Peter Smith contemplates open house acquaintances

Commentator Peter Smith
Commentator Peter Smith.
MPR Photo/Sarah Fleener

Sometime late this afternoon, my wife and I will get in the car and drive over to a high school graduation open house for the daughter of a couple of old friends of ours.

The house itself won't be open. The party will be in the back yard. We'll walk up the driveway, through the garage they cleaned specially for the occasion, and out the back door to the patio.

And there they will be: our old friends' people - talking pleasantly, munching open house food, renewing the once-removed friendships we've all established with one another at weddings and birthdays, anniversaries, Super Bowl parties, and other occasions like this one over the years.

There ought to be a name for the relationships we have with our old friends' other old friends. With their neighbors, and in-laws and aging high school pals and college roommates. With all the nice-enough people living their lives parallel to ours: people in the middle distance we've come to kind of know.

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What should we call them? Step-friends? Friends once removed? Friends in-law?

This afternoon on the patio, we'll all catch up with one another. We'll hear kid news (good and bad) and talk home improvement projects, aging parents, yoga classes, bike trails, and Lord-only-knows what else.

This is the rich, loamy soil in which life in Minnesota is rooted. We've built a statewide self-help group and support network out of relationships like these. There may be six degrees of separation elsewhere, but around here, there's only this network of old friends' old friends. And even an anti-social old guy like me will come out of his shell and mingle for a while.

The graduate will do her best to mingle too. Then her own friends will show up and the party will split into two factions: young and old.

At some point, my wife and I will slip out and head home, feeling comfortably reassured. Life will be proceeding apace for these two old friends and their group of old friends.

And this fall, when the graduate goes off to school, she will no doubt meet people who will become her own old friends and populate a lifetime of events like this for her - whether she cleans up the garage or not.

Peter Smith is a regular contributor to Morning Edition and the author of "A Porch Sofa Almanac" -- a collection of his MPR essays.