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I Know Just What You Mean

The Power of Friendship in Women's Lives

About The Book

Pulitzer prize-winning columnist Ellen Goodman and novelist-journalist Patricia O'Brien provide a thoughtful, deeply personal look at the enduring bonds of friendship between women. Friends for twenty-seven years, they have served as confessors and advisers to each other during romantic, career, and child-raising crises, and have shopped together, laughed together, and enjoyed a bond unlike any other.
Drawing on interviews with numerous women, the authors take readers into the heart of "the place where women do the work of their lives, the growing, the understanding, the reflection," and illuminate both the fragility and strength of relationships that are irreplaceable lifelines.


Chapter One: Beginnings


The sun was setting when I pulled my battered red Chevy Vega station wagon out of the driveway of the brown shingle house that I had just bought with every last nickel to my name, and headed off for Cambridge. The hands on the steering wheel were still speckled with the red paint that I had been rolling onto the living room walls that day, paint financed by the sale of an engagement ring from a former marriage and life.

I was thirty-two years old, a single mother, with a five-year-old daughter and a brand new puppy, living less than a mile from the house in which I had grown up, and I was going back to Harvard ten years after graduation. An adult now, a journalist, a reporter for The Boston Globe, I had hustled and won a prize -- a mid-career Nieman Fellowship in journalism -- and I was off to meet the other members of my "class" for the first time.

In those days, I was breathless. Coping with work and family and love -- what Zorba the Greek would call the whole catastrophe. I was not at all sure how the pieces of my life fit together. At work, I had learned to say what I thought and to write about ideas. I was by no means as confident when it came to the messy business of feelings.

But this September of 1973, I knew, in some inchoate way, that I was on the edge of something more than a year "off." Perhaps a year "on."


While Ellen was driving from Brookline, I was on the bus coming from my rented house in Belmont, marveling at the fact that I had landed in this place, at this time, in this way. Harvard was only a few miles south of the working-class town of Somerville (known locally, I learned later, as "Slumerville"), where I had been born -- geographically close, but in the days when my Irish immigrant mother and father lived there, Harvard might as well have been on the moon.

That was the past, this was now. I was thirty-seven, a newly divorced mother of four children working as a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times with a year ahead of me as a Nieman Fellow. For a woman who had not graduated from college until she was thirty, this new venture felt like a huge leap across a class divide. Getting here had taken a certain amount of audacity, and even though I had an officially punched ticket of admission, I half expected someone to snatch it away at the last moment.

I also had two teenage daughters living for the year with their father back home in Evanston, Illinois, and two younger girls nervously tiptoeing through a strange house, wondering what the year ahead would hold for them. This was by no means a carefree venture. But as I walked down those narrow streets toward the home of Jim Thomson, the head of the Nieman program -- the brick sidewalks scraping the backs of my high-heeled shoes -- I also knew there was nowhere else I wanted to be. I was literally walking into a major life-changing experience, not knowing what would come next. I knew that from here on, everything would be different. I just didn't know how different.


I remember when I first spotted Pat. She was wearing some kind of full skirt, heels, and bright lipstick; her long, wavy brown hair was parted in the middle. This was Harvard Square in the black-turtleneck, ripped-jeans, straight hair, early-'70s era. She was ironed and starched.

I added it all together and, in the way women will sum up the totality of someone's personality through their shoes and suit jacket, I came up with this: perky California cheerleader. Suburban mom. Smiling, pretty, very Little League, station wagon driving. Verrrrry straight.

Yet I knew she had to be a good reporter in the competitive atmosphere of Chicago to have made it through this process. And from the bios we'd been sent, I also knew that Pat was the only other woman in the class with children. We were both divorced. Cheerleader or not, we had these things in common.

I wasn't looking for or expecting a friend, just a classmate, but I was curious. Maybe there was something below that conventional surface. She had four children to my one and, as if my life were not overloaded enough, had just published her first book. There was a long year ahead of us, so who knew what I'd find out.


I first saw Ellen as I stood in the front hallway of the house, exchanging stiff little pleasantries with a few people whose names I hadn't absorbed. She was tall, with long straight hair and blue aviator glasses, dressed in some kind of loose pants, clearly not wearing a girdle. (I was only weeks away from shedding mine.) I knew there were three other women in my class, but she certainly didn't look as nervous or uptight as I felt. Craftsy orange earrings; no makeup. An in-charge, what's-it-to-you type. I fingered the piece of paper in my pocket that listed all the class members, and glanced around for a bathroom so I could duck in and check them out. But the minute Ellen opened her mouth, there was no question -- she stood out from the crowd.

