The Secrets of Umbrellas and Chinese Lamps: Gratitude for Unlikely Friendships

In the summer of 1993 at the University of North Dakota, I awoke to a downpour of fat raindrops falling drunk and reckless. Unlike Arizona monsoons that arrive apocalyptically, make their Biblical statement and exit, this rain was tireless and persistent. Students from Arizona don’t pack umbrellas for summer programs. In Arizona, umbrellas are an afterthought, the accessory of  fastidious old women who wear diamond snowflake brooches in winter and cut the crusts off their bread.

When I opened my dorm room door to face the rain on my way to class, an umbrella lay on the floor at my feet. On it was a little note barely larger than a matchbook, with a drawing of a tiny pig and in tinier, perfect script, “Do you need an umbrella?” It was from Rita. She was the kind of girl to pack two umbrellas, and think to give you one.

I first saw Rita in a lecture hall. She was wearing a white t-shirt emprinted with a few lilac and purple pansies. A navy bandana tied back her long, dark hair. Everything about her reminded me of Audrey Hepburn, cheekbones, eyebrows, nose, minus the wartime deprivation.

Rita was raised on a strawberry farm in Northern Minnesota. She grew up weeding and picking strawberries and blueberries, sprouting seeds in the greenhouse and packing fruit in the packing house. She was raised on milk from cows forty feet out the front door, casseroles called “Hamburger Surprise”, homemade blueberry pie and the expectation of godliness.

I was raised on canned asparagus, cold hot dogs and hamburger helper. “Pie” was a greasy pocket of bitter dough in a wax-paper wrapper, oozing a cloyinging sweet jam. Family values in my house were thinness and beauty, both of which consistently eluded me, and our religion was a Sunday ritual of  steak, baked potato and iceburg lettuce in front of the televison, 60 Minutes on the screen.

Rita’s parents visited the campus a few weeks after we met. I can still picture them in the stairwell, her father, the spitting image of the Marlborough Man, a farmer hardworn and weathered to handsome perfection, her mother shy and quiet and, in my memory, hidden in a white cardigan. Upon our introduction, I announced, almost shouting, “We’ll be seeing more of each other!”

I made good on my presumptuous statement. Rita and I were in one another’s weddings, where we both cried for idiotic reasons—the hairdresser at my wedding turned Rita’s bangs a ponderous, frozen arch reminiscent of the 1980s (it was 1995) and at Rita’s wedding, when my fellow bridesmaids took off in a car to chase down Rita and her groom, leaving me stranded, sick and alone at a country church.

Three years ago on a tennis court in Scottsdale, I met an elegant Chinese woman twenty years my senior. We only spoke a few words, but that did not prevent me from later posting on social media, “I met someone today who I know I will be friends with for a long time.” How did I know that? Who was I to think so?

A week or so later our friendship was cemented in a game of doubles. Livia and I stood across the net from one another, when our respective partners started arguing, and not about a disputed line call or a rule of the game. It was personal, loud, acerbic and prolonged. Livia and I, still nearly strangers, stood mute and staring at one another, lost in thought as we tried to sort out what to do next. We now had a shared history, a story of first-world survival, Scottsdale style.

Three weeks ago, Livia and her husband, Joe, arrived, my first friends from Arizona to visit me in New York. They fell seamlessly into our routines, thrilled at the farmer’s market down the road, and efficiently clattered and stirred in my kitchen preparing a homemade Chinese dinner. Joe admired my thrift store Chinese lamps, explaining symbolism I never suspected was there: Harmony, Longevity, Good Luck.

During a water tour of Saratoga Springs State Park, our chimerical guide wove fairy stories about the water’s miraculous properties and spontaneous healings. A retired Professor of Biology, Joe chose harmony, nodding appreciatively as the guide spun his yarns.

Before they left, Joe wrote a few kind words in my guest book:

A magnificent house, filled with love and blessing and power to acheive all their planned and unexpected tasks and goals through open and sincere relationship. – AZ Joe

This past Sunday, I picked the last of the parsley to save it from the first freeze. I  took some to our English neighbors whose charm—and 250-year-old farmhouse—are worthy of a Midsummer Murders episode. Not knowing about the cold hot dogs and canned asparagus, my failures at beauty and thinness— I mean, obviously— or that I was raised on television and Wonder bread, they insisted I stay for tea and scones in the garden. Open and sincere relationship. I thanked them with a loaf of oat bread just out of the oven, Rita’s recipe that had arrived in the mail the day before.

Nineteenth century Anglican theologian, William Faber, wrote,

Many a friendship, long, loyal, and self-sacrificing, rested at first on no thicker a foundation than a kind word.

Or an umbrella at the door, gentle remedy for unpreparedness, protection from the storm.


In Loving Memory of  Joe Li.