Even with all of today’s sophisticated technology — email, voicemail, smartphones, social networking sites, and more — maintaining close friendships over a number of years can be a challenge. Kids who are inseparable during their school years inevitably grow up, go away to college, get jobs in distant cities, marry, have children, and develop new interests and hobbies. At each new stage of life, they make a new group of friends. Even if they do find time to reconnect during holidays, school reunions, and other milestone events, the years and the miles can make it hard to find common ground.
For one group of girls who grew up in western New Jersey during the 1940s and 50s, though, keeping their childhood friendship strong has been a central part of their lives for more than six decades.
The group developed slowly, over a period of years. The first two to meet were Sharon Clark Smith and Barb Updike Fleming.
“I first met Barb because our parents were friends. They remained friends throughout their lives,” says Sharon.
“Barb and I were the best of friends from very early on. There are pictures of the two of us playing when we were 13 months old. We even shared a playpen.”
Though Smith and Fleming were the first to meet, their neighbor, Martha McGrath Carroll wasn’t far behind.
“Barb’s front yard came to my backyard, and Sharon’s front yard came to Barbara’s backyard,” recalls Martha.
The duo of Barb and Sharon quickly became a trio in kindergarten, when they met Martha. Both Sharon and Martha came to regard Barb as their best friend and de facto leader. It was a dynamic that continued even as the group began to grow, and to this very day.
“Barb was kind of the leader of the pack. She had the best pajama parties. We got into all sorts of mischief,” says Martha.
Starting in the third grade, the three girls joined the local Girl Scout troop, and befriended several more girls who attended another elementary school in the area. Through scouting, the circle of friends grew to include Bert Taylor Phillips, Mary Beth Kale Morris, Jill Gihon Snively, Norma Clowes Fish, and Frances Hitchcock. And in junior high, Virginia Bertrand-Holley became attached to the group. Other girls, and even boys, moved in and out of the circle of over the years, but this is the core cluster of women that remains strong to this day.
“We weren’t cliquish. We all had other friends, but we always had each other, too,” says Jill.
For each of the girls, scouting became a central part of their identity, and their friendship.
“We didn’t have a Girl Scout troop that sat around and sewed. We were active,” remembers Jill.
“We had a very young leader, and we went hiking, canoeing, on lots of overnight trips. In high school, we even hiked part of the Appalachian Trail — more than 30 miles.”
Being sporty and enjoying the outdoors was central to each of the girls’ lives. They swam together, hiked, played field hockey, soccer, basketball, and baseball.
“We thought nothing of bike riding all day, for 10 miles or more, climbing rocks, swimming. Now, you can’t let the kids leave your yard, but we had so much freedom. We thought nothing of it,” remembers Martha.
Jill remembers a time when a few of the girls went swimming in a forest creek. When they came out, they were afraid to retrieve their clothes because a family of snakes had made themselves comfortable nearby.
As the girls grew older, and began to be interested in boys, they expanded their range of activities to include parties and dances at one girl’s house or another. The group was fortunate that all of their parents were supportive and welcoming.
“Our parents were all good friends, so they were always encouraging us to get together and have a good time. There were always parents who were willing to open their homes to us and welcome the whole gang,” says Martha.
A Lesson Learned
When the group moved from middle school into the uncertainty of high school, they had one another to insulate them against the loneliness of a new school.
“Bullying didn’t matter because even if someone was mean to you, you could always rely on your friends to back you up or make you feel better,” reflects Jill.
“With such a large group of friends — girls and guys — it wasn’t so important who was popular or who wasn’t, because we used to get together every weekend to have a sock hop or a party. And, when it came time for the junior prom, there wasn’t this big crisis over whether or not you could find a date, because one of the guys just took you. Wherever we went, we all went together, 10 or15 of us in a group.”
Like kids of any era, “the gang” got up to some things they probably shouldn’t have, too. When the girls were in high school, Jill’s father sold golf carts. One day, a group of the girls took one of the golf carts out and tried to slalom between the trees in her backyard. Unfortunately, the ground was very soft that day, and the wheels sunk deep into the mud, getting horribly stuck.
Another time, a few of the girls burned the macaroni and cheese they were making in home ec class. When the teacher wasn’t looking, they scraped the burnt macaroni into the bushes outside the classroom window. They thought they were safe, until one of the maintenance men came up to complain about the mess.
“She figured out pretty quickly who was behind that,” relates Sharon, with a laugh.
And once, Sharon brought her brother’s water pistol to school, hoping to get one of the other girls with it during gym class. Just as she fired it, though, the gym teacher rounded the corner and got wet, instead. The water gun was confiscated, but she eventually convinced the teacher to return it.
“When I look back, there’s no question that my junior high school years were the most fun I ever had. We were always laughing,” says Jill.
For the most part, though, all of the girls kept out of trouble and learned to value family. Most of the girls were honor students and active in their community. In fact, Bert and Jill were honored as the first Curved Bar Girl Scouts — the Girl Scouting equivalent of an Eagle Scout — in the state of New Jersey, an achievement that required many hours of commitment and community service.