"Well," she said in an easy, cheery voice, "I wonder what bullshit everybody threw to get here?"

How blunt were you allowed to be at Harvard? Not that I wasn't wondering myself how the others had parlayed their credentials into this prize. But here was somebody who actually said it out loud. The thought crossed my mind: How can she be so irreverent in this rarefied environment? But still she had an engaging air that relaxed me, that made me listen for what she would say next. When I learned she was the Nieman who had gone to Radcliffe, I thought, well, no wonder she's so casual. This is her turf. It must all be easy for her.

* * *

This is how we met, but it's not how or certainly why we became friends. Pat saw a confident, breezy insider, but she couldn't see the missteps or wrenching changes. Ellen saw Pat's conventional surface, but not the rebellious soul, and certainly not the pulls of tradition and independence that had defined so much of her adult life and that would be a running dialogue of our twenty-six-year conversation.

Would we ever have sought each other out after a chance meeting at some ordinary cocktail party? We doubt it. But we had the gift of time to discover and to get to know -- that oddly flat statement -- each other. We had a chance to become friends.

Friends? What's a friend? If the Eskimos have twenty-six different words for snow, Americans have only one word commonly used to describe everyone from acquaintances to intimates. It is a word we have to qualify with adjectives: school friends, work friends, old friends, casual friends, good friends.

But this catch-all word doesn't catch everything, especially how we describe a truly intimate friend. A chosen relative? Bonded, but not by blood? When we asked women how they define what a close friend is, they leaped past such qualifiers to describe the impact: being known and accepted, understood to the core; feeling you can count on trust and loyalty, having someone on your side; having someone to share worries and secrets as well as the good stuff of life, someone who needs you in return.

This special person is not always easy to find. "Every so often you run into someone from your tribe, a magic person," said actress Carrie Fisher. "People who give without keeping lists and receive with gratitude." These "magic people," these close friends, she said, become like family.

The longing for close friendship begins early and goes deep. In the much-loved children's classic Anne of Green Gables, the young heroine is newly transplanted to Avonlea and pining for a "bosom friend." With a yearning that has resonated through several generations of young readers, Anne confides her hope of finding "a kindred spirit to whom I can confide my inmost soul. I've dreamed of meeting her all my life."

The most famous young diarist of the twentieth century, Anne Frank, herself yearned for a close girlfriend with whom to share her feelings when she and her family went into hiding to escape the Nazis. Deprived of that intimacy, she turned to her diary, making up imaginary friends and writing them letters chronicling life in the claustrophobic, secret annex. "With them, she could laugh, cry, forget her isolation," writes biographer Melissa Muller.

The desire for love, trust, and intimacy is at the center of all close relationships, and friendship is no exception. But because friendship has no biological purpose, no economic status, no evolutionary meaning to examine or explore, sometimes we see a curious vanishing act.

A friend who might have been privy to every nuance in a courting relationship is not in the receiving line at the wedding; the friend who delivers a heartfelt eulogy may have been banned from the hospital room because she wasn't "family." We have many ways of celebrating family milestones, but not the milestones of friendship. "It's your silver anniversary? Let's make the toasts and get out the presents!" Nobody does that for friends.

We wanted to. We found ourselves walking away from interview after interview, feeling we'd just had some of the best conversations of our lives with women telling us the stories of how they met, joking and laughing with each other, thoroughly enjoying the pleasure of sharing their histories together.

  • Boston publicist Sally Jackson first laid eyes on Melanie L'Ecuyer when, as a scared five-year-old, she came into her mother's hospital room and saw two-year-old Melanie, dressed in a camel-hair coat and leggings, throwing a tantrum under her mother's bed. The howling child, she was told, was the daughter of her mother's nurse.
  • Nadia Shamsuddin and Maddie Hammond met as two women glaring at each other on an elevator, wondering who would be able to write a check faster to snare the choice apartment they were about to see.
  • Mary Landrieu was boarding a bus with a group of strangers heading for a high school leadership conference when, drawn by a friendly face, she sat down next to Norma Jane Sabiston, the girl who would become her lifelong friend and, eventually -- when Mary became a U.S. senator from Louisiana -- her chief of staff.
  • Author Mary Gordon took one look at Maureen Strafford when she met her in grammar school and made a firm, instant decision to ignore her totally. Why? Because Mary was wearing a mohair sweater and Maureen was wearing plaid.
  • Eileen Fennelly and Jenn MacDonough, now college students, were five-year-olds wearing party hats when Jenn mistakenly called Eileen "Elaine." Eileen decided right there that she hated her. By the time they graduated from high school, the longest period of time that went by without their talking to each other was exactly, by their actual count, seventy-two hours.

