A few years back, Oprah Winfrey announced she would be devoting an entire hour to the importance of “girlfriends” in women’s lives.

As I groped for the remote control to turn off the TV, the camera panned an audience of smiling faces—as young as 25, as old as 70—and I found myself reaching for the tissue box instead.

Here were groups of women friends—calling themselves the “Artsy-Fartsys,” the “Cultured Pearls,” the “Moms of Multiples,” all of whom shared some commonality valuable enough to keep them together for years.

For the next hour I laughed and cried with them, listening to their stories of love, support and sisterhood. And I wished with all my heart that I could tell them mine.

Fifty-three years ago, 12 nervous young women kissed their parents good-bye and climbed to the second floor of their college dormitory to meet their fellow freshman for the first time. By the end of the second week, all 12 of us had become friends, gathering nightly in one suite or another, playing bridge, dishing, sharing lives. We called ourselves the “Dirty Dozen” for reasons no one remembers, and our friendship strengthened as semester followed semester. We shared clothes and class notes; we got each other dates; we celebrated each new romance and mourned the breakup of every old one.

Two left school to marry in junior year. Two more transferred to other colleges. The remaining eight of us graduated together in 1956, eager to begin our adult lives yet vowing to write, to visit, to call. Some of us continued on to graduate school. Some of us married our college sweethearts, inviting others of us to be bridesmaids. Then babies arrived, our lives diverged, and eventually we lost touch.

One day in 1987, my mother called from Ohio to say a letter for me had come to her home, where I had not lived for over 30 years. One of the Dirty Dozen was trying to locate the others with the thought of planning a reunion—no easy task. Most still lived in the Midwest, but others had scattered to Georgia, Florida, California, Massachusetts and England.

Two years later, thanks to her perseverance, the first gathering of the Dirty Dozen since 1956 was on everyone’s schedule. All we needed was a place to rendezvous. Without missing a beat, my mother volunteered her country home—large enough to accommodate 12 guests and isolated enough that we could make all the noise we wanted. She promised to arrange for a caterer, ready the beds and vacate for the weekend.

On the plane to Ohio I remember wondering what on earth we would talk about for three days. Would the Dirty Dozen manage to find anything in common after 37 years? Thank goodness my parents belonged to a country club. Golf, tennis and swimming would fill at least some of the time. This, I said to myself, will either be the longest or the shortest weekend of my life.

My mother and I sat on her screened porch, listening for the sound of a car coming down her long, winding driveway bearing the Cleveland contingent—the first four guests to arrive. When we heard a “beep beep,” both she and I hurried to the turnabout, our hearts thudding with excitement. There was the Cleveland car all right, and just behind it another car, and another, and another! The Dirty Dozen had converged at my mother’s gate within seconds of each other from all over the country! The doors burst open, and 12 young girls with 55-year-old faces flung themselves into each other’s arms, laughing, hugging, weeping and laughing some more.

We never used the tennis courts. We ignored the pool. We put on our pajamas after dinner and didn’t change out of them until the next afternoon. Among us we counted eight original husbands and four replacements, three teachers and two realtors, eight Republicans and two Democrats, six golfers and one sailor, two agnostics and five Episcopalians, two smokers, 10 pairs of pierced ears, 23 breasts, six uteruses and one member who, until then, had never heard of the “G-spot” or looked at her own vagina. We talked and laughed until our voices grew froggy and our faces cramped. It turned out to be both the longest and the shortest weekend of my life.

Since that remarkable first reunion in 1989, the Dirty Dozen has met every August in a variety of locales from a rustic house in the Michigan woods to a borrowed beach house on Cape Cod. Each weekend we spend together enriches our lives and deepens our friendship of more than half a century. We remain the “Dirty Dozen,” even though two of our sisters have left the world. And plans are already in the works for our 2010 gathering.

How can I explain what this sisterhood means to me? Now that much of life—home-making, child rearing, career building—is behind us, we have, as Ossie Davis predicted, “become more than ever who we always were.” But when we gather for our weekends, it’s not to reminisce. Nor is it to discuss husbands or grandchildren or aging parents or, God help us, the state of our health. It is to measure our own lives against the lives of those with whom we share a common history, to seek information only a same-age sister can provide. We’re there to talk about ourselves and to own what scares us, excites us, makes us sigh with pleasure. We give voice to our plans and dreams, reveal what’s working and what’s not. We go to listen, not to judge. To be heard, not to be fixed.

And women do this best.

Susan B. Johnson is a novelist, playwright, journalist and historian. Her play “Finders Weepers” was published in 1993 and has been performed in venues across the country.  Her short stories, columns,and articles have appeared in a wide variety of national and regional publications. In 2007 she published both a non-fiction book, Savannah’s Little Crooked Houses, and the novel Spirit Willing, for which she was nominated Georgia Author of the Year. This piece above was inspired by Laura Baudo Sillerman’s offering last week, “Friends Rescue Friends.”

Join the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  • Susan October 12, 2009 at 9:36 pm

    What a delightfully moving story of friendship. I just received an email from an old and dear friend of 32 years. I don’t get to see him very often since I moved to New York from Virginia but I did get to see him back in March and it was like no time had elapsed since we used to do youth ministry together in the Episcopal Diocese of Southern Virginia (except for his totally gray head of hair and my almost-gray locks). At the same time I saw some other folks I knew back in 1980 – most of whom I’d lost touch with over the years. I have never had the joy of reuniting with that many friends after so many years and for so many years, but I can relate to the difficulty to describe what it’s like to reunite with soulmates after long absences. It’s like finding an old sock in the back of the closet that you’d been looking for because it kept your foot warmer than any sock you ever had. Or maybe finding the old sock is like getting back together with an old friend…hmmm.