Friendship is important foundation for successful aging

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Life section of the Annapolis Capital, Sunday May 3, 2015

Friends matter – not the least in your bonus years and not the least for women. Back in 2010, Wall Street Journal columnist Jeffrey Zaslow published “The Girls from Ames: A Story of Women and a Forty-Year Friendship,” a New York Times bestseller. “The Girls…” is an inspiring tribute to female friendships, a true story of eleven girls and – after the untimely passing of one of their group – the ten women they became as they grew up in the 1970s.

As one of the girls said, “My friends knew me before I was a wife or a mom.  They knew the original me.”

I was drawn to “The Girls from Ames” when it first came out because my high school friendship circle in Lafayette, Indiana, back in the 1950s also included a tightly-knit group of girls who were much like the girls from Ames.

I now call the girls I know “The Ladies of Lafayette” — though back then they unashamedly called themselves “The Superlatives.”

The story of the Ladies of Lafayette is an unlikely tale of 19 girls of the Jefferson High School Class of 1957 and the 16 women they became, three having passed away. All were my friends, not just classmates — many as far back as grade school as I grew up in Indiana in the 1950s.

All 16 of them were married. Now in their mid-70s, they have 45 grown children and several dozens of grandchildren.

Like “The Girls from Ames,” the Ladies of Lafayette have scattered. Seven continue to live in the Midwest; four are in Indiana and the other three in Illinois, Ohio and Wisconsin. Four live in Florida. Others are scattered elsewhere round the U.S., including South Carolina, California and Oregon.

I’m writing about these ladies because two weeks ago Mary Sue and I hosted all 16 here in Annapolis for four days, an experience we thoroughly enjoyed.

After all this time, the Ladies of Lafayette continue to get together once a year, recharging friendships that grow richer and deeper as they pass into their bonus years.

Their annual reunions — going on for nearly 20 years — began when they reached their late 50s. The years from their 20s to their 50s were consumed by other things: education, career, marriage, kids and the like. Still, they stayed in touch.

At their 40th high school reunion in 1997, they decided to meet annually — and they have, in places like Chicago, Minneapolis, Nashville, Charleston, San Antonio, Indianapolis and Bradenton Beach, Florida.

Annapolis was the destination for their 2015 reunion. All 16 — plus two spouses — showed up.

We picked crabs at Cantler’s Riverside Inn on Mill Creek. We enjoyed a relaxing dinner at the Annapolis Yacht Club. We walked through Paca House Gardens.

Guided by Squire Richard Hillman, we toured Historic Annapolis and the Naval Academy. One of the ladies said, “I’ve learned more about the history of our nation today than I ever learned in a month in school.”

When nippy weather forced us to cancel a boat trip to St. Michaels, one of the ladies said, “Don’t worry. We don’t need things to do. We just enjoy being together, catching up, talking with each other.” A view that echoed a truth expressed famously by American poet and essayist Walt Whitman: “… to be with those I like is enough.”

On another day, some elected to do a “windshield tour” of Washington’s iconic sites — monuments, museums, universities and government buildings — after which we took a late lunch at the Cosmos Club before heading back to Annapolis.

As I reflected on their visit and the many conversations I observed or participated in, I realized that all the research about how men and women are different in their friendships is really true.

For example, research on the subject of enduring friendships shows that by the time women reach later life, their best friends are likely to be rooted in high school or college. According to Zaslow, “Women … are likely to connect early and then hold tight to each other … despite our transient society or, in some cases, because of it.”

Male relationships follow a very different pattern: Men tend to build up friendships until age 30 or so, after which there’s a steady fall off — a process heavily influenced by career trajectories, relocations and lifestyle changes.

Research shows many other differences. For example, women tend to listen and show empathy for the problems of a female friend. Men tend to jump quickly to advice-giving and offering ways to “fix” the problem.

A study by Australia’s Flinders University found that women friends do things together in order to talk, listen and tell stories. Men talk in order to carry out activities — such as sports, work, poker and politics. As one of the ladies in the study said, “We do not need to walk 18 holes on a golf course to talk.”

And what about quilting? “Quilting is just like having coffee: It’s an excuse to talk.”

This same study concludes, “… a woman who wants to be healthier and more psychologically fit in her old age is better off having one close friend than half a dozen grandchildren.”

Despite all the changes in their personal lives and in the larger culture, the Ladies of Lafayette are totally engaged in their friendships, their families and the world. They didn’t worry about the schedule. They paid no attention to what David Brooks calls the “resume values” of achievements, awards and status.

It was a week of sweet memories and many new shared experiences. It was, indeed, enough for everyone to be with those they liked.

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