AKRON, Ohio — It was the first day of school. You slid into a molded plastic chair in Mrs. Miller's classroom and tried not to vomit.
Another little guy, his eyes fraught with fear, walked down the aisle toward you.
"Will you be my best friend?" you asked, leaning toward him.
"Sure," he answered, taking the empty seat beside you.
It was the start of a fellowship that would last right up to the day you both fell in love with the same little red-headed girl.
As we age, it can become more difficult to make friends. We are less inhibited when we are young, so reaching out to a potential friend isn't so scary. But life changes such as puberty, graduation, moving, marriage, childbirth, divorce or a loved one's death can adversely alter friendships.
But there are things you might be able to do to change that. So instead of a New Year's resolution to lose weight or do more traveling this year, consider a declaration to make more friends — or renew old friendships.
"Being a friend takes action," explained counselor Jill Jividen with Counseling for Wellness in Kent, Ohio. "It's like a job. You have to work at it. It doesn't just happen."
Ruby Winter, who lives in the Portage Lakes, Ohio, area, works at keeping and making friends. During Winter's weekly gathering with 16 or so pals at Dusty's Landing on Turkeyfoot Lake, nearly everyone who comes through the door waves to the retired Barberton schoolteacher. Returning the greeting, she flashes them a grin and sometimes a wink.
"My mom never knew a stranger. I guess I'm a lot like her," Winter said. "She always said, 'You can never have too many friends.'"
Jividen noted that an action begets the same reaction. So expressing kindness, for example, will generally bring kindness.
A few miles south of Winter, at Gaslite Villa Health Care's nursing home center in Canal Fulton, lives Velna Boyer. It could be remarkably sad to be surrounded each hour by folks who have forgotten their names. But the former Springfield Township resident does more than just make the best of the situation.
"Every morning the Lord tells me I should be joyful and that's what I try to be," said Boyer, who's as sharp as someone half her age. She's quick to flash a smile and, on occasion, teases visitors.
When a 64-year-old Akron Beacon Journal photographer told her he was getting married to an "older" woman, the 98-year-old pointed her finger at him and countered, "Hey, why didn't you look me up?"
Though they've never met, both Winter, who gasped at the thought of giving her age, and Boyer have very similar personalities. It's second nature for them to compliment others. It might be as simple as commenting on a person's clothing or a new hairdo.
"Velna always has a positive comment and never says anything negative," said Teresa Lins, activity director for Gaslite. "She is the perfect example of what happiness looks like in the elderly."
Friendship also has health benefits — particularly for men.
Marla Paul writes in her book "The Friendship Crisis" that men who become widowed have an increased risk of dying. But the same isn't true of women. The greatest effect on a woman's mortality is seen in the number of contacts she has with close friends and relatives.
Nothing will alter a person's address book like the death of a spouse or child. While the bereaved may feel snubbed when a friend doesn't keep in contact afterward, it's likely the pal simply feels uncomfortable.
"They don't want to see you in pain because it brings up their own pain," Jividen said.
To draw them back, Jividen suggested being honest. Tell your friend that you worry that he or she will be uncomfortable if you cry.
"I want you to know that it's OK if I cry, and you don't have to do anything," Jividen said to tell the friend. "I'm really the same person and ... need you now."
If you want to help a grieving friend, resist telling her to "call if she needs something." It's nearly impossible to think straight in grief, so being told what to do is just an added burden. Instead, as Paul mentions in her book, tell her specifically what you plan to do for her — take care of the kids, bring over dinner or mow the lawn.
Feeding a relationship
Winter's parents had 14 children and, to this day, she doesn't like being alone. That's one of the reasons she's so involved in volunteering and social groups. A great way, she acknowledged, to meet new folks.
"I just like to be surrounded by people. The more, the merrier," she said, adding that she grew up in a small home where three or four children sometimes shared the same bed.
But it's not always easy to make time for buddies. Paul writes that it's "hard to make new friends in our culture of busyness. And as we frantically juggle a constellation of demands many of us are unwilling, or unable, to fold a new pal into our lives."
Friendship takes effort. Even charismatic Winter says she has to work at it. If she hasn't heard from a pal in a while, she calls. Lack of communication can make a friendship wane in a hurry.
Paul's book notes to keep a friendship alive we need to pay attention to what's happening in our friend's life by doing things like making a date for breakfast or a workout, celebrating the victories or surprising them with a gift.
Meet-up groups are one of the most popular ways today to find new pals in your area who have similar interests.
See www.meetup.com and look for what interests you. For instance, there are groups whose members are fans of euchre, bicycling, speaking Spanish, horror and sci-fi and writing.
What better way to start the new year than with a group of friends who love the same things you do?
Where to meet new friends
· Check your church or community center for friendship or discussion groups.
· Join a book club.
· Volunteering will put you in touch with new faces.
· See www.newcomersclub.com for a worldwide directory of clubs and organizations that welcome you to a town.
· Enroll in classes at the YMCA or neighborhood health club.
· Buy a dog or walk a neighbor's pup. It's a great conversation starter.
Source: "The Friendship Crisis," by Marla Paul