I fell in love — fell hard — for the first time when I was 11. Her name was Miriam Olsen, and she sat in front of me in Mr. Foster’s 5th-grade class.
Miriam Olsen dressed in clothes her aunt had purchased in New York City. She knew we needed to save the rainforest, and she was the first person to teach me how a well-timed, well-executed eye-roll could save you from the most thorny of social situations. She was everything I wanted to be.
We spent a few months vehemently agreeing (omg I feel the exact same way!) with everything each other said in the particularly frenzied joy of new friend-making, and soon I knew I wanted to be her best friend. I wanted it to be official. I wanted a BFF necklace.
I decided to make the first move. At the holiday gift fair at school, which boasted all sorts of cutesy signage for moms (Live, Laugh, Love) and Santa ties for dads, I found what I was looking for, a tiny silver heart that held the letters “BFF” in its curlicued embrace. I bought the necklace, which burned a hole in my teal Jansport backpack until I gave it, with great ceremony, to Miriam Olsen for Christmas.
It was, and might still be, the most personal gift exchange of my life. Funnily enough, I can’t remember much about Miriam’s response to the necklace, but I know when she fastened the clasp around her neck, I felt seen. Accepted. Loved.
Miriam Olsen was the first of a series of best friendships I’ve cultivated in my life. Each of these relationships has been marked by its own unique exchange of goods.
My college roommate and I purchased a shared gift for each other, our very own one-hitter pipe. Marisa named the bowl Maid Marian, and we considered the threads of peach glass making their way through the bowl’s central shades of maroon to be not only beautiful, but also a symbol of our independence from all the boys we had hitherto bummed weed from.
I met Steph the summer after graduating college; we were doing summer stock theater in Vermont, and afterward, we did the whole starving-artists-in-NYC thing hand-in-hand. We commemorated our love by combining our shared collection of cheap jewelry together on a single jewelry display screen we bought at a hardware store in Astoria. We stored the jewelry screen in our tiny black-and-white tiled bathroom and every time I selected a pair of chandelier earrings, I felt her love radiating through my earlobes.
I met Claire at yet another summer stock theater when I was 21. We stole a vintage red coat from the theatre’s costume barn, taking the coat with us back into our lives in New York. I kissed a boy in a snowstorm while wearing the tomato red coat with its silver-dollar-sized buttons. And then I passed it onto Claire. Claire wore it during her lunch breaks while working in a real estate office making copies, retrieving keys, answering phones, and sending me obscene faxes at my own soulless office job. Then she passed it on to me. And so on.
Gift-giving has long been seen as part of women’s work, the work of kinship, which includes researching must-have stocking stuffers, card-sending, and Paperless Post-ing birthday party invites. Much has been written about how this work is primarily positioned to serve the heart of patriarchal society, the heterosexual marriage and family unit.
In Mary Ann McGrath’s article about gift-giving and gender, she writes that women have been historically socialized to focus on relationships and intimacy: “The exchanges are coordinated by women and failure to perform the designated ritual may lead to disruption in relational stability.”
But the work of kinship also serves our friendships — particularly the women-focused ones. Our first passionate gift exchanges are generally not engagement rings or “will you go out with me?” multiple choice notes passed in biology class, but neon friendship bracelets made at summer camp.
How might the gifts we give to celebrate these friendships, which we’re told should be secondary to our romantic partnerships, illustrate the unique weight these platonic soulmates hold in our hearts, in our lives?
Women have been celebrating their friendships through gift exchange long before Claire’s opened its first piercing station. In Lindsey Palka’s essay about Victorian hair art for the Toast, she writes about the venerated tradition of exchanging dead skin cells as a way to show one’s love: “Schoolgirls frequently exchanged hair for scrapbooks as a memento. (In Anne of Green Gables, Anne asks Diana for a lock of her hair when they believe they are ‘parted forever’ and Anne promises to ‘sew it up in a little bag and wear it around my neck all my life’).”
As children, Victoria women often formed intense emotional bonds with each other (since boys were segregated to totally different social worlds) only to be wrenched apart by geography and marriage later on. Palka points to the fact that these exchanges of hair could be the most intimate reminders of a far-away friend.
But hair wasn’t the only way a 19th-century girl could express her devotion to a friend. In the 1800s, the language of flowers was everything. If you wanted to say sorry to a beloved friend after a fight about who wore her puffed sleeves best, for example, you could send her purple hyacinths, which would do the trick.
Best to steer clear of yellow hyacinths, though, which meant “jealousy,” and could reignite the original source of sartorial tension. Because of the painstaking particularity of sentiment injected into the bouquets, these exchanges between bosom friends might carry more significance than a boyfriend’s obligatory bunch of wilted grocery store carnations ever could today.
When I first read Carroll Smith-Rosenberg’s famous treatise on female friendship, “The Female World of Love and Ritual” as a graduate student, I remember feeling strangely seen and heard by these 18th- and 19th-century women, many of whom seemed to prioritize intimate female friendships above, or at least, as equal to, their relationships with romantic partners.
