The Dragon Lady is all these things, and much more. We first met as neighbors about 7 years ago. I had no idea at the time I moved in that it was the start of one of the most significant friendships of my life. Life does that to you. You often don’t know when you first meet someone what their meaning in your life is going to be. I had no idea that 7 years later it would still be one of the easiest, most nurturing relationships in my life. This is an article sponsored by Gather App

At the time, I was escaping the Un-Divorce with my 4 children. Escaping here into this quiet, peaceful city in Orange County. I was frazzled, wounded by boundary incursions from the people I thought I should have been able to trust the most and had just exchanged full custody of my children and a million dollar home for a tiny 3 bedroom apartment and saying goodbye to the loves of my life every weekend. To say our little family was in shock would be an understatement.

One day, when the older children had just left to go to their father’s house for the weekend, my new red-haired neighbor came by to introduce herself (we often joke about how bitterly she must regret that decision). She had a daughter and a son of comparable age to my children and suggested they could play together. Years later it is we moms who play together. The children have learned to get along tolerably well. But in those early weeks, we discovered a shared love of books, cooking and a desire to discuss politics and social currents. The more we saw of each other the easier it was and more than anything we found a shared sensibility, we made each other laugh, and we have continued to do so through good times and bad.

More and more, it was revealed that we met many, many needs in each other. Most often, we found just the right language to fill in the unfilled places life had left in each other. Whether one or the other required a friend, a sister, a mother, a daughter or a partner, we found the way to balance each other. Where she was, at times too authoritarian in her parenting and I too laizzes-faire in mine, we pulled each other to the center. And through it all, I remained constantly amazed by her dual, natural inclination to both care for us, my little family and I, while at the same time being able to lay it down so brutally honestly when it came to what she was comfortable with that I never, ever had to worry that she was building any accounts of resentment or loading up on minor annoyances. No guilt and no guessing. I couldn’t have asked for anything more perfect. She was like the best combination of an old world Italian grandmother and a pack of gay men.

As my family grew, she was challenged in maintaining our friendship. She, who had come from a large family and found it claustrophobic now had to decide if she was willing to endure it again as my many children disrupted the peace. That she struggled with it and made the commitment to show up, on a daily basis was humbling to me.

She turned her house into the one place where I came first, and often the first thing out of her mouth when I walked in her door was addressed to my children, “Leave your mother alone, she needs a break.” It was like entering that magical land of the suburban 50’s where the parents actually visited with each other instead of catering to the children every waking moment. Nowhere else in my life did this exist, especially since I was pathologically unable to deny my children access to me.

And in her efforts to be my sanctuary (because she truly believes my life is f*@%ed and that I am reaping the karma gathered from lifetimes full of killing baby seals and pure virgins), she also gave me her husband, who regularly schools my wild bunch in the old school, southern standards of respecting their mother, opening doors, and asking if they can fetch and carry. He tells my daughters every time he sees them how nice they are looking today. He does a thousand little things most people wouldn’t notice, things that don’t exist in my world. Things like surreptitiously shifting a baby off of a chair and onto his knee if I am standing near so I can sit down. The sort of masculine, southern cordiality that I wish I had more of. He is a “wait till your father gets home” kind of guy who will shoot my boys, ages 11 years old to 2 years old a look of dire warning if a carelessly thrown ball comes too close to my head.

She not only allows this, but actively collaborates and encourages him to do it, because she wants me to have the kind of consideration that she enjoys. I am part of the intimate circle of her marriage in a way that shouldn’t work, but does, and we are all surprised that it does. Jealousy has never been a factor. Indeed, everyone seems to know which territory is theirs, what the parameters of each others role is. It’s oddly comfortable, and the subject of many Mormon jokes.

Inevitably, our love of cooking put pots and pans in our hands, which prompted our learning how to share a kitchen together for the first time, and in doing so scared the shit out of (our) her husband because it turned out to be 10% “we’re making quiche” and 90% “Bitch, I will cut you if you do that again”. Pecking orders were eventually established and we’ve gotten much, much better at it (and far more verbally abusive).

She is a better cook than I am and will think nothing about brining baby backs or brisket and then smoking them for 12 hours. Or making home made pizza for a couple 100 Boy Scouts (what a psycho). Or, as she once did, making individually wrapped, homemade cookies for 3 different classrooms with no notice so the triplets could celebrate their birthday at school. She also didn’t blink when I blithely admitted that I’d taken total credit for making them.

With her, I can express my most authentic self, and she can do the same, “I don’t want to see you today. You have too many kids. And don’t bother to call, because I won’t be answering the phone.”

We’re so close that we finish each others thoughts now, “You know, because you’re the only one…” “Who seems to like you?” “Yes, that’s it.”

And I can freely say to her kids, “Hey, you better start saving now for all the therapy you’re going to need when your mother is through with you. I’m not joking.”

There was the time when she went with me to Las Vegas as my very own, personal Nurse Ratched. She hadn’t been to Vegas in 10 years, which is the same as never having been there at all. I was having a breakdown at the time (no joke) and she was giggling her ass off saying things like, “I know you’re about two and a half steps from throwing yourself off the roof of this casino, but I am having the best time!” And in the strange ways of our friendship, I was grateful, because she didn’t add my ruining her good time to the weight of what I was already struggling under. She never, ever makes me carry her emotional baggage (just the real stuff).

We have had our friendship tested. When our 2 boys got in a fight. When addiction wove itself into my family, hitting too close to home for her, my desire to connect daily by phone vs. her desire to never be on the phone at all. We have seen each other through car accidents and job losses, through moments where we questioned the strength of our relationships, marriages, and other friendships and moments of personal breakdowns. We have tried to ride to each others rescue at all times. And become better people because of it.

We have instructed each others children and behind the scenes argued over how we were to do it. And we have made each other better parents. She has made me far more aware of the money I spend and I have forced her to confront the part of herself that I call “Depression Era Sally.” She has come to my rescue at the drop of a hat and also taught me how to have better boundaries, sometimes by having them against me. She has made me a better friend.

She is probably the only person who so vocally demands the best treatment for me for me in all those thousand little ways that make you feel cared for, who takes my side as if she were a mother defending her own child. She regularly lines my children up before we leave her house and lectures them on what they are expected to do for me, and each other, before we go home. And who asks them when they arrive if they have been taking care of me as well. It is a sort of a Southern courtliness that she has learned from her husband combined with a sense of gay entitlement that she is determined I will get to have as well. For someone who is mean as a snake, it’s pretty impressive.

My other friends and myself are such Devil’s Advocate whores we can’t help but force ourselves, and each other to defend out positions first. Not her. The first words out of her mouth are far more likely to be “Those bastards. Why don’t they take better care of you?!” That sort of championing is still as shocking to me today as it was the first time I heard it. And after 7 years, I’m happy to say, it feels just a little more comfortable to wear.

Last year she went on a road trip with her family (the interlopers) back to the land of road kill and the holler for two weeks. We exchanged the occasional text and call, but for the most part it was the longest we’d been out of touch in 6 years. When she finally got home and called me up, I said a collection of the meanest things you could ever say to a person and not get killed…and then she did they same, and afterwards we both sighed in relief, as if we were no longer in danger of being poisoned by a build up of internal toxins. It’s the beauty of our friendship, and it keeps us from saying those things to anyone else, particularly the children.

I hope for each one of you a friend like mine. A red-headed Dragon Lady who shoots from the hip, tells you that you deserve everything and then some, who champions your causes and is in your corner no matter how hard the trial, who is your friend, your mother, your sister and daughter all at once. Who lets speak the unspeakable without surprise or judgment. Life shouldn’t be gotten through without one.