Some of these women felt an initial spark of connection, and for some it was just a spark, but it's with great relish that they remember these stories of meeting each other. They were not so different in their exuberance from a young child recounting the thrilling fact of what she has in common with a friend -- "Do you know we were born on the same day?" "I can't believe she uses ketchup on her hot dog, too!"

Certainly the two of us were very different; in an earlier era we might never have met. We grew up a continent away, Ellen on the older, colder side, Pat in the sunny California world of shallow roots that had drawn her parents west when she was a child. If we had followed the prepared scripts, we each would have stayed in our place. We might have remained in our circumscribed ethnic groups, our neighborhoods and family circles, holding little in common. Pat was, after all, expected to stay in Catholic schools, and when Ellen went to college, she was assigned a roommate with whom she had only one thing in common: they were both Jewish.

Looking back at the trajectory we were on, it was Pat who made the moves. She was the one who moved in great upheavals from one place to the next. Ellen stayed put, spending all but four years of her life in her hometown. Pat's life was charted by its uprootings, willful and imposed. Ellen had traveled intellectually, but her feet remained on the same, familiar ground.

It wasn't just ethnicity or geography that made for some of the degrees of separation between us. In our early twenties, we had nothing in common. When Ellen was starting college at Radcliffe in September of 1959, Pat was changing diapers for two small babies. Pat cannot imagine what she would have had to say to the young college freshman from Brookline as she stood at a changing table in Eugene, Oregon, with a wiggling baby in front of her and diaper pins in her mouth.

At twenty-seven, Pat was a full-time mom with four kids, learning the wonders of Hamburger Helper and Simplicity sewing patterns. Ellen had started working in the early '60s, and had one child at twenty-seven. She stayed home after Katie's birth for a total of six weeks; Pat was at home for nine years. Pat had the Feminine Mystique, while Ellen had a ticket on the first anxious flight of Superwoman before the myth came crashing to earth.

By the time Pat ventured back to school, juggling those four children and final exams, Ellen was married to a medical resident, living in Ann Arbor, and commuting to her job as a reporter for the Detroit Free Press -- never quite accepted as one of the doctors' wives raising babies at one end of I-94, and never quite accepted as one of the boys covering fires at the other.

By 1968, we would at least have understood each other's language. We were both working mothers, trying to do what we wanted to do: work and keep our families intact in an atmosphere still hostile to the effort. Pat had broken from the Catholic Church with a prescription for birth control pills -- and deep ambivalence. For Ellen, Judaism had become more a celebration of family and food than formal ritual.

By 1971, the women's movement was changing both of our lives, and -- even before we met -- we already had more in common than liking ketchup. Each of us in our own city was covering the first "happenings." Pat wrote an article on being ejected from a Chicago church because she was wearing a "Women's Strike Day" button, and Ellen also visited a church, to write a piece for the Globe about radical feminists teaching sexual politics and karate.

You could say we had the classic first day of school meeting. We were starting something entirely new, with hors d'oeuvres rather than shiny lunchboxes in our hands. It's the familiar story of friendships that emerge as natural by-products of a new venture, antidotes to the fear of being alone in an uncertain if not totally unfamiliar environment. We've seen this happen with small children, even our own. Recently Pat's granddaughter Charlotte, at the end of her first day of school, tugged her mother, Marianna, by the hand and pulled her into the classroom. "Come meet my new best friend," she implored. "What's her name?" Marianna asked. "I don't know, let's go ask her," Charlotte replied. The connection was made; details to come later.

As grown-ups we were not afraid of starting school alone, but we did realize we were in a privileged, special moment of our lives. We had come to Harvard well aware that the changes in our own lives reflected larger changes taking place in the society; certainly as women we already had more choices and more freedom than any other women in history. As proof, we only had to look at the photographs of earlier Nieman classes on the wall of the Nieman House: up until our year, in the entire history of the Nieman Fellowship program, there had been only ten women -- and ours was the only class since 1947 to have more than one. In all those years, there wouldn't have been another woman with whom to share the experience. In our class, there were four.

