50 Years and Counting

Celebrating Women's Best-Friendship

“Let’s have a party to celebrate fifty years of our friendship,” Bernice said. “We’ll invite all our friends and ask them to bring their best friends. This is quite an accomplishment.” When my mother, Ruth Grill, and Bernice Kurchin realized that this milestone was approaching, they knew they needed to mark the occasion with something special

The party was at Bernice’s home, the site of so many of the families’ birthday and holiday celebrations over the past 35 years. As the guests arrived there was excitement. Women bearing gifts hugged and beamed, shouting “Mazal Tov!” and “Happy Anniversary!” The table was full of delicious food, the rooms filled with flowers. Thirty women had been invited, and all 30 said yes. It was as if they’d been waiting for decades for an occasion like this—for the moment when their deepest friendships would be worthy of formal validation.

There were Marcie, Natalie and Carla—people with whom I shared memories and warm childhood associations— and there were poets, teachers, one archaeologist and lots of therapists. Ellen Witlieb, an old and dear friend of my parents, was an especially welcome guest. Diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer, Ellen hadn’t been sure that she’d be able to attend the party. Her presence was meaningful to all of us, but especially to her best friend, Judy. We ate and mingled, drank and caught up. Many of these women were closer to my age than they were to my mother’s, but age didn’t seem to matter.

After about an hour, we gathered in the living room. The women settled on sofas and chairs, and Bernice and Mom welcomed everyone. Then they proceeded to share the story of their fifty years of best-friendship.

“We met during our freshman year at Brandeis,” Bernice explained. “I was planning to room with my best friend, Martha, but she changed her mind and decided to get a single so that she could more easily ‘entertain’ her boyfriend. I was devastated. The night Martha broke the news to me, I was unable to sleep. I walked down to the pond and there was Ruthie, whom I didn’t know. She looked at me and said, “What’s wrong?'”

Bernice laughed, “That’s Ruthie! So I poured out my story, and I think we talked until the cafeteria opened for breakfast. After that, we were friends. I used to call Ruthie when she was living with her parents, and her father often answered the phone. ‘I need to talk to Ruthie, I’m having a trauma,’ I would say. He was a very proper German physician who’d escaped Nazi Germany. He doubtless thought I was completely crazy!”

In some respects Bernice and Ruth were an unlikely pair. Though both young Jewish women, their backgrounds were vastly different. My mother, an only child, spent her first year and a half in Germany, then was hidden for three years in the home of a Catholic couple in Belgium. Reunited with her parents. Mom stayed with her family in Belgium until she was eleven, then moved to Manhattan. Although she describes feeling really like an immigrant—an oddball, never having the right clothes—my mother speaks glowingly of her days at Brandeis. She thrived among the beatniks and intellectuals, the long nights spent philosophizing about art and literature.

Bernice’s upbringing seemed more typical. One of four children born to a successful dentist and his wife, she grew up in an upper-middle-class Jewish neighborhood in Queens.

Bernice studied dance, and became involved in the arts scene at Brandeis. I loved the stories that Mom and Bernice told about their days at college. Both Mom and Bernice dated Abbie Hoffman briefly. “He sold submarine sandwiches and had a sports car,” my mother said. Mom didn’t finish up at Brandeis, however. She began dating a Black poet with bipolar illness, and her horrified parents pulled her out and sent her to City College. Through Bernice’s troubled marriage and then divorce, the births of four daughters—two apiece—and new careers (Bernice was a dancer and choreographer, then got her doctorate in archeology; Mom was a full-time mother and then went to social work school), they were always there for each other.

In later years, Bernice supported my mother through her own painful divorce, and stood by when my mother’s new partner, Philip, developed cancer and died in 2003. Together Ruth and Bernice celebrated birthdays, grandchildren, careers. And always the two of them danced! Modern, ballroom, world music, rock-and-roll—everywhere and at every occasion.

Judy and Carla shared their story next. They met almost 30 years earlier when they worked as social workers at the same agency. Casual chats about work, clients, husbands and children gradually developed into a deep friendship. “I was always included in Carla’s family events—Passover seders, parties, get-togethers,” said Judy. “In 2000, I had to have lots of medical tests, and then again in 2003 when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Carla took me for all my appointments, she drove me, she waited, and there was never a question. When I was operated on, she stayed the whole time.”

