When I was a kid, Bell Telephone advertised that “Long distance was the next best thing to being there…” But calling long distance was expensive. In college, when I had my weekly chat with the folks, we kept it short so as not to run up the phone bill. We couldn’t imagine that one day we’d be able to use technology to actually see and talk to friends and family all over the world.
By the time my daughter was in high school, not only could she text, instant message, and converse online with her friends, she could be virtually in the same room with her pals via Skype and, later, FaceTime. That was all great when she was talking with the kids she’d been in school with since Kindergarten. By the summer of her junior year, though, she was spending hours every day texting and video chatting with someone my daughter claimed was a friend of a friend who lived more than a thousand miles away. The technology made it all seem much more precarious than the childhood pen pals that were popular back in the day.
I was suspicious. I’d never met this girl and didn’t know her parents. Was this friend even legit? Was she for real? I was slightly relieved the day I caught a glimpse of my daughter’s pal on Skype. She indeed appeared to be a teenage girl and not some predator trying to lure my daughter into something nefarious. Even so, I was uncomfortable with the amount of time the girls spent whispering and giggling together online, sometimes well into the night, while plotting how one of them could get a plane ticket so they could meet in person. I couldn’t fathom how my teen could have such an intimate bond with someone when they’d never even been in the same room together.
Sure, I spent time talking long distance (for free!) and texting with my besties on the phone, but I actually knew them, and had for years. We’d traveled together, shared meals, beach walks and hot tubs, and laughed and cried over tea or wine at each other’s kitchen tables. We attended our kids’ weddings and our parents’ funerals. We had history. We had hugged each other. We weren’t the virtual strangers I considered my teen and her friend to be.
How I Made a Cherished Online Friend
My daughter is out of high school and that particular phone friend is long gone, but guess what? I’m now the one who has a cherished friend whom I have never seen in person. We met more than four years ago in a writer’s workshop. She was attending long distance via Google Hangouts and I was sitting around a table with a half dozen or so other writers. I was immediately charmed when this woman, who was new to our group, shared a scene from the memoir she was writing. I couldn’t help but smile when I realized a chair in the background of her study was nearly identical to the one I’d inherited from my mother-in-law.
Soon after, we got in touch by email and planned our own Google chat. Our conversations were mostly about our craft as we discussed the ins and outs of writing careers at mid-life and shared the challenges of the memoirs we were writing. We eventually became critique partners, reading and editing each other’s stories on a regular basis. We commiserate when a piece is rejected and celebrate each other’s success when one of our essays is published.
Somewhere along the line, we became dear friends. I feel like I know her husband and kiddos and parents even though I’ve never met them and I’m pretty sure she feels the same way. We still talk about our writing but not nearly as much as we share our everyday lives. Discussions of headlines, editors and literary agents tend to veer off track. Has that sinus infection finally cleared up? What are the kids up to? Are you cooking dinner tonight or going out? Here’s the dress I’m wearing to that event… The plumber is here again!
Even though we’ve both been traveling this summer and, coincidentally, are both in the middle of moving – me halfway across the country and she across town – we still manage to stay tethered through texting (including Bitmojis), sharing vacation pics, and making quick phone calls from the car on the way to the airport. We often bemoan that we are not having lunch together that day or meeting up later for a glass of wine, but the truth is, it no longer feels like we’ve never met. Technology has provided us with a virtual kitchen table and we can pull up our chairs any time we like.
Just a few years ago I didn’t understand my daughter’s intense, long-distance, virtual friendship. Today I do. So, yes, I did the very thing that had made me so wary when my teenager did it: I met a friend online. We share our lives and have heart-to-hearts that satisfy my need for immediate gratification in a way that snail mail never will. Although we haven’t yet hugged in person, taken a selfie together, or shared a glass of wine on her patio or my deck, our friendship is no less sacred than if we had.
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Mary Novaria is a writer whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Woman’s Day, Redbook and other print and online publications. She writes about family, friendship and everyday life on her blog A Work in Progress at www.marynovaria.com, and was a contributor to the Amazon bestseller So Glad They Told Me, Women Get Real About Motherhood (HerStories Press, 2016).