Josie Bustillos 1931-2021: My First Friend

Given the differences in their relative health it was assumed years ago that my mother would go to the great-beyond before my father. But as another in an unending lesson on the illogic of reality, dad took his leave in 2011 and then we assumed mom, who had never lived alone, would probably join him soon after. Once again, we were wrong and it would be another ten-years before she decided that she was done with us and, fittingly chose the day before Father’s Day, to join dad in the great-beyond. 

Twenty years ago, for her 70th birthday I wrote the following essay: 

I’ve been thinking about friendship a lot lately. I guess one does that when one gets older, thinking about things that one used to take for granted. Anyways, as I was thinking about friendship I realized that I’ve been more fortunate than most in that I have several life long friends whom I still hold close to my heart. That realization led me to wonder at the possible reasons for my good fortune.

Eventually the trail led me to think about my first friend, the first person who taught me what it meant to be a friend. Well, in the beginning we didn’t call it friendship. It’s a bit rough to call it anything when your whole world consists of unidentified smells and tastes and colors and your vocabulary is limited to assorted coos, crises and squawks. But you were there, doing what you needed to do with affection and motherly love. 

By the time I was old enough to retain my own memories, I’m sure that “friendship” would not be the word that would first come to your mind, as I tormented my younger siblings and drove my older sisters crazy. Today I cannot imagine how you remained calm and even-handed with the five of us running about but that’s what I remember.

1959-11 Long Beach nap in Mom’s arms
1959-11 Long Beach nap in Mom’s arms

I remember when I was about five and we traveled to visit relatives I sat in the front seat between you and dad (not exactly the place of honor), and would fall asleep with my head in your lap when I got tired. I also remember around the same time getting upset at a neighbor girl because she liked some other kindergartener (a theme we’d revisit many times much later in life) and you saw me through that crisis without belittling or over-traumatizing the situation. And when I showed an interest in drawing I remember you and dad got me a little ruler/template and would let me sit and draw my robots for hours while my cousins and siblings tortured the plants in the backyard.

When I got too big to sit in the front seat and put my head in your lap I remember bringing flowers home that I’d picked on my way from school to give to you. I liked making you smile with those small gifts. Much later I realized how important such little gestures were and how powerfully they communicated the lifelong lesson that I was learning from you.

I guess that we could most realistically use the word friendship when we both worked for the phone company and I’d come by to have lunch with you. We’d chit-chat, “how’s dad,” and the like. It probably wouldn’t have been tremendously meaningful dialogue to some observing third party, but you made me feel like I was more than the impulsive little boy that I had been. I got to be an adult. I also remember one lunch when you struggled to understand how it was that my short marriage was ending. That meant a lot to me. And in the years since it’s continue to mean a lot to me.

You taught me that friendship meant always being there, always extending a hand. You taught me that friendship wasn’t about doing things or even having things in common, but something that went down to the soul and linked you to another person. You also taught me that friendship meant being strong and saying those difficult things that your friend doesn’t always want to hear, to not gloss over the bullshit, to be willing to put up with the repercussions when a friend is wrong. You taught me that friendship isn’t about good times or bad times, but about being a good person and the connections that you make with other people.

When I think about the friends in my life and how they have been my strength and refuge, I recognize that you were there first, that you did those things for me first. And because of that example, I can now be the strength and refuge for others. It may have seemed like an inconsequential thing to let a five-year old rest his head in ones lap or to not laugh when he came home crying because of some kindergarten hussy, but these are the things that almost forty-years later enable me to call you my first friend. Happy birthday, mom, JBB

RIP mum.

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