Reconnected After Years Apart, College Friends Find Strength in Each Other

From a Wall Street Journal story by Clare Ansberry headlined “Reconnected After Years, College Friends Find Strength in Each Other”:

Thirty years after graduating from Allegheny College, Ginny Hollis wrote to a group of her sorority sisters and told them she had breast cancer.

She invited the group of women, then about 50 years old, to a family cottage on Conway Lake, N.H. The first day, they sat on a dock and went in a circle telling what had happened since they graduated. They started with career and family updates, then delved into the heartbreak of failed marriages and misgivings about choices made.

That gathering in 2000 reignited a bond that has sustained these friends in the years that followed, say several members of the group. The women have dealt with the death of a daughter by suicide, the loss of husbands and of homes. Two more were diagnosed with breast cancer.

“This group kind of holds us all together,” says Ginny.

Friendships are often forged during college years, when people first leave home and cling to new relationships. Those bonds can fade during the busy years of raising children and starting careers.

A jolt, like a tragedy or serious illness that underscores the fragility of life, can bring friends back together with a focus on the present and what is important, says Laura Carstensen, founding director of the Center on Longevity at Stanford University.

Sustaining rekindled friendship takes a commitment to get together, acceptance, forgiveness and trust, says Jeffrey Hall, professor of communications studies at the University of Kansas. The pandemic, he says, made it harder to maintain routine gatherings.

He thinks that is changing now. He and his high-school friends have resumed their monthly outings.

Ginny Hollis and her Kappa Alpha Theta sisters came of age at Allegheny College, a small liberal-arts school in western Pennsylvania, during a tumultuous time. Their freshman year, they had a dress code for dinner and a curfew. By 1970, their senior year, the curfew and dress requirements were gone, and they talked passionately about women’s rights and civil rights. Students staged an antiwar sit-in that spring, and at graduation, seniors wore armbands in protest of the Vietnam War.

Most in this group married within a year of leaving college and their lives became busy while they were raising children. Some pursued careers and went to graduate school. They lived in a half-dozen states across the Northeast and kept in touch with Christmas cards and occasional phone calls. A handful went to their 20-year reunion.

“We drifted apart,” says Karin Stahl, who lives in Simsbury, Conn.

Ginny brought them back together in 2000, after undergoing surgery for breast cancer and radiation treatment. By then, she was divorced. Her daughter was a senior in high school. She had friends from work, but missed the Theta sisters, who had shared the top floor of their dormitory, staying up all night to talk about their dreams.

“Life’s too short. I needed to reconnect with all these women who were an important part of my life,” says Ginny.

Seven gathered that first year in her family’s 900-square foot cottage, which had a small kitchen and one bathroom. All were sorority sisters, except Peggy Siegle, who roomed with a Theta sister and was eventually considered an honorary member. Ginny prepared lobster. They drank wine and lemonade. Some brought wedding photos and yearbooks.

That first day on the dock, Ginny told them about her cancer, what happened to her marriage, and how she overcame barriers in the male-dominated insurance business. One sister recounted how she divorced her college sweetheart and married a famous poet.

Peggy, who lived in Maine, went last. She told the group that her marriage had just fallen apart. Everyone sat and listened. “It gave me an opportunity to talk about my sorrow, the disappointment of things not working out and hopes dashed,” she says. “It was deep sharing and life-changing,” Peggy recounts.

That deep sharing continued as they met each summer, usually at Ginny’s but at the homes of others in the group, too, in Maine, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and New York. The circle grew to 10. Everyone pitched in, setting tables and washing sheets and towels and cooking.

Some swam in the lake and kayaked, but mostly they talked about their choices, whether they made the right decisions about jobs, husbands, parents, children, whether they worked too hard or too little. Some had marital problems, health problems and financial problems.

“We were at an age where we didn’t need to have secrets,” says Pam O’Brien. “We had an openness we never had when we were in college,” she says.

Tragedy deepened their bond. Soon after their reunions began, one sister’s husband, who had been ill with cancer, died.

A few months later, Karin’s daughter, Kristina, died by suicide. She was 25, an All-America athlete, teacher and coach. After calling family members to tell them, she called Pam, her college roommate, and asked her to call the sorority sisters. Pam and others traveled to Connecticut and remained with Karin throughout the visiting hours and during the service.

 “They grounded me,” she says.

At the next reunion, Karin brought her laptop, which had a memorial slideshow that her daughter’s alma mater put together. The women gathered at the kitchen counter, watching images of Kristina playing soccer and lacrosse, with music from the Pretenders playing. One sister hugged her and told her that her own son had drowned years before. “I never knew about that,” Karin says. “Sometimes when you are in deep pain you have to live with it for a while.”

Over the years, they have supported each other in other ways, when a parent had dementia or an adult child struggled with chronic illnesses.

“Sometimes we just sit and absorb each other’s pain,” says Karin.

The past few years haven’t been easy. Two of the women lost their husbands. Last year, Karin and her husband had to sell their home and move into an apartment after using some retirement savings to create endowments in their daughter’s memory. She called Pam, who had moved from Pittsburgh to Florida earlier, for advice on downsizing and letting go of belongings.

Pam, a retired English professor and poet, wrote a poem about her group of friends and how they have changed. They are learning, she wrote, a whole new language like “in-home care” and “follow-up visit” and unlearning “coffee at night” and “being right.”

 “We count on each other to help draw the map to what comes next,” Pam wrote.

Clare Ansberry writes the Turning Points column for The Wall Street Journal, exploring the various turning points in people’s lives. She was previously the Journal’s Pittsburgh bureau chief, overseeing coverage of various industries, while also writing about issues involving aging, family, community and people with developmental disabilities.he is the author of “The Women of Troy Hill: The Back-fence Virtues of Faith and Friendship,” about a community of women growing older together on a small hilltop neighborhood. She also co-authored the book “Comes the Peace, My Journey to Forgiveness” about a young man’s journey to reconnect with his family.

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