A Story of Friendship
She was a black middle-aged woman from Trinidad, and at first glance, we had nothing in common. Such is often the misfortune of first glance assumptions. Tonya was black. I already said that, but feel it bears repeating. She had short kinky hair and voluminous lips. I am an Eastern European Caucasian woman, pale, blue-eyed. My hair is light brunette (or whatever similar shade my colorist has applied that month) and sadly straight. Visually, we exhibit a striking contrast.
She was a good 10 years my senior, half-way to a different generation, half-way to my mom’s age. This also, at first glance, established a divide that is not always easily crossed. She sometimes referenced TV shows I’ve never heard of or childhood toys that my childhood has never seen. Her kids were roughly 10 years older than my kids, thus in a totally different phase of their lives. She spoke of college admissions, scholarships, their first jobs. My oldest was in middle school.
Then comes geography — Tonya was born in Trinidad and grew up in Brooklyn. She comes from a family of loud, boisterous, animated Trinis; people who go to Caribbean festivals, eat curry and yams, and jam to reggae. We worked together, and Tonya often brought in foods smothered in curry and other spices which made my mouth burn and water at the same time. I was born in Ukraine and raised in Atlanta. My people — Eastern European Jews — eat potatoes and porridges and beef stroganoff. Our music of choice is often a hodgepodge of Euro-American everything, from rock to pop to former-Soviet hits.
Such were the generalities that seemingly separated us at first glance. Yet first glances can be joyfully deceiving, because when we both dug deeper, Tonya and I had commonalities that went far beyond the superficial. She spent her childhood in the Jewish Orthodox part of Brooklyn, surrounded by bearded men and by women in wigs ushering their multiple children to private Jewish schools. She came up knowing about many Jewish holidays, having many Jewish friends, enjoying the cuisine of Jewish New Yorkers. When one day I brought in latkes to share, she immediately knew what they were and told me multiple stories about eating dozens of latkes as a kid. Never underestimate the connections that can be made through food!
Speaking of food, Tonya and I had very similar tastes in cuisines. She and I both loved anything Asian, especially small, hole-in-wall restaurants that dotted Buford Hwy. (Atlanta’s version of Chinatown). We constantly shared our latest culinary discoveries, sending each other links to the grittiest Vietnamese joints each of us could find, which happened to serve the best pho. Like me, she was of the mind that, as she so eloquently put it once, “everything must end with food.” When I told her about a family trip to the botanical gardens, she inquired, “Where did you eat lunch?” When I shared that my husband and I saw a movie last weekend, she wanted to know what we had for dinner afterward. I always smiled to myself: this woman gets me.
Beyond food, we talked for hours about parenting. Tonya was a parent to three children, all of whom she mothered with gusto that would make any Jewish mom proud. Our parenting philosophies and paranoias aligned greatly, and we spent many lunches (over aforementioned Asian food, naturally), discussing teens and technology, peer pressure, choices of extra-curricular activities, and many other issues that keep mothers of all colors and religions up at night.
On the subject of parenting particularly, I connected to her like to no one else. Like me, she worried constantly, about everything. Like me, she tried to be tough, to discipline with consistency, to set the right tone and the right example. Our kids were of different race and faith and age, living seemingly very different lives. Yet, I agreed with her on almost every parenting decision she made, and the way she was raising her brood was very similar to the way I was raising mine. We both tried to walk the line between Tiger-Mothering and helicoptering, between pushing our kids as hard as we can, yet helping them every step of the way — seemingly overused buzzwords in parenting magazine circles, yet also great maxims for the way our generation is raising children. When she showed me the dress her daughter originally picked out for prom, we both immediately agreed that it was too revealing. When she told me her older son dropped out of college to become a full-time artist, we both, with immigrant blood pulsating in our veins, felt that he should have finished his degree — in art — so he could have something to fall back on. When her middle son, a college athlete in another state, got hurt on the football field and had to be hospitalized, she debated whether she should fly out to see him. I immediately convinced her that there’s nothing at work that’s as important as her 250lbs linebacker baby. She flew the same day.
I would often show her videos of my kids — drama club performances, dance recitals, swim lessons, baking classes. Her comments were always on point; her daughter was also a dancer; one of her sons had been a drama kid. Our overlaps never seized to amaze me.
There were other small things that had nothing to do with children. Tonya spoke French; not fluently, but enough to find a bathroom in a French-speaking country, which was pretty much my level of French. We occasionally tossed a few French words around, for fun, and for the thrill of being able to say things others didn’t understand. She also spoke conversational Spanish, just enough to be dangerous. Around her, I never felt odd about speaking Russian to my mom on the phone. Multilingualism felt natural to her; like me, she came from a family of immigrants and married into another family of immigrants.
The subject of being an immigrant often carries with it a list of understood rubrics. It takes one to know one, and Tonya and I found each other immediately in this respect. She also grew up with the doctrines of “you must go to college,” “you must work hard,” “you must select a professional that can sustain you,” and, sadly perhaps, “you must marry your own kind.” Such are the canons of people who come here from abroad, having to fight for everything they have, having to toil and sweat for a piece of the proverbial American pie. Tonya’s family raised her the way my family has raised me; in turn, we were both struggling in certain regards with raising our kids with some, but not all of these prescribed principles. As such, we both seemed to have agreed on “you must go to college” and “you must choose a profession that will sustain you;” yet we veered from our respective parents on the topic of having to necessarily “marry your own kind,” though we both conceded that in some respects that does make life easier. Conversations over Cantonese food on this subject sometimes went on for two hours.
Where is the line that separates people from each other? The line that makes us look at someone and not see them; the line that makes us think, we’re more different than alike, we could never be friends, we are not cut from the same cloth. Shame washes over me in waves when I acknowledge my own prejudices and assumptions.
My eight-year-old daughter comes home on the first day of third grade and jubilantly announces that she made a new friend named Shawna. She goes on to describe Shawna, where her desk is, what kind of backpack she has, how they both like math, how they both stay in the after-school program, how Shawna has many braids in her hair. My daughter is super excited — new year, new friend!
My eight-year-old daughter doesn’t see color. Not literally, of course — she knows colors. She just doesn’t see people in color. She only sees people. I try to follow her lead when talking about her friends, never asking about a person’s physical description. What does it matter what someone looks like? My daughter makes no suppositions and has no biases — she just makes friends with whomever she likes, whoever likes math, whoever might sit next to her and share common interests.
“Mama, Shawna also brings a thermos for lunch, like me!” she tells me. Commonalities. Intersection of interests and life experiences and mutual love of math. That’s all that matters.
Yesterday, Tonya brought rice and stewed chicken for lunch. I ordered in sushi. We sat in our office breakroom, fluorescent lights overhead, and ate, while discussing the last season of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” (She’s watched it from the very beginning; I only recently binged the whole thing.) Just two coworkers enjoying the lunch hour, while chatting. Suddenly, my phone buzzed with urgency. It was my older daughter calling from school. “Mama, I don’t feel well,” came her small voice over the phone line. For a minute, I hesitated; should I go pick her up? Should I wait until the end of the day? Should I call my husband? I had a presentation later that afternoon, which Tonya knew about — working mom problems. Regardless, she didn’t even think twice. “Alla, you need to go pick up your girl,” she said, already wrapping up my sushi leftovers. Just like that, decision made. She knew, she understood. This woman gets me, I thought, as I drove away from the office.