A Circle of Friends

Since I married Mr. Blandings, I have been getting together for dinner with the same group of women once a month. It started as a group of women who got together on their husbands’ poker night, and then they picked up a few extras along the way. The poker night has fallen off, but our Girls’ Night has endured. We started out going to restaurants, but it's hard to talk at a long table, and occasionally our servers would be annoyed that we would hang around until quite late even though we ordered a good little bit of wine. So we picked up our bottles and went home. Literally.

Now we take turns hosting the group the first Wednesday of every month. Generally, the hostess makes the main course and the rest of us bring either a side or a bottle of wine. Make no mistake. We are not game players. We read books and we might talk about them here, but we are not a book club. While we eat dinner, we're not a dinner club either. It's not about the food, although it's usually yummy. It's about the friends.

Some of us are best friends and a few of us are sisters. Some come a lot and some come rarely, but whether we are particularly close or not, we are all oddly connected by this thing that has become Girls' Night. Even our families, on the days that we are weary and the carpool needs to be run and the laundry needs to be done and the homework needs to be checked, say, “Go. You should go.”

We have been through a lot as a group over the years. We have fifty-four children between the seventeen of us. We've all been pregnant, but not always exactly when we’ve wanted to be. We've had parents go suddenly and slowly. We've witnessed the ravages of Alzheimer's and cancer.

In the beginning we talked about our husbands and our dogs, our in-laws and our houses. Those of us who were not there yet listened wide-eyed to tales of pregnancy and childbirth and sleeplessness. Now we talk about our husbands (much less) and our kids and their schools and our houses. And those of us who are not there yet listen wide-eyed to the tales of teen-agers and college selection and sleeplessness. The oldest children of our crew went to college in the fall; the youngest was born last February.

As a group we have looked breast cancer in the face twice. Real cancer. I mean, there are seventeen of us so there have been a few brushes, “I could feel something, but it turned out to be nothing.” “The mammogram was unclear but the biopsy showed it was benign.” Scary and horrible, but not the real thing. But the real thing, the thing that is the pit in your stomach every darn year that you go in for that mammogram or exam, has struck us twice.

My friend Missy was a joy. It’s not that she didn’t take life seriously, she did, but all the little annoyances that I can carry around for days (and sometimes weeks) Missy left behind with an eye-roll and a flip of her hand. She was beautiful but in an amazingly non-threatening way. And she was hilariously funny. She was also a hair short of being a hypochondriac. Missy never had a cold, she had a sinus infection. She nearly always thought she needed an antibiotic. Amazingly, however, when she really did break her ankle jumping up and down at a Chiefs game she didn’t have it looked at until the next day. No way would she miss the fourth quarter.

One year, surely before we had children, Missy and I went shopping for Christmas ornaments at Nell Hill’s. This really charming store is about an hour and a half from here. Part of the charm is the drive; an hour and a half in a car with a friend can be magic. And the fall-almost-winter day that we went was magic. We talked and talked and talked.

Once there, we grabbed our baskets and set out on the ornament hunt. Missy loved rabbits. She had a million rabbits. It was during the time that Arthur Court had adorable rabbit serving ware. Missy must have had every piece. Anyway, we’re looking at ornaments, millions of ornaments, and we both came upon the same very cute white rabbit ornament with blue eyes. Not the fabulously expensive, why-am-buying-this kind of ornament of which I have a shocking number and don’t know why. A normal, five dollar ornament. I picked one up and placed it in my basket. Missy must have looked at twenty rabbit ornaments. This one’s eyes are too close together. The glitter is a little worn off the ear on this one. And on and on and on. I have to admit I am impatient. I looked at my quickly chosen rabbit. He looked fine. “Geez, Missy, pick one!” She was so careful. She searched until she found the perfect one.

When my friend called and said, “Missy found a lump,” you would think I wouldn’t have taken it very seriously. She was thirty-four, a health nut, a dedicated runner and a hair short of being a hypochondriac. But I did take it seriously and it was serious. Caught early, but aggressive.

The sixteen of us, some of us her best friends and some of us her long time friends stepped in. We organized meals. We took her children. We planted her flowers in the spring.

Missy was a fighter and she fought hard, but time and technology and the beast that is breast cancer were not on her side. At the end, we stood in despair and disbelief and said good-bye to one of our own.

And I have to wonder now, eight years later, does that rabbit ornament still hang on her children’s tree? They were so little when she died. I can’t imagine how many of our ornaments have been broken in the wonder since then. Her children cannot possibly know the amount of time she spent -–on the ornament – on them – on fighting for a little more time.

Her husband remarried a couple of years ago. He married a woman I like so much who did not hesitate to say yes when invited to join a group of women for dinner once a month. To a woman who attended a fundraiser the week before her wedding for her soon-to-be husband’s first wife’s charity. And she is lovely. And gracious. And madly in love with my friend’s husband and her children. Who are very happy with their carefully chosen wife and stepmother. Try and tell me Missy didn’t have a hand in that.