Childhood friends

Five friends since grade school, now each around age 75 — Kathy Sedlack, from right, Mary Jane Manley, Judy Claus, Miriam Bryant and Rosalie Lawinger — sit on a bench inscribed with their names at Morton Arboretum in Lisle. Experts say developing and maintaining friendships, as the women have, gives you the best opportunity to age successfully. (Stacey Wescott, Chicago Tribune)

Seventy years have passed since four little girls in crisp white blouses and plaid skirts shared graham crackers, nap mats and giggles at St. Barnabas School in Chicago's Beverly community.

It was 1942. Rosalie, Kathy and Mary Jane were in one kindergarten classroom. Their friend Miriam was in the other.

"Miriam was in the other room because she talked too much," Rosalie and Kathy say almost in unison, fueling an eruption of laughter around a table recently at the Morton Arboretum, where the former classmates meet regularly for lunch.

By the time the four moved on to high school at the Academy of Our Lady, they had welcomed another, Judy, to their close-knit group.

And now seven decades since that kindergarten class, after sharing most of their lives with each other, they sit shoulder to shoulder ready to do more, laugh more and offer support in the years ahead. Five best friends are each 75 years old or soon to be 75, and they are ready to take on whatever life brings next, knowing they can handle it if they have each other.

They are proof, they say, that the experts are right: Having longtime friends is good for your well-being and makes life much more fun.

They are: Rosalie Lawinger, of Western Springs, Kathy Sedlack, of Chicago's Beverly community, Judy Claus, of Orland Park, Miriam Bryant, of Park Ridge, and Mary Jane Manley, of La Grange.

Among them, laughter is steady, teasing is well-tolerated and never mean, and talk never ever stops. When Bryant, the one they say talked too much, explains that she has to hold up her hand to get the floor these days, the rest roll their eyes at her like they are back in junior high, and then keep on talking.

Over the years the close-knit group of chatty schoolgirls turned into preteens with babushkas and boy crushes, then high school girls arranging each other's dates for dances, then college students, teachers and nurses, bridesmaids, newlyweds, moms, mother-in-laws, and grandmothers. And now all but one, Manley, is retired.

"We are all waiting for Mary Jane to retire so we can have some real fun," says Lawinger, who they say is the leader of the pack. "There is nothing like somebody who has known you through it all. We lived in each other's skin all these years, and I don't think we realized it until we got older."

Barry Greenwald, clinical psychologist and an adjunct lecturer of psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, says there is nothing like having old friends to walk through the stages of life with us. Greenwald has witnessed older adults who move into retirement homes determined to make new friends, and says while that's positive and important, new friends are not like the old.

"Doesn't it make intuitive sense that if you're not isolated and staring at cable TV, but remain connected to others, you are much more alive?" Greenwald said. "But those newly created relationships made later in life do not have the depth, the character, the trust or the stability that the friendships that go back in time have, those that have borne the test of time."

Time has tested each of the women, but never threatened their friendship, they say. Unequivocal support is the unspoken foundation of their bond, and while conversations dwell on happier times, they all clearly remember the sadder ones. Two from the group, Sedlack and Manley, were widowed when they were young women.

"We have been there for each other through good and bad, thick and thin," Lawinger says. "Each one of us has had their hardship, but it's easier when you have friends like this to support you. I can talk to them if I'm anxious, afraid, worried, happy or sad. I am free to be who I am with them. I have known them longer than I have known my husband. They know what made me."

Beating the drive

The women, who dubbed themselves the Ya-Yas after the popular book "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood" was published in 2004, prefer to remember the times that in retrospect make them laugh.

Times such as when they were in grade school and Bryant was riding on Lawinger's handlebars, fell off and got a concussion. "I have never been the same," Bryant says. "And it's her fault." Or in high school when on Friday nights they would put on their poodle skirts and "beat the drive," cruising in their parents' cars up and down Longwood Drive between 95th and 111th streets, beeping the horn and waving at friends.

Many of their preteen and teenage memories revolve around boys, or at least their interest in boys.

"It seems like all of us were in love with somebody all of the time," Bryant says.

Their childhoods were spent in a world far different from the one their grandchildren have grown up in. No one had to rush off to soccer practice after school. Most kids did not have their own cars. Wrapped in their pea coats and scarves, they would stroll down the streets where the boys they liked lived in Beverly, singing loudly.