In the essay, Smith-Rosenberg considers a wealth of letters written to and from female friends in the 1700s to mid-1800s, women who lived across the United States and who represented a wide breadth of socioeconomic classes. And these letters show a range of female love celebrated through not only letter exchanges, but floral gifts, pies, breads, and hair lockets.
Though Smith-Rosenberg doesn’t explicitly analyze homosexual relationships between women in her essay, she does acknowledge there was much more room for shades of gray when it came to a strictly platonic relationship shifting toward something more intimate. Physical affection, for example, was far more demonstrative between female friends than it is today (in America, at least), as were passionate and open declarations of devotion.
While open homosexuality between women might not have been tolerated in the 19th century, scholars Martha Vicinus and Terry Castle posit that many women might have carried on homosexual relationships under the socially sanctioned cover of romantic friendship. This exploration of the sexual spectrum was only permitted, however, if all involved parties remained firmly anchored by heteronormative boundaries.
“These relationships ranged from the supportive love of sisters, through the enthusiasms of adolescent girls, to sensual avowals of love by mature women. It was a world in which men made but a shadowy appearance.”
This last line reverberated from the page to the core of my being.
I had recently lost my friend Claire to a man. It came right after she and I had, after years of sleeping at each other’s apartments (because we wanted to, not because we had to), finally realized a long-held dream and found a place together. A few weeks into our lease, Claire met her guy. They fell in love with the same speed and fervor Claire and I had fallen in love that fateful night in the mothballed costume barn. They strolled to Starbucks for chai lattes on brisk Sunday mornings while I slept off my hangover and continued to exhibit typical mid-20s behavior: flitting from random job to even more random job without having any clue what the hell I wanted to do with my life, and linking myself to wholly inappropriate men.
I watched in dismay as Claire fast forwarded through what should’ve been a few more years of feeling lost in her 20s and started her unstoppable ascent into a relationship dependent on responsible choices, a relationship that upheld the gravity of “us” before anything else. When Claire moved out of our apartment and into her new boyfriend’s, the red coat somehow got lost in the shuffle.
Shortly after I read Smith-Rosenberg’s essay, I found myself scanning Claire’s wedding registry, searching for something that felt like us, that felt as significant as the red coat. The best I could come up with was a salad bowl. I told myself it was something that could last forever (or at least pretty close), and something she’d use often, thus ensuring regular reminders of me and our closeness.
And when I added the salad bowl to my online cart, I thought wistfully about the women I had read about in Smith-Rosenberg’s piece. I knew without being told that I was the only one in our friendship wishing the intimacy might continue, unchanged, undiminished, despite our new romantic commitments.
The relationships analyzed in “The Female World of Love and Ritual” contained every bit as much passion (perhaps more) as the passion one might find in a romantic relationship: “Sarah began to keep a bouquet of flowers before Jeannie’s portrait and wrote complaining of the intensity and anguish of her affection.” Leading up to her marriage, which “altered neither the frequency of their correspondence nor their desire to be together,” Sarah wrote to Jeannie: “I shall be entirely alone [this coming week]. I can give you no idea how desperately I shall want you…”
I get this wanting. I so get it.
Most of my friends (myself included) are married now, and often, I find myself alone in my desire to carve out more “girl time” (a phrase I loathe). Many of my friends seem to prioritize Sunday family errands or partner-date-nights over time spent reconnecting with friends, friends that once served as the core of their intimate lives. Time and time again, I am the initiator, the nagging emailer, the one insisting we “get a plan on the books.”
And of course, when that plan finally comes into fruition, all of our love comes tumbling back over glasses of wine or cups of tea or bowls of ramen. It’s not as though I suspect my friends of no longer loving me, it’s just that I often feel lonely in my desire to prioritize our platonic love in a way that feels commensurate with the important role that love has played in our lives. It shows in the gifts we’re now giving each other: The fervor of BFF necklaces has given way to the lukewarm gesture of artisan dish towels or housewarming succulents.
Claire mailed me a wooden chip/dip combo platter for my own bridal shower. I use it occasionally for parties, but it doesn’t hold any of our secrets, any of our memories. My salad bowl and Claire’s platter become not meaningful enactments of a shared connection between friends, but nods to the fact that we’ve left childish things behind to become grown-ass women who need special containers from which to serve hummus.
The salad bowl was not like the red coat, which one of us would wear walking through city streets arm in arm, taking photos of ourselves with a disposable camera purchased drunkenly at CVS. The platter contains only memories of my married life. It is a gift given to serve a relationship our culture tacitly tells us should be primary.
The grand season of gift-giving is nearly upon us, and this year, I think I’m going to spend less time perusing blogs that suggest gifting a handcrafted steak knife or overpriced pair of socks to my husband, and more time thinking about how I’d like to express my love to my friends. Maybe I’ll pour my soul into hand-written cards, maybe I’ll dredge up old photos and frame them up. I can’t afford to give my friends diamonds, a la Kelly Rowland and Beyoncé, but maybe I’ll haul my itchy trigger fingers over to the grownup version of Claire’s — the internet — and click “purchase now” on a pair of BFF necklaces.