It was a gathering of five. Five friends from parochial school all hovering around the age of 60 now. It would have been six but one friend was getting ready to bury her daughter. Suicide we heard.
I was the oldest but not by much. My 60th birthday was two months away. But this wasn’t a birthday celebration. No, this was to celebrate Mary who had just finished a grueling round of chemo after having undergone a double mastectomy. Mary was the nucleus of this group of friends. Mary and I lived on the same street growing up. Through her I met Linda, Carol, Terry (the one who was burying her daughter) and her little sister Annie.
There could have been many more of us at this gathering but, let’s face it, it’s hard to get people together. Plus we were heading to Phoenix on the hottest weekend of the year – in fact record breaking at 118 degrees. But thanks to time, a little alcohol and bitching about the heat, those other friends were with us in stories, laughter, tears and many old embarrassing moments.
Not only was I the oldest, I was the poor kid of the group. Third of nine children with a blue collar dad, we were always hanging on by a thread – houses, food, bedrooms, space. None of my friends ever made me feel less than them, but I do remember certain looks from the adults.
My friend Mary was from a large family too, four siblings, but her dad had a nice white-collar job. Our moms hung out together mostly through church related events, but when our parents got together on the weekends it was something right out of Mad Men.
Carol was what I considered the “rich” kid. Her dad was a judge and her mom was a beautiful Italian “Sofia Loren” look-alike. But Carol was down to earth. As beautiful as her mom, she was neat as a pin and kind to everyone. She was raised as an only child after her little brother was killed by a drunk driver right in front of her eyes. I couldn’t comprehend that type of tragedy but it never defined Carol. Her parents took her on ritzy vacations to Vegas. I remember thinking “She must like Elvis,” but I think she liked being part of this Rat Pack of scraggly kids from our little hood.
Linda lived several blocks away but she went to school with us. Don’t remember her dad much but I remember her mom and now I see where Linda has inherited her mom’s beautiful brown skin. Linda had a lot of brothers and one sister (I think), but I don’t remember hanging around their house much. Linda was quiet and reserved, a person who didn’t talk much about herself. She reminded me we shared an apartment in our 20s but she didn’t really like living there. Hmmm….
Annie is Mary’s little sister. Two years younger than me, she was actually my partner in crime. Where Mary was cautious, Annie was anything but. Oh, she’ll tell you stories about my clubs where I was always president and to join you either had to jump off the roof or declare your hatred toward someone we just didn’t like at the time. You know, the “I hate Becky Club” or something to that effect. Annie was always ready for an adventure – smoking Pall Malls stolen from my mom’s purse or staying out all night to TP someone’s home.
None of our moms worked outside the home – typical 1950 suburban America. We felt safe and loved. What we found out from our Arizona weekend was how much our lives were different from the one we knew and how much our lives changed after school.
Because Mary was tired from her chemo and the weather was unbearably hot, we spent a lot of time indoors with the air conditioner running full speed. We played card games, drank G&Ts and rum and cokes, cooked pasta dinners and watched a funny movie (I admit my friends don’t share my sense of humor). Mostly we caught up on our lives.
Of the five of us, three graduated from college, three are divorced, and four of us are grandparents. All of our parents have died with the exception of Carol whose dad is still kicking but her mom has Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s, I learned over the weekend, is truly the long goodbye. We would have called it Purgatory in Catholic school.
Only one of the friends still holds strongly onto the Catholic faith (I dabble in it), but we all have opinions on it. We talked about three of our brothers who were altar boys in the 60s. Two of them never married and the one who married never had children. Priest abuse? We’ll never know. Our brothers certainly don’t talk about it.
Mary’s mom wanted her to marry a doctor so she went to college in Oregon for a Bachelor’s in Nursing to find one. She married a hairdresser. Now single, she runs the Women’s Section at a large, well-known hospital.
Carol said her mother put her on diets starting in the second grade. She remembers how the other kids had Twinkies in their lunch bag. She had carrot sticks. (side note: Carol was not and is not overweight.). A film editor by profession, Carol quit her job when she started having kids and only looks back with a slight regret (she was one year short from receiving a pension).
Annie didn’t attend college but moved to Colorado. She married and had four children (a set of twins included). She worked most of her life – always the breadwinner and in a field where she organizes events. That girl is the ultimate multi-tasker. She is her sister’s number one caregiver throughout her breast cancer ordeal.
Linda also left California for college in Arizona. She married and had three daughters. Single again, Linda’s flair for design and color is not only supporting her family but also helping Mary as she settles into her new home. Still reserved and quiet, I get to know Linda just a little bit more every time I see her.
Me – well, I married someone I met in a bar. Still married to that same guy 30-plus years later (sometimes bar pickups work out). I’m probably not the poor kid anymore, but I do carry a deep sense of that childhood with me.
I am amazed that our gathering of five could come together after years of separation and find we never really left that little parochial schoolyard. We remain good friends.
I cherish that.
If life were a football game, we’d all be entering into the fourth quarter. What defined us as children has shaped us into the strong women we’ve become. Although we all have had our ups and downs, we are survivors and I think we are looking forward to this next chapter of our lives. Football games can be won or lost in the fourth quarter and I think we’re winners.
Epilogue: Mary returned to work after one more week of recuperating in Arizona. She lost most of her hair, but has wigs and a beautiful new short haircut. I’m sure all of us will be facing major medical situations in the coming years. I have a feeling we will come together to share a few laughs and help make this time of our lives one for the books.