An Old Friend

You never know the impact you have on someone's life.

When I was in high school, I was very interested in genealogy. This was partly for religious reasons (I was Mormon), and partly due to my fascination with history, geography, and organizing data. My church building had one of the few genealogical research centers in that area. Calling it a "center" was, by today’s standards, rather a stretch: it was really just a medium-sized room with a few computers and a CD-ROM collection. It was only open for a few hours at a time, perhaps two or three days a week. And it was not especially well attended. But one summer I spent every moment I could there. I used the center's limited resources to discover new, ancient relations, to confirm data that I had already tracked down, and to explore my own identity as I explored the past.

Other than me, the only other frequent visitor was an elderly woman who was also a member of my congregation. To call her "elderly" is perhaps a misnomer, since she was just about sixty, but that was how she seemed to me as a high-schooler. She lived not far from my family. In my even-younger days, her house was a landmark of sorts: a friend and I were allowed to ride our bicycles as far as her house, at which point we were to return. So she and I already knew each other, though we hadn’t interacted much. At least I don’t have any memories of her before that summer.

At that genealogy center, she and I sat for hours at adjacent computers, sharing our research and, more importantly, sharing each other's company. When one achieved a breakthrough that lead to an extensive trail of ancestors, we both rejoiced vigorously. When one discovered an oddity or conflict in the existing information, we reasoned about how to determine the truth. When one found some odd little tit-bit of data, we both paused to reflect. She had an impish sense of humor that mirrored my own. We developed an unusual but devoted friendship, always looking forward to seeing each other. That summer, and particularly the time spent in that genealogy center, remains an extremely fond memory of my youth. It was a time to connect with the past while also connecting to a friend in the present.

Our hours shared at the genealogy center were twenty-five years ago. Nearly twenty years ago I moved several hundred miles away, and we haven’t been in touch since then. Sure, we became "friends" on Facebook a few years ago, but we never communicated directly; understandably for a woman in her eighties, she wasn’t on Facebook often. But most every time I think about my ancestry, I recall that summer spent in her company. And I smile.

About an hour ago, I learned via Facebook that my old friend, Shirley Roskelley, had a major stroke yesterday. She was hospitalized and died.

The high-school years were a difficult period in my youth, as, of course, they are for most of us. I needed a friend, a kind of psychologically isolated haven, away from family or school or extracurricular activities or even church. I needed some way to forget the hubbub of the world for a while, and to rest the heart and mind. The many hours I spent with Shirley Roskelley at that genealogy center were an important part of keeping this teenager sane. I’m sure neither of us thought of our interactions as having such cosmic consequences, but they did. And I am ever so grateful.

I don’t regret that I never shared these observations with her. I probably couldn’t have phrased them with any coherency until now. But I hope this story is a reminder to you – and to me – that we can never know how important we truly are.



  • I must add a parental comment here as today I am also reflecting on times spent with Shirley. Times that you do not recall and may surprise you – she baby sat you on several occasions. Even though I had asked her daughters, you requested Shirley. She brought finger puppets and would tell you very expressive stories. Which may have even influenced your interest in all things dramatic. Over the years as I have gone through and tossed out things of the past, I have kept the finger puppets made by Shirley. Because you enjoyed them so much and seeing them always makes me smile. Shirley Roskelly was a kind, generous, and funny lady.

    • Goodness! Thanks for sharing, Mom. You are quite right that I have no recollection at all of those occasions. But they certainly do fit with Shirley’s character. I look forward to seeing those finger puppets on my next visit.

  • Unexpected friendships are delightful gifts. I grew up among old women. I miss them, but I feel that I carry them with me. For a long time, I’ve avoided making new friends who were older or sicker than I, hoping to avoid losing another precious one. But I keep meeting marvelous human beings, and enjoying whatever time we have together. Each one is a discovery and a gift, and each life story enlarges my own perspective on life.

    I, too, enjoy genealogy. It’s a research adventure! Even more fascinating is family history, exploring the life stories that connect people with their roots. Through historical records, I have met long-dead people I care about more than some closer kin. It’s a form of time travel!

    I’m happy for you, being blessed with the friendship of this wonderful woman at a time when you especially needed her.

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