New memories with old friends
I held an event at my house this week. It was a small garden luncheon for a group of women I had never physically met. I was a little nervous about entertaining this group. I wanted to make this party special, so I channeled my inner Martha Stewart and created an outdoor dining room under the large red maple tree that sits in my front yard.
I covered the long table with a pale green cloth that brushed the grass, and then topped it with an antique lace tablecloth that belonged to my grandmother. Once a shade of white, the lace now has a bronzy patina from decades of lying in a box waiting for an important occasion like this one. I collect teapots, so I arranged several of them down the center of the table and popped a big, fat hydrangea blossom in the top of each.
I put out an assortment of antique linen napkins. I even ironed them! It looked beautiful.
When the group showed up – exactly when they said they would – they looked pretty much like any other group of women of a certain age. They could have been members of a garden club, a book club or retired teachers, but that’s not it.
This group met each other when they began kindergarten at St. Pius School in Providence. One of the bunch is my mother. Over the course of my entire life, she has mentioned one or more of these women in countless stories that took place when they were kids in the 1940s and 1950s. I don’t think my mother has a story that doesn’t include one of these people. In my house, these women were legends of sort, and meeting them was sort of like meeting characters from a cherished novel.
In the flesh, they are Hopie, Betty, Maureen, Kay, Mary, Diane and Jane. Paula is my mother.
Of course they lost touch with each other – it’s easy to do once you marry, have children and move to a new town. But five years ago, at a school reunion, after some of them had not seen each other in 50 years, they found each other again and realized that they wanted to resume their enduring friendship. So now they go out to lunch about once a month.
They are totally at ease with each other sitting around my table, eating curried chicken salad on finger rolls.
Betty brought up the point that they all knew each other’s parents and siblings, and could picture all of them attending the various graduations and confirmations that were held for the class. I thought how convenient it must be to have friends to whom you don’t have to explain your history. Friends who can inquire by name about your family members, who know which of their siblings was in the same grade as your siblings. This group has a shared history that took place within the walls of their school, as well as on the few blocks of the neighborhood where they all grew up. Some combination of them was together virtually every day of their young lives.
They compared modern conveniences with the way things were done when they were kids. Unlike kids today, who text each other to communicate and make dates, my mother said that Hopie and a couple of other girls would actually walk over to her house and yell at the back door for her to come out and play. Hopie is the one who appears in the majority of my mother’s old stories. Even though I really can’t picture them as children, I know when they look at each other, they can remember every fun day that passed between the two of them.
One thing they all seem to have in common is a shared fear of nuns.
Apparently, going to Catholic school could be a frightening time and they all spoke about bad experiences like having their mouths washed out with soap for saying bad words. I asked what words got them such a punishment, and Maureen said that saying “shut up” to someone was bad enough for the soap treatment. My mother said she got a mouthful of soap once, but could not remember what the infraction was – only that it was “commercial, industrial soap” that was used.
They lingered a long time at my house, sitting under the tree in the cool, summer breeze, eating dessert, having another iced coffee. Nobody wanted the day to end.
While looking at old yearbooks, I had seen tiny blackand white photos of these girls in their plaid parochial school uniforms. Until recently, I never believed I would meet the women with whom my mother spent all her time before she knew me. Now, my luncheon in the garden is one of thousands of stories still unfolding for this group because they decided to rekindle their enduring friendship.