hgazette.com, Haverhill, MA

September 5, 2013

All signposts lead to home

By Tom Vartabedian
The Haverhill Gazette

---- — So far, yet so near ...

They say that childhood friendships are meant to last forever. Like your best chinaware, the best way to keep them from breaking apart is not to drop them.

Many of my friends mean more to me than my own relatives. They keep in touch with greater frequency than many of my cousins who have drifted apart. I guess you could say my closest companions have become like an extended family to me.

I grew up around Greater Boston, joined an Armenian Catholic church and the Armenian Youth Federation. Both groups were destined to provide me with close relationships.

The boy I knew as an acolyte in my Cambridge church also moved north of Boston and joined the same parish to which I now belong.

Not only have we served on the same committees together, but I also happen to teach his children in Sunday school.

Small world, you might suggest. Well, it gets even smaller. The guy down the street is a fellow I knew as a teenager. He wound up marrying a girl in the same chapter as mine. Our kids and their kids became good friends as well. And all of us meet at least once a week in church to maintain our Christian heritage.

The apple didn’t fall far from the tree when some of my own high school graduates in Somerville found their way to Merrimack Valley and rekindled our companionship. Many have scattered throughout the land. Others stayed where they were raised and schooled, taking a vested interest in their community.

I wound up dating and wedding a girl who lived 35 miles away. Turns out I know more people at her high school reunion than she does, given my decades as a journalist in town. Not to worry. She probably has cultivated as many friendships as I have being a Haverhill transplant.

I bring this up for a reason. Not long ago, I attended a wake. Very few people were there to express their sympathy. Even fewer turned out for the funeral. I gather his friendships were few and far between. Maybe he left no survivors behind. It appears he died a lonely man.

Conversely, I’ve attended committal services where mourners packed a church and filtered out into a side hall with a television monitor. The deceased had more friends than he could count. They all came to pay tribute to a lifetime of community service and benevolence.

I had two best friends growing up and lost touch with both of them. One was Greek and spoke his native language every time he was in the company of his parents. I also learned a snippet of Greek being close to him. We never separated as kids. Then, he married, moved to Florida and it may as well have been the Bermuda Triangle. I never heard from Ralph again.

The other was an Assyrian named Lazar. We were the “odd couple.” I was a little on the chubby side and he walked around with a crutch after a bout with polio. While Ralph was a basketball buddy, Lazar was more the academic superstar and homework helper. He died one day without ever telling me he was ill. I found out by reading his obituary in the newspaper.

I always told my kids, “One good way to rid yourself of an enemy is to turn him into a friend.” All three of my kids were popular in school and church. They’ve stuck together with their friends through the years and nurtured the same children as godparents.

True friendship knows no boundaries in another case. A group of my Armenian buddies have remained so close, we get together annually at a beach house in Gloucester and dine together. We commiserate. We laugh. Gossip. Sometimes cry. We share a bond that cannot be severed.

When one of us got inducted into an athletic hall of fame, we all shared the tribute. Another was named outstanding alumni in college. We were there handing out applause. Another couple lost a grandchild. We were there that night with our moral and physical support.

We were connected as teenagers. Now we’re serving on mutual committees and building bridges. Though we’ve gone our separate ways, the road always leads back to common ground.

A girl I once dated wound up marrying my friend. Another companion asked to borrow my tennis racquet. I’m still waiting to get it returned.

And then there was Charlie. He was always a friend in need. Distance never kept us apart, Whenever he needed a handout, he knew where to find me.

“You’re the best friend I ever had,” he kept reminding me.

Sorry Charlie. A friend not in need is a friend indeed.

Writer and photographer Tom Vartabedian is retired from The Haverhill Gazette. He contributes this regular column.