“We were all raised with similar values. We all knew each other’s parents, and our parents knew each other. We were like one big extended family,” says Mary Beth.
Their commitment to their community continued as they became adults.
“All of us take interest in our world. We aren’t content to just sit back and let things happen. We all volunteer, serve on community boards, donate to cancer research. We’re all very civic-minded,” says Martha.
The group continued to create precious memories through high school, as a few of them got to attend a taping of American Bandstand in Philadelphia, or held bake sales to earn money for their own vacation on the shore.
As with most high school friendships, though, the girls each went to college and moved to different parts of the country. Even those who stayed in New Jersey didn’t get to connect as often as they would have liked. What eventually kept them together was Barb’s determination, most of the women agree.
“Barb had moved to Minnesota, but used to come back year after year. Every year, when she came back, she called everyone up and said ‘OK we’re meeting at this such and such a place on this night. Be there!’ After we’d done it a time or two, we started to look forward to it from year to year,” says Jill.
“If Barb was coming back, no matter what else was going on was all dropped everything. Barb is our little firecracker. She’s the spark that keeps us going,” says Martha.
These periodic reunions were enough to keep the women in touch over the years, and gave them an impetus to pick up the phone a few times each year and to participate in each other’s lives. Many of the women were bridesmaids in each other’s weddings or threw baby showers for one another.
“We all decided we were getting older and, no matter what, we would find a way to get together every year,” says Martha.
Since 1994, the gang has made an effort to have a dedicated reunion each year. Each of the women takes turns hosting the others for several days at a time. Past reunions have included whitewater rafting, horseback riding, gambling in Atlantic City, a visit to a Seminole reservation, midnight bowling, a ride on the Maid of the Mist, antiquing, summer stock theater, campfires, motivational speakers, crafts, and visits to galleries, museums, and more.
“As we get older we think ‘Oh my gosh, can we still do some of these things?’ We are old ladies doing all of these things that a lot of young people don’t even try,” says Martha.
When they were kids, the group kept pretty late hours at their pajama parties and dances. It’s a practice they continue to this day.
“Some of us will stay up so late laughing that we’re exhausted the next morning. When we get together, we tell the same stories, year after year after year,” says Mary Beth.
“Each one of us brings a different dimension to the group. We’re all very different, we laugh and cry and hoot and holler. Strangers ask us if we’re sisters because we have a real synergy. It’s difficult to find such a large group of women who are all so comfortable around each other,” says Sharon.
“I don’t think this could happen with any other girls. When I’m with my other friends, we have fun together but it’s not the same. It feels like we’re always trying to be too grown up. Whenever I get together with the Jersey gang, though, we turn into giggling girls again in no time.”
A few years ago, Ginny, who had been widowed relatively young, was planning her second wedding. That summer, during the reunion, the rest of the women went to a local Goodwill and bought a bunch of old, gaudy dresses.
“Oh, gosh, they were ugly! Poor Ginny! We kept her in another part of the house while we got all gussied up in those hideous dresses,” relates Sharon.
“Ginny almost fell out of her seat when she saw us,” remembers Martha.
The women even found a not-so-ugly off-white dress for Ginny to wear.
“We threatened that we were going to show up at her real wedding in those awful dresses. I think she was honestly worried, wondering ‘Oh, gosh, would they really do it?'” says Sharon.
Sisters at Heart
But the Jersey gang does more than just laugh together and share good times.
“We’re sisters at heart. Any of us would be there for any of the others of us at any time. We’ve all been there for each other during some really serious terrible times,” says Martha.
Those times included problems with kids, the death of parents and husbands — three of the women lost their husbands in one single year — and several bouts with cancer. Four of the women are cancer survivors, while one, Bert, lost her own battle with the disease in 2009. Sharon, a three-time cancer survivor, participated in a 60-mile cancer walk this past spring in honor of Bert. Each of “the girls” contributed in some way.
“Bert was the quietest member of the group. She didn’t often talk about what our friendship meant to her, but in that last year, we saw another side to her. She made sure we knew,” says Sharon.
Because Bert was often cold toward the end of her life, members of the group made her a fleece comforter to keep her warm. They also made a smaller matching version for Bert’s young grandson to remind him of his grandmother.
When Sharon was facing her own battle with cancer, the group was always there for her, calling and checking in.
“During those days, what do you do? I didn’t know what the future held, but I knew my friends would be there for me, no matter what,” she says.
“I think we were very lucky. I’ve compared notes with a lot of friends as I’ve grown older, I found that most people only had one or two close friends in school. I feel so fortunate to have grown up with such close friends. So many people I know didn’t have that,” says Jill.
“It’s pretty unique, I think. There’s just a deep trust that formed very early in our lives. It’s a deep bond of unconditional love, like a mother feels for a child,” says Martha.
“We say we’re all going to go to the same nursing home someday, and we’ll all sit next to each other in our rocking chairs.”