Our First Friend


A friend is a present you give yourself.
Robert Louis Stevenson



Friendship is a recurring theme in my memoir, At Home on the Kazakh Steppe, and a topic I’ve been fascinated by, professionally, for over thirty years. And there is that personal interest too, of course.  🙂


Over the course of the next few weeks, we’ll look at friendship, that particular relationship generally understood as being spontaneous, informal, and voluntary, and seemingly without any rules.


Or is it?


First, let’s look at those first friends we all have had. Take a few minutes and think back to that first friend in your life. Who was she/he? How old were you? What was her (or his) name? Where did you live? What did you do together? How do you know you were friends?


My only picture of Betsy, at least I think it's Betsy.
My only picture of Betsy, and I wish I knew what we were doing.  The caption on the back reads that I’m wearing her red raincoat. 


My first friend was Betsy Polakowski. Our houses were separated at the rear by a great grassy Massachusetts field. At least to my three-year-old eyes it was a great field. Betsy and I were friends for two and a half years, until I moved back to New Jersey.


walking to Betsy's house EDIT
And off I go; there’s Betsy’s house in the distance.



How do I know we were friends? That’s easy. I remember wanting to be with her. My memory is I trekked across that field nearly every day. We built forts from overturned patio furniture; we rummaged around in her bedroom, for what I now have no idea. We teased her older brother. We ate meals together.



There were other children I might have taken up with, ones who lived closer even. Under the same roof, I had my two older cousins, aged five and seven to my three (the age difference of two and four years was more significant at three than at, say, 67). And, there were other children my age on our own street.


with neighborhood kids
Here I am surrounded by the two Dibbles (from next door, on my left) and the two Foleys (from down the street, on my right). On the back of the photo, my grandmother has written that we were ready to march in “the parade.”



But I remember playing only with Betsy. She was my closest friend, my first friend, and I felt completely at ease and free in her home.


Carefree, that’s how I would characterize those early years and my friendship with Betsy. Would there ever again be a phase of my life that could be so labeled?



How about you? Who was your first friend? 



18 Responses

  1. Woody Starkweather
    | Reply

    Two names come to my mind. My first friend was Drizz Pryor. Drizz was a shortened version Drizzlepants, which he was called for obvious reasons. We rode around on our tricycles in what was then a small town in Ohio. We both got very sick by eating some pipe tobacco after seeing someone chewing the stuff. After we moved to Connecticut, I was best friends with Squeaker Boylan. Why did my friends have such funny nicknames? Squeaker and I swam, fished, and explored the Connecticut shoreline. Then he moved away, but we continued to visit each other up through adolescence. We met once more when we were older, and he was bald and had two daughters. It wasn’t the same.

  2. Merril Smith
    | Reply

    My first friend was definitely my younger sister, not quite two years younger than me. We always played together. We shared a bedroom, too. I was also friends with a boy, Joel, who lived across the street. He and his brothers ended up going to a different elementary school, and we really didn’t play together after that.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Merril, Your and Marian’s stories make me wonder about friendship as an only child. I know my strongest female friendships over the years have been with other women who have no sisters. Hmm. Wish I were still in the field; I’ve got a working hypothesis forming. Thanks for weighing in.

  3. Marian Beaman
    | Reply

    I must say unlike mine your husband had friends with crazy-interesting names: Drizzlepants and Squeaker. I’m more like Merril. My first friend was my younger sister Jan, whom I feature on my blog post today; we also shared a bedroom.

    And yes, Joel was my most memorable friend at school. We roamed the woods together. It was incidental that he was a boy – we simply enjoyed the same things. Of course, he has made an appearance in my memoir.

    • Merril Smith
      | Reply

      It’s funny that Marian and I both had a friend named Joel when we were young.
      I also meant to comment on the “Drizzlepants” and “Squeaker.” 🙂

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Marian, throughout high school I too had a male friend; I referrer to him as my brother. He dated two of my girl friends (like yo yos) but we were never interested in dating. I loved hanging out with him. I don’t think I’ve had such a relationship since. An active sex life does seem to mess up those kinds of relationships, heh?

  4. Ian Mathie
    | Reply

    I have two first friends because I met them both within a week or so, way back in 1951 when we moved from Scotland to Lusaka in Northern Rhodesia. Robert Chilomo – or Robát, as he called himself – was the youngest child of our army cook. With his glossy chocolate skin and enormous bright eyes, Robert was game for any adventure and from our first encounter became one of my two most constant companions, both at the mission school we both attended and in our explorations of the bush beyond the garden fence.
    My other first friend was Gilbert Chileshe. His dad, Moses, was a sergeant armourer of the Northern Rhodesia Regiment, of which my dad was the second in command. Gilbert also went to the mission school and spent most afternoons, when school was out, exploring the bush with Robert and me, or watching the four Crested Cranes which lived in a pen behind our house. These elegant birds were the regimental mascots, and provided endless hours of interest and inspiration.

