Elyse was four when she first showed us how brave she was—and what mattered enough to bring that bravery out. We’d moved, pulling into the driveway at a new house after dark on a Sunday night and popping out for a pre-school visit at nine the very next morning. During our tour she cast clandestine glances at the other children and when they invited her to stay for their Valentine’s Day party, she smiled and took a chair at their table.
It was her smile that gave her away.
Elyse is known for her smile. It’s ready and open and real. But not that day. That day it was manufactured and careful and maybe a little bit hopeful.
Thirteen years and another move later, we watched as the landscape of her face gradually flattened from its gentle contours into the hard line of a midwestern highway. Her smile gave her away again. It was gone. I knew why, and that we had to act because when my own smile had faded away a few years before, it was action that saved me.
I’d been lonely. Devastatingly so. We’d moved again, this time to a place where I found myself surrounded by people who called me friend but hadn’t made room for real relationship. Without companionship, I lost hope and withered away spiritually, emotionally, and physically, enduring rather than enjoying my life. So when I stepped out of the shower one morning—already weary and ready for the day to be done—and turned on a random podcast, I expected diversion. What I got was direction: There are friends who need you and friends who you need. If you need a friend, go out and find one. It sounded like a simple solution, but it was new to me.
In our previous communities, friendships—both mine and my family’s—had developed organically. They grew slowly, over time, and blossomed into companionable, sustaining relationships. I’d naturally made the friends that I needed and been a friend that others needed. However, life in our new community wasn’t like where we’d lived before. The thought that I’d have to go out in search of a friend because I was in such dire need of companionship wasn’t simply new–it was foreign. It felt humbling and scary and, after years of believing friendship would happen the old fashioned way, it felt hopeless. But I was in trouble. I knew it. And I did what had to be done.
I identified a couple of women I knew but didn’t know well, acquaintances who liked conversation and looked like they might have some room in their lives for someone in need of a friend. I invited them for coffee dates and play dates and book studies. I initiated, even though it was uncomfortable.
So when I looked at my daughter and saw a flat line instead of a smile, I recognized the source and I understood its gravity. She was two years younger than most of her friends. After bidding them farewell when they headed off to college, she surveyed her life and found herself alone. We aren’t meant to be alone. Kids aren’t. Moms aren’t. And neither are dads. So we acted, not only on Elyse’s behalf but on our family’s. We didn’t want either of our girls to get used to living lonely and we wanted to stop living that way ourselves.
We talked about the state of our friendships. We acknowledged the fact that we move in a small circle in a small town. We decided to focus our family’s energy on combating loneliness by working to foster better relationships both inside and outside our home.
We chose the right activities for us. For Elyse, that meant finding a place to connect with others in a way she found meaningful, even though it meant taking her to another town. For me, it meant forgoing some of the large group gatherings so prevalent in our community and inviting women for one-on-one conversation.
We encouraged—some might say pushed—Elyse to reach out. We practiced hospitality. Elyse and her younger sister hosted gatherings for the girls they were already acquainted with so they could begin to learn the fine arts of initiating, planning, and inviting.
Eight months later, things have changed. It hasn’t been easy. It’s been time-consuming and humbling and scary, but just like the visit to her new preschool nearly ten years before, the drive for companionship compelled Elyse to take a place at the table. Interactions with new friends and deepening friendships with acquaintances have returned her smile and restored her joy. It’s graduation season again and she’s shed some tears because some of these new friends will be moving away. But I know she’ll be okay. She has hope.
It’s her smile that gives her away.
Natalie Ogbourne is fascinated by the roads we wander and the stories they tell. A midwest-dwelling wife and mom, she’s perpetually on the hunt for a skirt that will stand up to the trail because she loves the places they take us and everything they give to think about along the way. You can find her at her blog and on Instagram, where she offers encouragement to pause, ponder the path, and press on.