Judy confided, “Not long ago, Carla and I were out to lunch together, and she told me about a young friend who was struggling. ‘Don’t you have a best friend?’ Carla asked the young woman. ‘It’s very important to have a best friend.’ I listened and then I leaned over and nudged her. Who’s your best friend?’ I asked. Why, you, of course,’ she said. I don’t think I’d talked about having a ‘best friend’ since high school.”

“In 1982, when we were both at the office,” said Carla, “I got a call from my husband, Ed. He never calls me at work. It was very unusual. He told me that my niece in Israel had phoned. Her brother (our nephew) had been killed fighting in the war in Lebanon. I was hysterical. We had been at this boy’s birth; we were very close to him. Judy said, ‘I’ll bring you home.’ And she took care of me, without any hesitation. I wasn’t used to being taken care of. It was an important milestone in our friendship.”

Then Belle and Daisy told their story. “Daisy and I have been friends for 75 years,” Belle told the group of guests. There was an audible gasp, and then applause. “We met in pre-school. Our families lived in a leftist or ‘radical’ colony in Golden’s Bridge, in northern Westchester County [in New York]. Many of the families only came to Golden’s Bridge in the summer, but Daisy and I lived there all year round. I think that was one of the reasons we grew so close. We were in the same class in our three-room schoolhouse, and we played together all of the time. We grew up without electricity or indoor plumbing. I think those ‘pioneer conditions’ brought us closer.”

Once Belle and Daisy left the colony they were no longer in daily contact. The two friends had different lives, different lifestyles, yet they remained in touch. “When we talk, it’s as if no time has elapsed,” said Belle. “We share the good and the bad, and we always know we are thinking of one another. I was insistent that Daisy come to the party with me. I have other friends from 40, 50, even 70 years ago, but I said, ‘Daise, it has to be you! Find a way to come. It’s really important to me.'”

After all of the women shared their stories, my mother returned to the subject of her friendship with Bernice. She wasn’t done; she seemed to need to still put her finger on the absolute heart of their friendship, to articulate what was utterly essential. “I guess the thing of it is, Bernice and I would do anything in the world for one another,” she said. “When Neil [my father] left, Bernice was doing an archeological dig in Ireland. She would walk miles to the nearest pay phone to call me. One time when I was going through the divorce, Bernice and I went to a movie. I remember sitting there feeling really lousy, and all of a sudden it occurred to me: I’ve known Bernice longer than Neil. I had a life before Neil. I will have a life again.”

“And when Philip [Mom’s second husband] was sick,” my mother continued, “Bernice said, ‘His children and grandchildren have to visit.’ Bernice paid their plane fare from Spain and let them stay in her home for an entire month. I remember Philip saying, ‘This is a miracle.’ To have a friend who would do something like this. Bernice sat with me in the hospital the night before Philip died.”

“When I lock myself out,” Bernice summed up, “Ruthie has an extra set of my keys. If I miss my stop on the train, I call Ruthie and she picks me up. She nags me about getting enough sleep and eating well. And she listens. We are like an old married couple. We are the constants through extraordinary changes in our lives.”

The “ritual” wound down and ended naturally, all of us aware that we had just participated in, and witnessed, something extraordinary and special. There were a lot of cross-friendships in the group; a lot of archiving memories—how old this one’s or that one’s kids were when they played together. There was a sense that only women could create an event like this, that this ambience was due to our being in a room solely inhabited by females. And many of the best-friendships, interestingly, had grown out of work relationships; after all, that’s where most of us spent so much of our time.

There was a profound sense as well of collectively appreciating where different women were in their lives. A feeling that the oldest women had the richest stories, but that there was little emotional difference, really, between the tales of 80-year-olds and those of women in their 30s or 40s. Finally, there was a sense of gratitude towards Bernice and my mother for giving a name to this moment in their relationship: 50th Anniversary. For stopping the clock of our busy lives and making us each take stock of what we had.

Driving back home I thought about the party, and about friendship. It’s not easy to be a best friend for 50 years. I thought about the way that women can underestimate the value of their friendships with women as they pursue relationships with men— relationships that are sometimes short-lived or lack the depth and intimacy of female friendships. I reminded myself about the importance of putting aside time for women friends even when work, a husband and children sap my energy. Having small kids myself, it’s so rare that I actually make a plan to go out with just a girlfriend—to enjoy a long, intimate conversation—as opposed to seeing them only in the context of couple or family get-togethers. I considered my current friendships, and vowed to strengthen them. I called my best friend in the world and told her she’d missed a great party.

Simone Ellin is a writer and former social worker living in Baltimore. She dedicates this article to the memory of Ellen Witlieb, an exceptional friend.