We met in a landmark year. Richard Nixon had been elected to a second term, and the first of the Watergate conspirators -- the tip of the iceberg ahead -- were found guilty. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled for the first time that women had a legal right to an abortion. The divorce rate had soared 8 percent from the year before. The most popular television shows in a changing America included The Waltons and All in the Family, while on the big screen, Ingmar Bergman's stark Scenes from a Marriage was making people uneasy with hard truths of this rapidly evolving age.

Against this backdrop of change, women were going through a major cultural transition. It wasn't just laws and political sensibilities that were changing. So were ideas about human development. The view that women had grown up with -- based on a male model -- had taught them that humans mature to sturdy, independent adulthood by growing away -- from family, from friends, from connections.

But most women didn't experience life that starkly. They didn't one day arrive at a static state of adulthood and say to themselves, "Well, that's that," and they certainly didn't want to be "grown-ups" alone. In the 1970s, women like psychiatrist Jean Baker Miller first challenged the idea that women grow up by separating. Carol Gilligan, charting the moral development of girls, began to hear "a different voice."

It's been easier since then to see the female reality, that women develop in relationship, through connection. Women don't "find" themselves or "understand" themselves all alone but by interacting with others. They forge and reforge their own identity in concert with others, engaged in a long dance of mutuality.

Sociologist Lillian Rubin argues in her book Just Friends that friends are central actors in the continuing development drama of adulthood. Women are born daughters, they recite vows that make them wives, become mothers through giving birth -- but they choose friends. They aren't just picked out of a line-up or sought through the personals column -- wanted: a friend. Women become friends.

Is there a moment between that first meeting and the time when you become a friend? Is there a dot on the time line that says, right here and now, from this point on, we are friends?

Psychologist Judith Jordan has what she describes her "crazy fantasy" about the moment of becoming friends. "I think we're going to be able someday to do CAT scans of people when they're know, where you can actually get imaging of different things that go on in the brain and they can say this person's in a good alpha place!"


A good alpha place? The stage setting for our very first alpha lunch was the much too tweedy and wood-paneled Harvard Faculty Club. It was no more than two weeks after we had met.

We had planned this lunch as no big deal, a quick salad before a two o'clock class. It lasted until four -- the first of a dozen times when I remember being delighted that this time in college, I wouldn't be penalized for cutting class.

In my journal I report with little detail the "highlights" Pat told me about that day, but I remember them vividly. She talked about motherhood, how as a young Catholic mother she finally got contraceptives from the doctor "for regulating her period," and for the first time realized with a lifesaving, emancipating joy that she wouldn't be the mother of nine after all.

We shared the war stories of our divorces, in which neither of us was entirely innocent. She confided that she still loved her just-ex-husband and showed me the locket around her neck that carried his photo. I told her about the end of my marriage and the lingering, troubled relationship that followed, one that I was neither in nor out of.

I would date the real beginning of our friendship from that lunch. No, she was not the cheerleader I had expected, not so verrry straight. We became friends the way adult women do, telling the stories of our lives. Pat had no idea how unusual it was for me to share those experiences or how vulnerable I felt that autumn afternoon revealing things I had never said out loud to any but family or my closest friends. And certainly not to a stranger from Chicago.

I didn't make friends quickly or confide easily -- chalk it up to Boston conservatism. Or to family. My sister, Jane, and I were so close as kids, I didn't feel the need of another friend. They used to say that Boston women didn't buy hats, they had hats. So it was with friends. I made friends slowly and carefully. But virtually from the outset, I felt absolutely certain I could trust Pat.

In many ways, that first lunch set the tone of our friendship: vulnerability and trust. The mutual baring -- slowly -- of darkest secrets seemed lightened by the knowledge that they had been accepted. Pat had a way of taking a thought and running with it that I found delightful. She was a natural storyteller, dramatic, even melodramatic. I didn't do melodrama. I did wry. But Pat saw through wry.

I had the first intimations Pat would give me something I could not give myself when I cautiously shared with her the grand finale to a marriage that was already dying from lack of attention. I shared it in the spare and tamped-down emotional detail I often used, but she got to the dark heart of it instantly. She gave me the acknowledgment of the pain from the ending of my marriage that I had put aside in a need to get on with life, to put one foot in front of another, holding a small child by the hand.

