We didn’t plan for the bench photo to symbolize long-term friendship when seven of us high school seniors sat on a bench in Stuyvesant Square Park in New York City, down the street from our school, and asked my then-boyfriend to take a photo of us on a breezy spring day before graduation.
But when we did it 10 years later, with a friend’s husband taking the photo, and at 10-year intervals after that, it became a tradition timed to our reunions. It was always a sunny day, lending even more symbolism — that of friends brightening each others’ lives.
In the set of framed 8-by-10-inch black-and-white photos on a wall outside my bedroom, we sit in the same order, like when parents put their children in the same formation to take photos over the years.
Sometimes I say “Hi, girls” on my way past the pics.
As we turned from high school seniors to college students to professional women and mothers, we no longer all had long straight hair, parted in the middle. But when I look at those photos, I see each friend as the same person she was when we graduated from Friends Seminary, a Quaker high school in New York, where I went starting in the seventh grade.
A core group is especially close. We celebrate birthdays, go to each others’ houses and talk about what we’re reading and watching. We go on trips that often include water: Puerto Rico, Florida, Fire Island. We give advice and make each other laugh. We’ve been to graduations, weddings and, sadly, funerals. We’ve welcomed children — to whom we are all aunties. We know each other so well that we can even pick out outfits for one another.
It’s hard to pinpoint the root of our longevity. Was it the bedrock of a Friends education — that “spiritual, social and intellectual growth” are linked? Or the way we grew quiet together, our teenage angst soothed, in our weekly silent worship meetings, in the Quaker tradition, at the Fifteenth Street Meetinghouse? Or was it an ineffable chemistry, like the glue that holds long-married couples together?
It didn’t hurt that we lived in New York City, that we could walk in Central Park or wander around the Village, or that we share magical memories such as riding the Staten Island Ferry at sunrise after graduation.
Years later, they knew when to listen and when to give advice during my divorce — and what to say to a frazzled mother of three young children — and they supported me again during my treatment for acute myeloid leukemia, in ways ranging from helping me pick a cancer center to holding my hand.
They came from all over to visit me in the hospital while I was getting chemotherapy and during rest periods and recovery at my home in western Massachusetts.
One friend, going from Pittsburgh to London for a business trip, detoured through Boston to see me. I was half out of it and woke up to feel her wiggling my toe. I shook her off like a pitcher shaking off a catcher, but she didn’t seem to mind. We can all say anything to each other. Another time when I could barely speak, we each just held the phone, offering long-distance silent comfort. It was another silent meeting, this time at a bedside. It would have been the same with any of them.
We talk on the phone and check in via an ongoing group text, digitally passing notes. The world, like the lessons in the classroom, is going on around us, but we keep checking in. Into the text go photos of sunsets, snow on trees, copies of cartoons, a kids’ accomplishments, a link to a review of a play that we could see together.
We had no idea that the virus was lurking in New York in January when we went there to see the play My Name is Lucy Barton. It was a staged version of a book that we all loved, and it formed the core of a birthday weekend.
I had no idea what Zoom was, but I know it now — because back in March, one friend suggested getting together for a weekly virtual cocktail hour, and we’ve been doing it ever since. We could never have imagined that we would be discussing such things as whether to put on “real” clothes and where to buy a mask or how to wear one.
We figured out that we could still do some of the same things, only differently, such as quarantine-watching Love, Loss, and What I Wore. Seeing the filmed version of the play would remind us of seeing it together in the outside world sometime and give us a topic for discussion — not that we needed any help in that department.
One night I asked in the group text: “Is anyone still watching Rachel [Maddow]? Or is she too depressing? I haven’t watched any news all day, and I thought I might risk it.”
Within a few minutes, I got three replies:
“Sorry, finishing Shtisel.”
“Doing jigsaw puzzle and watching Gilmore Girls reruns.”
“I’m on Shtisel.”
“Just switched,” I said.
It was a helpful nudge in the opposite direction of doom while surfing the nightly news shows.
Sometimes I wish I was back on that bench, back in the park where we talked about boyfriends and books. But we are here and not there, and my high school girlfriends are helping me get through it ... in so many ways. When we are finished with our weekly cocktail hour and the notification for the next week pops up, I’m comforted by knowing that I’ll see them soon, if only on a screen.