; her daughter, a close friend of mine, invited me over after school. Debra was eccentric: She kept and washed the plastic takeout containers we brought home from the school cafeteria and used them to serve lunch on or deliver home-cooked meals to friends (something she was always doing). Nothing in the house matched. If you talked to Debra about something, the next time you saw her she’d be sure to hand you newspaper clippings on the topic. My friend and I took sips of the wine and bitter-tasting liqueur she kept shut up in a cluttered liquor cabinet and she pretended not to notice.

I don’t remember the first time my mother met Debra, but I do know that by the time I’d graduated from high school, they were best friends. My mother had recently separated from my father. She’d raised four kids, and been a wife for thirty years and now she was on her own, most of her kids grown up. What to do? It was like a second adolescence, except it was better, since she already had her driver’s license and didn’t need braces. Debra, who had already been single for four years, quickly slotted into the role of BFF; they ate sushi, went dancing, chatted on the phone endlessly.

The summer after eleventh grade, while I was studying abroad overseas, Debra and my mom got tattoos together without telling anyone. My mom picked me up from the airport, excited, like she had a secret to tell me. She lifted her shirt at the back to show me the outline of a five pointed star. In the same spot, she told me, Debra had gotten a lotus flower, a symbol of rebirth.

It was probably at that moment that I realized the woman who raised me wasn’t just my mother. She was a hilarious, generous and intensely creative woman with a lot more chutzpah than my teenage self wanted to believe. Actually, she was a lot like me.

Since then, my friendship with my mother has grown in tandem with the one I have with Debra. Each year we go on a girls’ trip to Miami together, and each year I come away with a fading wine-over, a good tan and the comforting knowledge that I’m a few days closer to their well-balanced vintage. Over the years they’ve dispensed countless pieces of advice I still live by today: Wear sunscreen on your chest, it’s the first to show age; If you can afford it, treat yourself; There are no calories in a molten chocolate cake.

More than anything, though, I’ve learned from their example. When you’re in your twenties, everything feels like a big deal, any mistake is a disaster. But these women have taught me to fight that fallacy; they know exactly how long and how short life is and neither answer leaves any time for torturing yourself.

I used to think that when you reached a certain age all your questions were answered. But over the past ten years, as I’ve watched my mother throw herself into her art career, Debra find a boyfriend, and both get more tattoos, I’ve realized that self-discovery (and all its foibles) never really stops. No one knows what they’re doing, not even sixty-year-olds. It’s an oddly freeing realization: We’re all just making it up as we go along.