We met on a cement floor between two bunk beds. I needed some calamine lotion for mosquito bites and I heard that Ellen in the cabin next door stocked every kind of product that an 11-year-old girl at summer camp might need. She offered me a cotton ball along with the lotion and said that I could come visit her pharmacy any time. Soon we were trading comic books, signing up for tennis lessons together, and sneaking out of bed to giggle when we were supposed to be sleeping.
So began a friendship that has lasted more than 50 years.
As a young girl, Ellen had black hair, freckles, and an infectious laugh. She lived in New Orleans, a place I had never seen. She made activities like enduring a deep-water test of 20 minutes of nonstop swimming in the cold lake feel like an adventure.
“If we swim really fast, we won’t have to stay for 20 minutes,” she joked. I laughed, teeth already chattering.
After we both passed the test, we used up the cabin’s entire tank of hot water when we showered.
I had friends in my hometown, but no one quite compared with Ellen. She could be compassionate but also candid — a rare combination. We were not always inseparable. I liked wilderness adventures; she preferred crafts and horseback riding. My grungy clothes and mismatched towels offended her sense of tidiness. Still, we managed to stand together to fight homesickness and brush off mean girls who didn’t choose us for their teams. Our friendship gave me confidence that I could find a kindred spirit anywhere.
One year, Ellen invited me to visit during my Christmas break. At age 12, I boarded an airplane — my first flight without my family — to a land of exotic palm trees, beignets, and multilayered doberge tortes that could be ordered for home delivery. My view of the world expanded.
As we continued into high school, we both stopped going to camp, but we kept writing letters to each other. I could sometimes tell her what I couldn’t tell people around me, such as how much I thought my mother misunderstood me. Soon Ellen was telling me her own secret about how hard she was falling for a cute exchange student from England.
Ellen and I ended up attending Wesleyan University. I had already started classes there, and she wanted to visit me during her college tour — she booked an admissions interview as an afterthought. On campus, I valued her perspective as someone who knew me at my core, not who I was trying to become. She saw right through my cool façade to a girl who just wanted to escape down a trail and read under a tree.
Two years after we graduated, I flew back to New Orleans to attend her wedding to the exchange student. She came to my wedding six months after that. At the time, we vowed that we would still be friends when we had grandchildren. We’re getting close. Since then, we’ve each raised two children, and helped each other through life’s major transitions — graduate school, home purchases, children’s marriages, caring for elderly parents. From her home in Atlanta to mine in Boston, our conversations continue through texts, calls, and visits. Right before the pandemic shut down travel, I stayed with her for a few days in Atlanta. Our husbands have become friends, too.
Together we survived the challenge of living away from home for the first time. Our essential qualities as friends who helped each other through chilly swims and blueberry pie-eating contests haven’t changed, and we still enjoy taking long walks through forests and parks whenever we get together. We’re just facing different challenges now.
After my sister’s unexpected death six years ago, I called Ellen, crying. “I’ll be your sister now,” she said. I already felt like she was.
Three years later, when Ellen’s sister died, it was my turn to offer comfort. That’s what sisters do.
Clara Silverstein is an author based in Dover. Send comments to email@example.com. Tell your story. Email your 650-word essay on a relationship to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.