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Searching for Ethel

Photo via Photofest/CBS

If you’re lucky, you find your Ethel. For those of you too young to remember, Ethel was Lucy’s best friend on the iconic I Love Lucy show of the 1950s, played with verve, heart and tremendous loyalty by Vivian Vance. These women were thick as thieves. And they committed their share of crimes, nothing big; stuff like sneaking salamis onto airplanes, shoving chocolates in their mouths off a conveyer belt to save their jobs and lying to their husbands about various purchases.

Ethel always joined in Lucy’s schemes, sometimes reluctantly, but once she was in, she was in. They brought each other soup when they were sick, kvetched honestly about their husbands, made each other laugh and gave each other hugs when needed. I didn’t realize until now the impact that friendship on I Love Lucy had on me. I’ve had, and have, cherished girlfriends in my life, but given my lust for travel and all things new, and a probable fear of intimacy, there has been no Ethel.

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With a husband, two boys and now a puppy to distract, I hadn’t thought about this much lately. I know I’m one of the lucky ones even without a BFF like that, but the other night, hearing my mother recount her latest efforts at managing her Alzheimer’s and friendships, I thought about her lack of an Ethel.

“Do you know what she did to me the other night?” my mother asked, referring to a new friend she’d made about two years ago. She was a transplant from Los Angeles I’d introduced her to. A small, feisty lady with a quick mind, I figured they'd be fast friends. They were.

“About the movies, did I tell you?”

At least three times, I thought, but didn’t say out loud. Recently someone gave me the most compassionate advice about dealing with Alzheimer’s sufferers.

“You have to understand,” my friend told me, “a lot of the time their mind is on Mars, but you don’t want to tell them that because it only creates more anxiety for them, so you have to go to Mars with them.”

I think of this now when I talk to my mother. I make an effort not to contradict her, resisting my impulse to correct her with the real date, or day of the week, the age of my children or me, or to point out the number of times she has told me the same thing. It’s not easy. I want to snap corrections at her like a wet towel. For reasons at least eight shrinks have helped me identify but I don’t feel the need to bore you with, I am locked and loaded to undermine her power over me with “the truth, man.” In this talk, I didn’t. I went to Mars.

I bristle whenever I find anything my mother and I have in common, and this one was undeniable—we both suffer from the lack of an Ethel.

“No, mom, what happened?”

“She went to the movies with one of her fancy friends and she knows I sit here every day alone and she didn’t ask me to come!”

“Oh, wow,” I said. Hearing it the third time I felt even worse for her. Plus I’d had my own brush with feeling left out this weekend by a friend and the pain was raw. I bristle whenever I find anything my mother and I have in common, and this one was undeniable—we both suffer from the lack of an Ethel.

“She didn’t think to invite me, when she knows I’m just sitting here alone.”

My heart sank further. I hate hearing my mother say she sits alone every day. We’ve talked about her moving out here, but she won’t. She’s one of those Manhattan people who can’t be voted off the island. Also, I was hoping that by 80 you’re done feeling left out. That you’d put in your time as the “uninvited chick,” have some wisdom as a result and feel more like, “Hey, you don’t want to go to the movies with me, so what? I’m 80, screw you!” Apparently it doesn’t work that way. Or it doesn’t work that way when you’re alone and struggling with an illness that’s eating your brain and people start to fall away because it’s too draining, too scary, or both.

“The next time she called, I finally stood up for myself!” she continued. This was new information.

“What did you say?” I asked, a little afraid for her.

“I asked, why did you go to the movies with a friend and not think to ask me?”

“Wow, mom.” I said. I felt embarrassed for her, why the need to confront the woman? Why didn’t she just eat a box of cereal with her hands and think about saying something vulnerable like I do?

“What did she say?” I asked, genuinely curious.

“She said, ‘I guess I didn’t think to ask you,’” my mother replied. I wasn’t sure if that was a lie, or if hanging with a woman who repeats herself and can’t follow the plot of a movie is such a buzzkill she purposely didn’t call her. Either way, the whole exchange felt painful and awkward. And so unlike my mother, whom my sister and I often describe as the Mary Tyler Moore character in Ordinary People. Alzheimer’s has not only changed her brain; it’s changed her character.

“I’m sorry that happened to you, mom.”

“I’m fine,” she said. That sounded more like her.

I got off the phone, promising to come see her soon.

Hearing my mother’s story hit a nerve. When I left that party the other night I was never going to talk to my friend again, let alone risk revealing that I was hurt. That’s how I roll. But listening to my mother at this stage of her life, when friendships of any kind, Ethels or not, fade away so easily, maybe cutting people out because they disappoint you isn’t the way to go.

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I also had to face the fact that the Lucy and Ethel friendship was fiction and can probably only exist in a 1950s sitcom. Conflicts and resolutions were played out in 30 minutes and there was no talk of divorce, market crashes that left people unemployed and Little Ricky didn’t have ADHD. Not to mention that the Lucy/Ethel dynamic wasn’t exactly a balanced relationship. Ethel was basically Lucy’s fat, funny friend. No wonder I’ve never found an Ethel. Who wants that job? In truth, I’ve been an Ethel to more than one Lucy and it gets old pretty quick. Furthermore, they only shot six seasons of I Love Lucy. Who knows if, in the seventh year, they didn’t have a huge fight and never spoke to each other again?

Time to let this fantasy go.

I picked up the phone and called my friend. Might as well learn a lesson from Mars and try being a little honest with a few select not-Ethel friends. If I do, there’s a chance I’ll have some gals to go to the movies with when I can’t remember their names anymore.

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