In that first lunch, Pat offered up an expression that dotted so many of our early years. It's one of those ordinary phrases that takes on a new truth when repeated much as one would a motto. "Life," she says to this day, when describing something that can be amusing, bizarre, or even deeply troubling, "is so interesting."

We were each bold and timid in different ways. But her adventurousness, her lust for experience, her energy, and a love life that was a soap opera without the tragedy all appealed to my cautious soul. She offered both courage and consolation, as each was needed.

Somehow my journal that year was filled with other relationships, especially with men who swiftly became incidental. But scattered throughout are the words, "Pat said," or "Pat thought." We began to explore the world through each other's eyes and minds. We were becoming part of each other's DNA.


It was late one afternoon in that same first couple of weeks when I walked up the stairs to the second floor of the Nieman House and saw Ellen curled up in a chair, seemingly absorbed in a book. I recognized the book jacket immediately -- I would have known it from a mile away. What if she hated it? Writing The Woman Alone had been my first tentative effort to understand the changes taking place in women's lives -- including my own -- and for all I knew, the breezy blonde from Radcliffe was groaning at its naïveté, even as my sudden, unexpected appearance demanded some response on her part. I also knew I cared what she thought -- a lot.

"This is good," she said simply, and then asked a question that got right to the heart of the issues I had tried to raise. I knew instinctively she would not stick to polite comments. I had my first glimpse that afternoon into a wonderful, ruminating mind that took other perspectives seriously; a woman who was on a learning curve, as I was. The confident Radcliffe insider who had loomed in my first impression was not an intellectual know-it-all. She was willing to explore a topic on terms other than her own.

I think this open-mindedness is one of Ellen's great gifts, and it comes from more than intellectual curiosity. It comes from a deep charitable core. I felt almost right away there was a level at which I could trust her, which meant there was a level at which I could be myself without softenings or embellishment. As a child, I was too awkward, too bookish, too different to attract many friends. Home, not school, was my refuge. It was with my younger sister, Mary, that I played, rode tricycles, baked chocolate chip cookies. She was my first friend. As I grew, I expanded the circle, but it was never large. Feeling accepted didn't come easily.

With Ellen, I could talk about family and politics and change and loss and get back much more than supportive echoes. More than that, she needed me, which is no small thing. When she broke up with her boyfriend a few months after we met, I was home for the holidays in Chicago. She called and we talked for hours.

In all our conversations, she would offer a thought or point of view, often unexpected. I would ruminate, take the idea further down the road, hand it back to her like a baton in a relay race, and then she would juggle it for a moment before taking it further herself. This was fun, but fun of a different kind. We were exploring our minds as well as our hearts.

We began actively to seek each other out. Many mornings, after the children were in school, we would meet at the Pewter Pot restaurant next to the out-of-town-newsstand off Harvard Square, order one muffin each, and sit there until noon, drinking cup after cup of coffee. The waitress would glare at us and slam down a check, but we couldn't pull ourselves away. We offered each other advice, came close to tears, laughed like crazy at some funny or forbidden memories now shared. I found myself angry at whatever had hurt her, and soon we were viscerally on each other's side. We discussed Watergate, Vietnam, newspapers, editors -- all the evils of the world. We scribbled notes on everything we talked about on the back of napkins -- how to help my Maureen, who was being teased in school; whether we would have published the Pentagon Papers; the myth of the vaginal orgasm -- and tucked them into the pockets of our jeans, and we would walk out of there feeling invigorated, and more than a little buzzed on caffeine. I consider those mornings at the Pewter Pot the best seminars I've ever attended.

I see now how we got each other right -- and wrong. She saw me as the risk taker in life, while I saw her as braver than I in her career. She liked my penchant for nostalgia, while I felt she was more fearless of letting go of the past. The truth, of course, was more contradictory for us both. We would later understand both ourselves and each other much better, even at times swapping strengths and weaknesses.

One thing never changed: I always felt closer to cataclysm. Once during that first year, for all my brave-new-world feminism, I realized I couldn't balance my checkbook. I had to march into the bank and get some officious guy to help me straighten out my finances. I was amazed by Ellen's blithe advice, and envied her ability to follow it: "Just open up a new account, wait until everything clears, and then if there's any money left in the old account, you just transfer it to the new one." What an interesting idea...maybe, I thought, I might try it sometime.