    Together we shared all sorts of interesting places, animals and events and took delight in catching and rolling up the huge cholgolulus (millipedes) and making birimankhwa (chamæleons) which we often found change colour by putting them on strange surfaces.

    For the coronation 1953 we organised all the children from school into a dancing troop to perform at the great tattoo that was staged to celebrate the event. Our effort was obviously well received as we were summoned to Government House the following day where the Protectorate Governor presented each of us with Coronation Medals.

    We three were inseparable until my dad was posted and we left Lusaka, but remained friends thereafter, writing regularly and meeting up whenever circumstances permitted. Robert went on to become and aero engineer, managing on the maintenance of airliners at Lusaka airport. Gilbert became an Air Force pilot and, to my great surprise and delight, came to UK to join the same flying training course as me.

    Sadly Robert died five years ago, but Gilbert is still going strong. Now retired, he still lives in Lusaka and we are still in regular contact. I am godfather to his eldest daughter, Rosalind.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      How nice that you stayed in touch with them throughout. I find that so often we change as we grow older. It’s great when two people change in the same direction; not so great otherwise. My best friend in college was my matron of honor at my first wedding. I was her maid of honor. I lived with her in Germany for many weeks during my pre-wedding run through Europe, and she bailed me out financiallly when I made a very bad decision. We stayed in touch for years, then grew apart when she became politically active — for the other party. I just couldn’t see her in the same way again. Yet, I know if either of us called the other with a problem, we’d be there. Curious.

  5. Joan Z. Rough
    | Reply

    The first friend I remember was Nadine. I believe we were in third grade. I really liked her. One day I stopped at her house on my walk home after school. I was late getting home and my mother came looking for me. When she found me playing with a black girl, she had a fit and I was not allowed to play with her anymore.

    And there was Judy next door, who I also liked a lot. She was a couple of years older than I and her mother sent over Judy’s hand-me-downs and I loved them. We played paper dolls together a lot. When I moved away from there I missed her a lot.

    • Ian Mathie
      | Reply

      That’s sad. Until I was about seven most of my friends were black. Not that I noticed, we were never colour conscious in my family and for the first three years of my education I was the only white child in the school.
      My parents had lived in India for many years before I arrived and out house was like the League of Nations, with a constant stream of visitors from many countries and races. They were just people, and our friends. They still are.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Joan, I’m struck by how often children are free from the biases and prejudices of adults. And, as I said in my earlier Reply, I’m wondering about how important differences are to real friends. My impression is that the differences that stand out so glaringly among strangers, fade away as friendship grows; as we find and hold onto the similarities.

  6. Terry Bryan
    | Reply

    My first friend is Sue. I use the present tense, as we are still friends after all these, uh…60some years. Ours is that unusual thing in that we can be apart for quite some time, get together again, and it’s as if time stood still for us, and we continue on as if we’d not been separated. I do wish we could be together more often.

    • Ian Mathie
      | Reply

      That’s not so unusual Terry, particularly with friends you’ve known for a lifetime. I have several friends like this and distance – most of them live many thousands of miles away – and time since we last met mean nothing. When we get together we just carry on as if we last met this morning. The gaps soon get filled in.
      Those are True friends, not just acquaintances.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Yes, I know just what you mean, Terry. Isn’t it such a joy when you meet again. I know it is for me. I have a friend in Ohio, from my Ohio years, now 25 years ago, with whom that happens. But 60 years. That is impressive.

  7. Janet Givens
    | Reply

    Isn’t it fun to think back to those days? I’m struck by Joan’s comment at the moment. And saddened too. Yet another loss for you, Joan. But your comment and Ian’s response gave me reason to change next week’s segment. I am just bubbling over with ideas about the place of differences in friendship, it’s too long to have in this reply. But essentially, I’m thinking that those differences that “the public” identify and see, fade away between friends. I have a story to tell in this regard too (of course). Thanks everyone. I’ll be back with individual replies a bit later. But wanted first to get this more global comment out.

  8. Kathleen Pooler
    | Reply

    Hi Janet, I know I’m very late to this party but I’m catching up and I finally made it! I really enjoyed this post and it took me right back to my girlfriend adventures in 1956 with my neighborhood friend, Re-Re ( Rosemarie). Here’s a post explaining those adventures:http://friendstories.com/girlhood-adventures-1956-style/Even though we have lost touch with one another, the memories are vivid and I treasure them. I think of her and would love to reconnect.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      You’re never late until it’s over, the plaque on my office wall once said. Hi Kathy. Can you resend the link to your actual post, or its date? The link goes only to the landing page and I’d love to read your story.

  9. […] Remember my post last Wednesday? I asked you to remember your first friend. I know when I did that for myself, especially when I lost myself in a few of those photographs I shared, I felt exhilarated. Friends are “useful” in that way, beneficial. Even just thinking about them. […]

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