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Issue 23: 28 April 2024
Essay: 758 words
By Susan Tekulve

Of Friendship


Back when I lived in the historic district of my South Carolina town, on a street inhabited by taxi drivers and mill widows, I had a neighbor who became my closest friend. Nearly eighty, Meg had buried three husbands and a child, a daughter who died of leukemia when she was seven. A retired librarian, Meg had become an armchair historian, filling her computer with photos and documents about her home place, a coastal town outside Mobile, Alabama, that no longer existed. She suffered an ocular disease, a blockage of her internal carotid artery, the one that oxygenates blood flowing to the brain and eyes. She could still see, then, but required large print library books. Despite her age and impending blindness, she refused to move in with her living daughter, claiming she didn’t want to give up her home or independence.

Our friendship existed entirely outside and formed slowly over a garden fence. It began with an exchange of purple iris rhizomes and developed over years of conversations that seemed to have no beginning or end, talks about her hometown that went missing, her lost first marriage to an astrophysics professor who abandoned her after their seven-year-old daughter died. He left her, she said, because he couldn’t bear the grief they shared, and he just wanted a moneyed woman to care for him.

Meg had a peculiar way of caring for her garden, a strategy governed by poverty economics, though she wasn’t poor. She’d pilfer bottles from the ravine around the corner, where transients and drunks threw their empties at night. After hedging a bed of iris with empty wine bottles, she’d jump into her Kia Rio, and drive to the fanciest plant nursery in town and buy an imported taiko-bashi, a costly wooden drum bridge that crossed her irises, connecting the flower bed with steppingstones leading to the sun porch wrapping the back of her house.

One spring morning, I found her sitting cross-legged in her short pajama pants and t-shirt, weeding her irises. She said, “I just received the most beautiful gift this morning. When I looked through your dining room window, I could see right into your master bedroom. The pink camellia outside your window was blooming, framed by the blue bedroom wallpaper swirling with pink camellia blossoms. It was just like a painting. Can you see me while I’m working on my computer at my desk?” I hadn’t. But this neighbor, my outside friend, had looked all the way through my house. My husband, who is much more private than I, wondered if she’d seen him unclothed, coming out of the shower. I marveled comfortably at the poetic and lovely image of the blooming camellia framed by swirls of blooming camellia wallpaper.

Nearly two decades have passed since I lived on that street. I lost touch with Meg after I moved away, but I still measure all my friendships against the one I shared with her. Ours was a cross between pleasurable and virtuous, to use Aristotle’s terms. There were the pleasurable mornings when I’d find her sitting cross-legged in a bed of staunch irises. I never knew if she was awaiting me. She was simply there, and in my memory the conversation had neither beginning nor end. It simply existed, like our friendship existed, a relationship that verged on the virtuous, since we simply liked and respected each other. Neither of us required anything from the other beyond the conversations that most surely staved off our mutual loneliness and isolation.

Recently, I learned from a colleague who now lives on the other side of Meg’s house that she is yet alive, surely one hundred years old by now, still living in the same house. Assisted by a home-care nurse, she sits on her porch in summers, though my colleague reports she hasn’t seen Meg outside for the last several months. Shamefully, I keep finding reasons to put off a visit to her, worrying about her privacy, wondering how she might receive me after so many years. I worry, too, about how I will find her. Could I bear the grief of finding her inside and bedridden, no longer able to talk or see? I remain caught between wonderment and weakness. I marvel that she still exists on this earth, yet I know there’s a selfish part of me who just wants to remember her as she was, squatting in her iris bed, awaiting a morning conversation with no beginning or end, seeing all the way through my house, seeing me.


— From a series of flash essays inspired by French philosopher Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), the inventor of the literary essay and author of Essays. Montaigne’s seminal collection comprises 107 chapters in three books, and his essays “Of Fear” and “Of Friendship” appear in Book One.

Susan Tekulve’s
Issue 23 (April 2024)

newest book is Second Shift: Essays (Del Sol Press). She is also the author of In the Garden of Stone (Hub City Press), winner of the South Carolina Novel Prize and a Gold IPPY Award. And she has two short-story collections published: Savage Pilgrims (Serving House Books) and My Mother’s War Stories (Winnow Press), the latter of which received the 2004 Winnow Press fiction prize. Her web chapbook, Wash Day, appears in the Web Del Sol International Chapbook Series.

Her nonfiction, short stories, and essays have appeared in journals such as The Comstock Review, Denver Quarterly, The Georgia Review, Italian Americana, The Louisville Review, MacQueen’s Quinterly, New Letters, Puerto del Sol, and Shenandoah. Ms. Tekulve has received scholarships from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. She teaches in the BFA and MFA writing programs at Converse University.

Author’s website: https://susantekulve.com/

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