In 1988 author Robert Fulghum published the book “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten,” which included an essay by the same name.
It parsed good advice for adults about how in kindergarten we were taught to share, be nice and clean up our own messes, among other things.
As the years go by I often think that everything I needed to know about coping with life I learned while being a bartender. At the time, these seemed like pretty specific skills. Now I realize they serve me well in all parts of life – from a difficult or sensitive interview to reasoning with an insubordinate toddler.
I learned the fine art of diffusing a confrontational (and potentially violent) situation with some smooth talking.
I learned to never, ever stick your thumb in a beer bottle when cleaning up empties.
I learned basic math. I struggled with that in school, but there is little room for error when making change for a customer or balancing the books at the end of the night.
I learned the empathy that comes with spending long hours across the bar from people who live on the fringe of what many think of as an acceptable lifestyle.
I learned tolerance for people I didn’t quite care for and that everyone has a story.
I learned how to be tough when I had to be and graceful when the situation called for it.
I’ve spent time with people celebrating at their best and drowning in addiction at their worst.
I learned that the best friendships are made through the camaraderie of hard work.
And I also learned that last call is always coming.
Saturday morning I got the news that while inevitable, I wasn’t ready for.
Earlier that morning my good friend Barb had died.
It was just over a year since she had been diagnosed with cancer.
I met Barb though my time waiting tables. She was the long-time senior bartender in our tiny hometown… the kind of place where everybody knows your name.
Never married with no kids, she instead had an enormous circle of family and friends she looked out for constantly.
Over the years we grew to be close. It’s not hard to forge a friendship when you are washing tables and ashtrays at 3 a.m.
Almost 15 years older than me, she certainly played big sister on more than one occasion.
Until I moved to Minnesota seven years ago, we rarely went a day or two without seeing each other for the better part of a decade.
She was the link between my husband and I… they had been friends for a long time before he and I started dating.
When I wrestled with upending my life to move to Minnesota, she gave me a swift kick and told me to get going.
When I got married she made sure everything ran smoothly and our ceremony and reception were beautifully decorated. She even made my bouquet.
Cancer and death came much too early in my life – my mom lost her own battle when she was just 34 years old.
But this is the first time I’ve lost a good friend. Perhaps I should consider myself lucky for making it to my mid-30s before experiencing this painful right of passage.
Our last visit was the day after Christmas. My husband and I spent a couple of hours with her in her hospital room where she was dealing with one of many complications of her cancer.
Her life had changed a lot in the years I had been away. She wasn’t bartending anymore. Until her illness made it impossible, she had been working at the local hospital where she was able to put her amazing skills with the elderly to good use. Life had quietened down. She also had a rare form of rheumatism that often debilitated her, at random. The late night cash-outs and tip counting were done and she’d settled into a quieter life.
Maybe I should have known it on that cold day we left the hospital it would be the last time I saw her. But I preferred to think that spring would come and we’d be back visiting in the comfort of her cozy living room. That gorgeous hair of hers would be growing back and she’d been on the road to recovery. I’m not terribly optimistic by nature, but that time I was.
Maybe that’s what happens when someone has been such a constant in your life. You just choose not to think about what it will be like without them, until you absolutely have to.
And here we are.
So wherever you are, dear friend, I hope the band is loud, the beer is cold and the service is great. Save me a seat.
Mandy Moran Froemming can be reached at [email protected].