* * *

We had clicked, not just once, but time and again as we continued to meet over coffee, attend classes together, and share seminars. At some point in that year, we started talking about "my friend Pat" and "my friend Ellen." So, too, the women in this book told of their tremendous delight when they knew they had made a true connection, at the point where they realized they had gone from liking each other to bonding.

Jane Mansbridge, a political scientist at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, remembers dropping by to see Sharland Trotter, an acquaintance stricken with cancer, expecting to chat for a few moments and be on her way -- and instead connected instantly and deeply with a woman who had no time to waste on trivial relationships.

Barbara Corday, a young mother in Los Angeles in the '70s, showed up at the offices of an antiwar organization run by a dynamo named Barbara Avedon, and was so swept up in the passion of Avedon's commitment that within weeks she was flying to Washington for a protest demonstration with her baby in a backpack. The two Barbaras went on to become partners as well as best friends, writing a hit television show about partners and best friends: Cagney and Lacey.

At a statehouse demonstration in the '70s, two back-to-school welfare mothers, Dottie Stevens and Diane Dujon, were side by side under a desk, practicing for a protest skit. At the peak of the protest, their arms -- one white, one black -- were linked. It was a life-changing contact.

And there was the time of the huge snowstorm in Baltimore, when Oprah Winfrey, then a local television anchor, invited a stranded production assistant named Gayle King to spend the night.

"Yeah, but I don't have any underwear," Gayle said.

"I have underwear, it's clean, you can wear it," replied Oprah. "But I draw the line at the toothbrush." They stopped at a drugstore and bought a toothbrush, then went home and stayed up talking until four in the morning.

We could go on, but you will meet these people and many others at length in the chapters ahead. They are women who have made the kind of contact that keeps them coming back, knowing they have connected at a deeper level than usual, that something new and special has come into their lives.

Maybe this is Judith Jordan's "CAT scan" -- the moment when two women feel truly understood. When someone doesn't just say "I know what you mean"...but actually does. When she "gets" it, and, more to the point, "gets" you.

A new friend can reintroduce a woman to herself, allowing her to look at herself with a new pair of eyes and a different mindset. The younger sister cast as "daffy" by the family is seen as "funny" -- and fun -- by a friend. The melodramatic wife is welcomed as a rich storyteller. More often than not, through close friendships, women see themselves through another lens, experience a new kind of self-consciousness. Flaws can be recast as strengths, self-doubts lifted by acceptance. Friends help define and motivate each other.

In recent years, a small group of researchers at Wellesley College's Stone Center has been breaking conceptual ground on women's research, putting together a new dictionary of words to describe the "good stuff" that comes out of connection: a sense of mutual empowerment, movement, change, clarity, and zest. It is the last of these that applies here. Zest? It wraps up in four letters much of what friends mean as they describe the excitement and energy flow that occurs in connection, when we take pleasure in each other's company.

We very quickly felt the pleasure of both understanding and being understood, of helping and being helped. Looking back, we realize now that in some ways, during our early time together, Ellen was looking to Pat for emotional reinforcement, while Pat was seeking an intellectual partner. In talking about men or writing, feelings or ideas, we would add our own freight to the other's train of thought until occasionally it brought about a change of direction. We came quickly to respect each other. If Pat had an idea, it was not to be dismissed; if Ellen had another viewpoint, it was worth mulling over. We changed each other's minds -- and came to value the fact that we could. We were each other's teacher.

After one Nieman seminar, Pat learned from Ellen how to draw the distinction between being honest and being nice. ("You don't have to smile when you're asking a speaker a tough question.") It was a shock for Pat to realize that she had for too long masked her mind by presenting to the world as ingratiating a demeanor as possible -- trying, in a sense, to sneak in under the wire.

We also had laid-back, time-off playtimes together. There was the time Ellen introduced Pat to the bizarre ritual of cooking lobsters. "Here, just put the bag between your feet," she said one memorable afternoon, handing Pat a wiggling bag of her first lobsters after coming out of the fish market. Pat couldn't take her eyes off that sack all the way home, convinced it took some kind of savage bravery to cook the damn things. But Ellen showed her true colors when the cooking began. The lobsters went tumbling into the pot, Ellen banged the lid on, and grabbed Pat's hand. "Here's the way you do it," she said. "You stick them in the pot and you run out of the room until they're done."

