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Stacey Johnson-Batiste/ Twelve Kamala Harris (left) and Stacey Johnson-Batiste
At the institute, Harris, 57, reflected on how her mom, who died of cancer in 2009, helped advance early detection, which serves as a foundation for scientists now working to find a cure. "The breakthroughs that she was responsible for in the '80s was the basis for a lot of great work," she told reporters.
A close friend, Stacey Johnson-Batiste, tells PEOPLE how Gopalan's presence lingers over the vice president and how Harris' mom's influence shaped her worldview, her drive and determination.
"I've always felt a spiritual connection with people that were close to us that have passed on. I know Kamala feels that way," says Johnson-Batiste, who's written Friends from the Beginning: The Berkeley Village That Raised Kamala and Me, a memoir about her lasting friendship with Harris and the values they inherited from Gopalan, Johnson-Batiste's parents and the beloved "aunts" and "uncles" in the progressive and engaged community of their childhood.
'Connecting the Dots'
The book, which is out Tuesday, begins with Johnson-Batiste opening an invitation to Washington, D.C., to witness her dear friend take the oath of office to become the nation's first female, first Asian and first Black vice president.
"I was so overwhelmed with emotion and all of that, but I truly felt — and could also imagine — just up above us her mother, Shyamala; my father, Robert; our Aunt Mary and our Uncle Sherman looking down that evening and just feeling so proud and so connected," says Johnson-Batiste, whose written account of the heightened, post-Jan. 6 security and COVID-19 precautions add a dystopian element to a joyful experience.
Saul Loeb - Pool/Getty Images Kamala Harris is sworn in as vice president by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor
The connectedness shared by Johnson-Batiste and Harris and their families, which spans generations and physical distances — and pierces through safety barriers and elaborate political protocols — was forged in Berkeley, California, by close-knit neighbors from different backgrounds.
"The culture and the community came together, supported each other, because we needed each other," says Johnson-Batiste, who spoke to PEOPLE by phone about her new book. "Everyone was really connected. It was very cooperative."
The matriarch of that community, Johnson-Batiste writes, was the owner of a children's learning center Harris attended. Regina Shelton, "always Mrs. Shelton — never Regina — to Kamala, me, and the rest of the children," and her family were a "crucial pillar holding up the foundation of our childhood."
When Harris took the oath of office on Jan. 20, she used two Bibles — one that belonged to Justice Thurgood Marshall as well as Mrs. Shelton's, which was brought from Berkeley by her daughters. For Harris, using that "well-loved Bible" is a swearing-in tradition that has lasted her entire career and demonstrates the enduring significance of a woman Johnson-Batiste calls a "spiritual grandmother."
"I just see that Vice President Harris, my friend Kamala Harris, her past experience, her career, has really led her to this point, and there's a lot of connecting of the dots," Johnson-Batiste says.
Kamala Harris/Facebook Shyamala Gopalan (left), Kamala Harris
Now a national sales manager for AT&T, Johnson-Batiste started jotting down childhood memories after Joe Biden selected Harris as his running mate last summer. But she says inspiration for her book really hit during the inauguration. "I wanted to immortalize these everyday people that made extraordinary impacts," she says. "I … could not stop writing on the flight back."
In the book, she adds, "I really hope that the reader gets a good sense of sisterhood, of friendship, maybe a little glimpse into Berkeley, what it would is like back then … I want people to really see her. She is an amazing person. A very well-rounded, grounded person."
'Just Being Together'
In 1994, Johnson-Batiste, her then-husband, Patrick Batiste, and their children Lauren and Patrick Jr. moved into the ninth floor of the same building on Lakeside Drive in Oakland, California, where her childhood friend, the future vice president, lived in her own "fabulous condo."
"It was a spectacular time in our lives," Johnson-Batiste writes. "We were both active and busy and flush with all the excitement of that early adult independence. As a priceless bonus, I never felt alone, for though Kamala and I were carving out very different life paths for ourselves, on any given evening I would just pop own to her condo carrying a glass of wine to chat with her and catch up."
The memories of "one of the happiest and most memorable spans of my life" sound a lot like Johnson-Batiste's answer when asked what she'd like to do in the (purely hypothetical) event that the vice president has a day off to spend a friend she hasn't seen since the whirlwind inauguration 10 months ago.
"I would want to have a nice dinner, share some wine and catch up, maybe reminisce, flip through some old photos," Johnson-Batiste says. "We just enjoyed the simple things. So, just being together."
Mary F. Calvert/MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images Kamala Harris in 1997
If there is any difficulty in adjusting to the space that inevitably grows wider between friends when one's political career goes from being district attorney of San Francisco to attorney general of California, then U.S. senator and vice president — with all the attendant scrutiny and occasional controversy — Johnson-Batiste doesn't admit it.
Instead, she says with simple acceptance and apparent pride that they are always "connected in spirit."
Still, to reach her friend now, Johnson-Batiste can only send messages through a contact Harris gave her before she turned over her personal phone. A manuscript for her book, she says, was sent to the White House but she's not sure Harris has had a chance to read it.
"She did surprise me with a phone call last Tuesday," Johnson-Batiste mentions casually during her PEOPLE interview. "She just missed me and just wanted to chat. She had a few minutes in between meetings."
Twelve Friends from the Beginning by Stacey Johnson-Batiste
Pushed for a bit more on their recent conversation, Johnson-Batiste describes a surprise call from the vice president like it's no big deal.
"It was just girlfriends catching up," she says. "We still talk to each other as we've always done. She's concerned about how I'm doing. What I'm doing, how my kids and my mother are — things of that sort. I shared with her that I recently moved. We are the same friends that we've always been."
'The Perfect Compliment'
Johnson-Batiste said there might be a time next year when she's able to visit Washington and see her friend.
Until then, she adds, "I do pray for her. I pray for her safety." She also takes comfort in knowing that Harris has by her side Doug Emhoff, whom Harris married at the Santa Barbara County Courthouse in 2014 in a ceremony Johnson-Batiste writes was "simply gorgeous," thanks the "elegant, private, and relaxing" atmosphere Harris and Emhoff, 57, created for their closest friends and family.
Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images Doug Emhoff and Kamala Harris
"He absolutely adores her. He wants to protect her. He's very supportive of her career. And I think that he is the perfect compliment to her in that he understands her and the role that she has," Johnson-Batiste says, adding that Harris, Emhoff and his adult children, Cole and Ella, are a "beautiful family."
"They just fit together very, very nicely," she says of her friend's family life which serves as a "comfortable, safe, grounding" home the vice president can return to after representing her country and the Biden administration on a high-profile trip to Paris.
"I do believe that she's going to make a significant difference," Johnson-Batiste says of the barriers broken by the Harris vice presidency, regardless of day-to-day politics. "What happens after that, what the next phase is, I don't know. But by the simple fact that she is our first female and woman of color vice president, there's certainly more that we will hear, more that we will see."