By Joan Cary, Special to the Tribune
September 26, 2012
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.
"None of us could sing, but we didn't care. We weren't the popular group, but we didn't care about that either because we had each other. We were happy," Lawinger says.
Time tagged each with a reputation she has managed to keep. Lawinger was the daredevil, always daring the others to jump off a porch ledge or something. Sedlack was the chicken who would not jump. Bryant was the artist, and party organizer. Manley had all the boys on the South Side in love with her. Claus was the princess, accustomed to having things done for her.
In 1955, three of the five, Lawinger, Bryant and Sedlack, went off to Loretto Heights College in Denver. All five got married between the late 1950s and early 1960s, and among them they had 22 children. Getting together was difficult during the years when they were busy having babies, they say, but occasionally they would go out to lunch.
Communication among the Ya-Yas has changed from the secret codes and swiftly passed notes of childhood to letters, phone calls, greeting cards and now emails.
"We alone keep Hallmark in business," Manley says.
They all tolerate good-natured teasing, but they are also not afraid to tell each other "what's what" if necessary. To them, a good talking to is just another gesture of friendship.
Developing and maintaining friendships, as the women have, gives you the best opportunity to age successfully, says Dr. Diana Kerwin, assistant professor of medicine and geriatrics at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
According to Kerwin, studies have shown that there is a reduced level of depression in people who retain more social engagement as they age. Keeping up with what's happening in our friends' lives helps us maintain our own memories.
"Many people ask what brain exercises they should do to age well," she says. "Actually the best thing you can do is to go to a lecture, see a show, go to a coffee or meeting, and then have a conversation with someone about it. "
People who maintain friendships at an older age also stay in better physical shape, she says, as friends may encourage each other to address health problems in a timely manner and to remain more physically active.
On top of the hill
In the group, Bryant is the one credited with getting them started at the Morton Arboretum, and she always has a kite in the trunk of her car. The five also spend a girls-only weekend each fall in Michigan, enjoy Ravinia concerts twice each summer, and have an annual twilight and wine picnic. And it is not uncommon for one to make a spontaneous call and announce, "Hey, I need a girlfriend fix."
Feeling comfortable about reaching out to your friends like that is crucial, according to Lucia West Jones, executive director of the Northeastern Illinois Agency on Aging. Jones says, "One of the leading causes of depression in older persons is isolation. As long as people are working, they have connections, but for some, retirement is the closure of their outside contact."
"We see the people who have stayed connected or have reunited with friends," she says, "but we also see too much of the other side, the people who have become isolated."
Bob Lawinger, 78, admits that at times he was jealous of the Ya-Ya friendship his wife cherishes. But they inspired him to form his own groups, and now he has regularly scheduled breakfast and golf with the guys.
In June, he surprised the women with a bench dedicated to them at the top of the arboretum's Frost Hill where the women would walk before some health ailments slowed them. Inscribed with their names, it honors their lifetime of friendship and their 75th birthdays, and it is near the redwood tree that the Lawinger children dedicated to their parents for their 50th wedding anniversary in 2010.
Keeping childhood friends is not easy today as people migrate away from home for schools and careers, Greenwald says.
"Having friends who have been with you for a lifetime is for a lot of people in this day and age a relatively unique phenomenon," he said. "Those childhood friends often exist at a distance. They are the ones we send Christmas cards to."
In a serious moment at the lunch table, Sedlack says: "We know we are lucky to have each other. When we get together, it's the dumping ground. You know it's a safe place to let it go."
And then Bryant finally gets her chance to talk.
"I just want to say," she says quietly, "that I am my happiest when I am with them."
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