Internet, writing assignment leads to reunion of childhood friends

Tami Szerlip and Sarah Bird. - Contributed photo
Tami Szerlip and Sarah Bird.
— image credit: Contributed photo

Sarah Bird, a columnist and published author, writes to us from Austin, Texas. She and Islander Tami Szerlip went to junior high and high school together in Albuquerque. After graduating from college in the early 70s, the friends went different ways. Szerlip moved out to the Northwest, eventually settling here on Mercer Island, where she raised two daughters and has been active in the PTA and working on children’s issues. Bird moved to Austin, where she raised a son and wrote seven novels, including a book about the former Texas governor, President George W. Bush, and his wife. She is also a columnist for Texas Monthly magazine.

Last spring, Bird got an assignment from Good Housekeeping magazine asking if she would investigate the burgeoning phenomenon of reconnecting that the Internet has made possible. They wondered if she would reconnect with two old friends and an old flame. The old flame and one friend were complicated, bittersweet stories, she writes, “but finding my old junior high school chum, Tami Szerlip, has been an unalloyed joy.”

A few days after I left word with my high school alumni association in Albuquerque asking anyone who remembered me to get in touch, I received a message from a woman who wonders if I will remember her: Tami Szerlip. Of course, I recalled the soft-spoken, kind, artistic girl with the braid that hung down below her waist. I was especially pleased to hear from Tami because she was one of those mysterious friends who somehow slip out of your life for no real reason.

I immediately zipped off a message to Tami. Soon we were swapping our stories back and forth. In a gift from the universe, it turned out that she lives on Mercer Island near Seattle, the very city I would soon be flying into to look at colleges with my high school senior son. We made a date; she was eager to meet my son, and I was eager to show him off.

The college tour trip with my son — which I had hoped would be a vacation from the conflicts that rend all seniors and their parents as they gear up emotionally for the big separation of college — was instead exactly the exercise in grim, stony-faced withdrawal that self-conscious teens appearing in public with a parent specialize in. Logically, I knew all the reasons why my big, handsome son was acting like a prisoner of war who would communicate name, rank and serial number and nothing more, but emotionally, the testy one-word answers and apathetic peevishness took a toll. The fact that it was the day before Mother’s Day added a note of poignant irony.

When my son refused to come with me to Mercer Island, I was both irritated because it meant an extra hour of driving to drop him off at our hotel and relieved that my old friend would not see the proof of what a terrible mother I was. As I crossed the bridge to Mercer Island and left the homicidal Seattle traffic behind, a bit of the trip’s tension slid away. I saw immediately why Tami had written that she lived in “Camelot.” I found the shop where Tami worked. Its name? Finders. This was my first clue that my reunion with my old pal would be so novelistically perfect that I wouldn’t have dared to put it in one of my books.

I opened the door, and the tinkling of a bell and the fragrance of scented candles welcomed me into the sort of shop where you can find exactly the right gift for your best friend. Last-minute Mother’s Day shoppers crowded the aisles, searching through the shop’s abundance of fragrant teas and soaps, so I hovered in the back. I peeked about until I spotted Tami.

One look and I knew two things. The first, that she was so eerily youthful, lithe and unlined that she must have been living in a hyperbaric chamber, and the second, that she was still essentially the same gentle soul I had known in junior high.

That evening, over a dinner of salmon caught and cooked by her husband, Rod Johnson, Tami and I fell effortlessly back into a friendship that seemed never to have been interrupted. We caught up on her two nearly-grown daughters, her lifetime of work for equality in education, her painting, her involvement in writing and producing school musicals.

By the time I returned to the motel, my son was happy to see me. It might just have been the pizza I brought with me, but the parent-free hours had brightened his mood immeasurably and the rest of our trip, filled with silly jokes and a general amiability, seemed to have been blessed by the magic of my reunion with Tami.

Bird will have a signing for her latest book, “How Perfect Is That,” a comic novel published by Knopf, satirizing the Bush social scene in Austin, at Elliott Bay Books at 7:30 p.m., tomorrow, Sept. 18.

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