We spent weekends taking our kids to museums and sharing sleepovers, and we did the duet of guilt before hitting Bailey's for sundaes with fudge sauce that ran like brown lava over the rim of the stainless steel bowl (should we, oh god, I'm so fat, will you get one if I do?).

In that incredible year off -- and on -- we gorged on the smorgasbord of seminars and classes and weekly meetings that brought the world to our privileged and temporary Cambridge door. We had plates full of politics and philosophy and family law. We enjoyed our classmates and their wives -- who were rightly included as Niemans themselves. In our small and large adventures, we created stories that form the rich background for our lives.

At the end of May neither of us was ready to leave this "camp." Before the class scattered, before we all returned to our prior lives, we were invited to Europe for an astonishing "freebie," a chance to study the Common Market and then wing off to the country of our choice. Unreal? Absolutely. We knew this would be an adventure of the first order.

We were both excited. Pat began packing for the trip the way she had packed when she went away to college in the '50s -- throwing everything in the suitcase that she might possibly need under any circumstance. With the cabdriver waiting to take us to the airport honking his horn outside, Ellen, whose possessions were crammed in little more than a backpack, was throwing things out of Pat's bulging suitcase. "But I need that!" Pat kept protesting. When Ellen ran downstairs to placate the cabdriver, Pat shoved as much stuff back in as she could. Her vindication? Ellen was borrowing from her for most of the trip.

The day we flew off to Brussels was Pat's birthday, and one member of our troop decided we absolutely must have a cake to celebrate. Well, not exactly a cake. She baked a batch of brownies and laced them with marijuana (perhaps as a complement to airplane food?). Some of us, feeling very adventurous, began nibbling away at the brownies in the waiting lounge. Hopefully the statute of limitations has expired (does this qualify as a "youthful indiscretion"?) because by the time the Nieman Class of 1974 staggered on board the plane, half of us were capable only of giggling through the flight attendant's instructions. Pat was scared we would all be thrown off the plane. Her conservative side reasserting itself, she made it back to the bathroom and flushed away what was left of her brownie. She then collapsed into her seat and remembers absolutely nothing about that flight to Europe.

Our trip lived up to its billing, and all our adventures obscured the jolt of the partings that were to come. With time winding down, our class had one rollicking farewell dinner in Brussels, and then the two of us boarded a train by ourselves for Amsterdam.

On that dark train ride through the European countryside, we shared an ominous flashback: only thirty years earlier, Ellen, as a Jew, could not have made this trip without peril. We could not have been friends. We looked at each other, the truth jolting us out of our easy tourist mode. That sense of time and place followed us up five flights to our Amsterdam room where we stared out over the rooftops, startled by the accidental and fragile nature of connection. How casually this frienship had bloomed. How much we had come to mean to each other. Our friendship had been nurtured in a cocoon of privileged time off; we knew there was no structure, no institution, to anchor it.

We had premonitions that we were going to have to go back to who we were -- when we knew, deep in our bones, that, thanks to each other, we were different. And we made a pact. We would not let each other return to the "old" self. These friends would stay friends.

Although we didn't quite see the Big Picture yet, on that train ride we were "reupping." We were going into our first voluntary reenlistment.

Copyright © 2000 by Ellen Goodman and Patricia O'Brien

About The Authors

Photo Credit:

Patricia O'Brien is the author of the critically acclaimed novel The Glory Cloak and co-author of I Know Just What You Mean, a New York Times bestseller. She lives in Washington, D.C.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Touchstone (May 2, 2001)
  • Length: 304 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780743201711

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Raves and Reviews

Kay Redfield Jamison The New York Times A terrific book that vividly captures the essence, delight, and occasional perils of women's friendships.

Cokie Roberts ABC News, National Public Radio, author of We Are Our Mothers' Daughters Patricia O'Brien and Ellen Goodman here celebrate with warmth and humor their own decades-long friendship.

Doris Kearns Goodwin author of Wait Till Next Year Never before has the centrality of friendship in women's lives been captured as fully as in this fabulous book. With a perfect blend of biography and anecdote, O'Brien and Goodman have written a rousing good story, complete with humor, insight, and wisdom.

Judy Blume author of Summer Sisters A fresh, warm, and honest look at best friends and how important a role they play in the lives of women of all ages.

Caryl Rivers Boston Sunday Globe When historians ask what it was like for women and their friends in a time when it often seemed that everything was changing, this will be a book that provides the texture of life, as real people lived it.

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