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  • Writer's pictureShelly Bandelman

Marla and Me

Updated: Oct 20, 2020

Noah recently asked me how I know someone is my friend. That’s a tough question because friends come in a variety of shapes and sizes. There are the friends who connect through forced exposure. Some friends come for a season, but drift away with time. There are the friends who think they are our friends, or we think they are our friends, but really they are just there for the ride. We mustn’t forget the friends we collect through social media. Friendships are as varied in intensity and duration as the people who enter into them. A true friendship, though, will be based on genuinely caring for one another.

“They” say the average American in my age range has about nine close friends. That’s probably about right. I have a lot of acquaintances, friends who have come and gone, and a few who linger on the edge but don’t quite commit. But those close friends, the ones you can call at anytime and the conversation flows as though time and distance are nonexistent, those are rare.

My close friendships are golden! Their value is priceless. I don’t bestow the BFF or Best Friend title on my friends. Each is my best friend in her own special way. My friend Denise recently flew half way around the world to surprise me! I had lunch a few years ago with Teresa, my first friend from first grade. I met Gayle in the McDonald’s Playland over 25 years ago, and this year our boys are making us both grandmas for the first time! Brenda walked me through several tough years on the mission field. Some of my friends have never met, and others have become friends in their own rights. Their stories and many more will show up on these pages and in the books I write.

I recently had dinner with one of my "nine." This friendship capsized during a storm of life. I didn’t think it could be saved, but it has been righted and restored. I asked her if I could share our story, and we both had a teary moment, tucked away in a dark corner of a busy restaurant, reminiscing about what could have been, what should have been, but what is amazingly being.

Marla and I met when she moved to Oregon, with her husband Jerry, to be the Young Adults Pastors at the Foursquare church in Winston. Brian and I had been serving as Youth Pastors for a few years when they joined the team. Marla was a sweet southern belle with a lot of class and a touch of sass. I was a spunky, outspoken Yankee, but we became fast friends.

Marla was pregnant with her first born, Emilie, and I was a few months behind her with Gabriel, when we met. Em and Gabe played together as babies and toddlers. We navigated the intricacies of bottle vs breast, teething, diaper rash, first steps, and first boo boos together. Our husbands became friends, and our families were intertwined both inside and outside of the church.

Marla and I co-taught first grade at our local Christian school. She brought Em to my house in the mornings while she taught, and I dropped Em and Gabe with her at lunch time when I took over our classroom. A few years later she had Taylor and I gave birth to Brie. Birthday parties, Christmas parties, Super Bowl parties, dinners, and lunches brought the two families together. We made future plans for our families and even greater plans for the church we were ministering in.

One summer Marla and I loaded our babies into her station wagon and traveled to West Texas! Emilie (2), Gabe (2), and Taylor (1/2) were strapped into their car seats across the back seat. Brie was a five month pregnancy safe in my belly. Sandwiches and soda were in the cooler in the far back, snacks were safely stowed at my feet, and the adventure began at sunup!

We traveled through California, watched the sun set over the Grand Canyon, and stayed in a sleazy hotel in New Mexico on the way to her parents’ house. We crossed the state of Texas to visit the Alamo in San Antonio, made our voices echo in the capitol building in Austin, stood on the grassy knoll in Dallas, and ended up in Tulsa, Oklahoma at her little brother’s concert. We drove home through Colorado and Utah with a lot of laughter, some tears, and even a migraine. It’s still one of my greatest adventures, and I am so glad I had it with her.

Jerry and Brian stepped into our Senior Pastor’s shoes as he became seriously ill and began to pursue treatment outside of the country. Through a series of events things began to fall apart with the Pastor and the church. Jealousy and economic difficulties reared their ugly heads. It was decided that Brian would be let go. My heart was broken. We had given six years of our lives to the youth and congregation there. We had built our lives around the ministry. We had friends, dreams, and visions that were suddenly gone. With the pain of rejection came the hurt of betrayal. I saw Marla choosing the people who hurt my family. The pastor was her father-in-law, she and Jerry were connected to the church just as we had been, and it was their livelihood. God still had a plan for them in that place, and I would have reacted just as she did.

While my head knew this, my heart couldn’t let it go. In my anger and pain I pushed her away.

We had stopped teaching after I had Brie, so we no longer worked together. My family left the church as soon as we could. I stopped inviting her family to parties, and refused her invitations. I didn’t hate her. If our paths crossed we would stop and chat about the weather, how the kids were growing, and the trivialities acquaintances share. We didn’t discuss anything that really mattered. I knew she missed me, and I missed her, but it wasn’t enough to cross back over the line I had drawn. It wasn’t a matter of forgiveness (I had to deal with that toward others involved), but rather letting my heart heal.

Brian and I found ourselves at Garden Valley Church. He became active volunteering with the youth, and I was hired as the Children’s Pastor. Years passed, and I needed some professional advice. Marla and I met for lunch and discussed the possibility of a community VBS in Roseburg. She was doing it in Winston, and I knew she would give me any advice I needed. It was a stiff lunch. I asked questions, she gave answers, and we parted amicably to go back to our respective corners. The ice had been broken, but the thaw was still a few years out.

My family moved to Uganda, and Jerry became the Senior Pastor following the death of his father. Our kids became friends as teen agers while we were in Oregon on furlough, and Brie and Gabe began to wonder why we weren’t all friends. They had heard about the good times in Winston. They knew about the crazy trip to Texas. I don’t hold grudges, and it wasn’t making sense. I shared a bit of the story and encouraged them to pursue friendship with the Smart kids, but the parents probably wouldn’t be joining them. Emilie even came to Uganda and spent three weeks with us. It appeared we were destined to be friendly but not friends.

I don’t remember the exact details, but somehow I ended up making a dinner date with Marla during one of our trips to the States. As I entered Applebee’s she was patiently waiting for me. We followed our hostess to the tall table with high stools, took our menus, made our drink orders, and began the awkward chitchat used when you don't know what to say.

Finally, I put the menu down, and shared what was on my heart, “I don’t want to discuss the past. I don’t want to hash out who did what. I am not going to counseling nor should you. However, I have missed you. I would love to pick up our friendship at this point in our lives and move forward.”

The best part was I meant it! My heart had healed enough for me to take the chance of letting her back into my life. In our maturity (her word not mine) we held each other in high enough esteem to let the past go and enjoy whatever the future would bring. We were both in tears, in the middle of Applebee’s during the dinner rush, as she agreed to those terms. We laughed, we cried, we talked, and we ate dinner. Four hours later we decided we should meet again the next month. That began the restoration of an old friendship that has become new.

We still meet once a month for dinner when I am the country. We laugh, we cry, we eat, we tease, we console, and we always have to go to the bathroom at least once. We are talking about dinner with our husbands too. Maybe it will happen, but, either way, I am so thankful for the grace of God, and the love of a good friend that never went away.

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