I was 4 when my family moved to our new house. It was in a neighboring town, but at my age, that might as well have been another continent. Moving day was the first time I’d even seen the new place, a Colonial much bigger than our old home.
My parents bustled about and my older brothers explored the backyard while large, strange men hoisted boxes and couches. I lingered in front, trying to stay out of the way but still keep my parents close. Standing to the side of the walkway in my knee socks and blond pigtails, I tried to get used to the new view. At the end of a cul-de-sac, our home looked down the street at all the others — big, unfamiliar houses with heavy drapes and closed doors.
A concrete sidewalk lined the street, winding around the circle. And along that sidewalk came a girl about my age, her long brown hair in pigtails like mine. She walked right up to me, her face open and smiling.
“Hi, I’m Donnie,” she said.
Well, of course I wanted to skip. And just like that, we set off hand in hand, our feet drumming in unison around the curve of the sidewalk. We skipped past the fire hydrant and telephone pole, past the dark brown Colonial and the unpainted cedar one, to the end of the circle, which was as far as I was allowed to go. We turned around and skipped back, past my new house and on toward the blue raised ranch and the tan Colonial on the other side. We were laughing, blond and brown pigtails bouncing behind us. With Donnie by my side, my new neighborhood seemed a lot less scary.
I had had friends in our old town, but this moment is my first memory of gaining a new friend. How easy it seemed — all you had to do was say hi and ask to play.
But in truth, I didn’t make a friend that day. I was made a friend. I had little to do with it.
Making friends has never been easy for me, despite Donnie’s early and fine example of how it’s done. My parents were both popular, readily striking up new friendships. I didn’t inherit their sociability genes.
“Just stick a smile on your face,” my mother used to tell me, but it felt phony and ridiculous to stand around smiling when no one had said anything funny. I didn’t know how to follow her advice in a natural way. Decades later, I still don’t.
But fortunately for me, and for others like me, there are Donnies in the world. I’ve met them in my neighborhood, at the gym, and at the dog park. They’ve invited me into their homes for coffee after the briefest introduction. They’ve asked me to go for walks and to join their weekly tennis games. For them, I’m not an aloof stranger. I’m simply a friend-to-be.
The art of friendship comes naturally to Donnies. They have the confidence to risk rejection, knowing that everyone, deep down, wants to face the world with a friend by her side.
There was a time when I was envious of these people, and a little resentful, too. Why were they blessed with this gift when I wasn’t? But these days, I just consider myself lucky to know them. Without them, my life would surely be lonelier. I’d skip a lot less.
Donnie and I stayed friends through elementary school before drifting apart. I saw her again recently, at my father’s memorial service. I didn’t recognize her until she broke into that smile of instant friendship. She hadn’t lost her gift.
I never did thank her for welcoming me to the neighborhood all those years ago. So thank you, Donnie — all my Donnies — for sharing your wonderful gift with me.Deborah Mead lives in Needham and writes about tennis at littleyellowball.blog. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Get the best of the magazine’s award-winning stories and features right in your e-mail inbox every Sunday. Sign up here.