Once upon a time, sixteen teenagers enrolled at Messiah College, most having grown up in the Brethren in Christ Church but not really knowing each other. Friendships developed and romances blossomed. Graduation and/or marriage dispersed them to many parts of the world. During one year, those sixteen teenagers became eight married couples. (Okay, to be accurate: two of them became a couple the year before, but let’s not quibble too much.) As the eight couples settled into adult life, friendships continued – sometimes across great distances to the other side of the world – and others were formed. For a time, some lived in the same neighborhood in Harrisburg where their children played and went to school together. Over the years, their careers have varied widely: doctor, nurse, therapist, museum curator, postal worker, missionary, business owner, administrator, computer programmer, business analyst, editor and writer, volunteer, pastor, teacher, insurance broker.
The network of relationships that began during college and continued through more than two decades of marriage brought all eight couples together to celebrate their 25th anniversaries in a huge rented house called “Of Pines and Pelicans” in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. They had such a great time that they decided to continue spending time together and started calling themselves The Pelicans in honor of the Outer Banks house. Life and geographic distance intervened, and most of the time the original group of eight couples became five with one or more of the other three couples joining the group occasionally. Five couples celebrated the next three milestone anniversaries together: the 30th in southern Ontario; the 35th on a cruise to New Brunswick and Nova Scotia; and the 40th on a cruise in the Eastern Mediterranean. In between these bigger events, the couples get together in their homes, at other special events, and once a year for a weekend in a rented house called Ox Bow View in Juniata County, Pennsylvania.
Of course, this isn’t a fairy tale, and these are real people. I’ve written before about our wonderful group of friends with close to 50 years of shared history and almost 20 years of regularly spending time together as couples since that week in the Outer Banks. Since I’m the resident “professional writer,” I’ve often been encouraged to write our history and try to capture in words what we experience when we’re together. Honestly, I don’t think it’s something one person can do, since so much of what happens during our gatherings is an amazing confluence of all the experiences, creativity, wit and wisdom of everyone who is there. But writing by committee is difficult and frustrating (for me anyway), so here’s my small effort to add to the story, focusing on some common themes that we seem to return to every time we’re together.
Our children and grandchildren: Back in 1996 in the Outer Banks, each couple shared their courtship and marriage story. Our children were still in their teens and early 20s and trying to find their places in the world. In the years since, we’ve talked a lot about our children – their successes and failures, our joys and concerns for them. Now they’re all well-established as responsible adults (thank you, God!), with spouses of their own, and they’ve given us some of the world’s most adorable grandchildren to pamper. So our conversations have shifted to “grandparent tales,” and the photos we share are more often of them and not their parents!
Our health: You might expect health to be a topic of conversation among 60-somethings, as we lament the way our bodies are breaking down and do our best to forestall the process. Three of us are cancer survivors, one had open heart surgery, one had back surgery, one had a minor stroke, several are becoming more hard of hearing (and periodically show off their new and improved hearing aids), and we all have an ever-changing variety of the aches and pains of aging. We’re fortunate to have a couple doctors among us who don’t mind being consulted informally about the latest symptom. Our memories are all fairly well intact, but being well aware that increasing forgetfulness is often a characteristic of the aging process, we joke a lot about how we’ll soon be able to repeat stories because it will be like hearing them for the first time. Diminished hearing also makes for laughter, when what someone hears is not what the speaker intended. Without even trying, we have our own version of the whisper game.
Language, words, and old songs: I might be the one who makes her living with all the words I write and edit, but we all enjoy language and words. One person is our master pun-maker, able to come up with a clever and appropriate pun in the moment, and others try really hard to keep up with him. We all appreciate the English language correctly used, and can easily spend an evening around the dining room table listing all our language and grammatical pet peeves. (See here for some of mine…) I always have a worthy opponent for a couple games of Scrabble anagrams, and we’ve played hilarious rounds of the dictionary game. We also like to sing together – especially old hymns and songs that were popular during our teen years. One evening around the dining room table consisted of a version of “Name That Tune,” as one person gave the first word or phrase of an old Sunday school chorus (think 1950s) and everyone else broke into song. We were amazed at the huge repertoire of choruses we had among us, from all those years during our childhoods of attending Sunday school, children’s meetings at conferences and camp meetings, Vacation Bible School, etc.
Recurring jokes: There are certain words and phrases that are guaranteed to evoke laughter – as we remember their context in a joke from 15 years ago, or just 15 minutes ago. These are inside jokes, definitely of the “you-had-to-be-there” variety, which don’t translate well for others not in the group. The words and phrases sound innocuous enough – sweet corn, stick, saran wrap – but they remind us of moments of doubled-over, tears-producing laughter. There was also the time we were going around the table with each couple telling a story about themselves that no one else knew. One couple told a story that had the rest of us wide-eyed and open-mouthed – we couldn’t believe this had happened to them and no one ever knew. Then the punch line: it was all a fabrication, a lie. Yet it sounded so believable the way they told the story, with both husband and wife fully engaged in tag-teaming the details. We will never let them live that down – and now we are not nearly so trusting of the stories we hear.
Intense discussions: We are not a monolithic group, with everyone believing the same thing and coming down on the same side of controversial issues. We range from fairly liberal to fairly conservative on the theological and political spectrum. Some of us are quite sure of what we believe, while others are far more nuanced and tentative, which makes for interesting conversations when one person declares that “this is the way it is” and someone else wishes for more uncertainty and open-mindedness. We have had significant personal disagreements, to the point of serious conflict that made us wonder whether our group could survive. Sometimes someone feels left out of the conversation because it’s about something he or she doesn’t care or know anything about, or because it feels too trivial when there are important and life-changing issues to discuss. Navigating the waters of these intense discussions has been difficult, but we keep trying because we care about each other and value our friendship.
The food: One year at Ox Bow, as we were fantasizing about the book we could write about ourselves, we lit upon the idea of a cookbook. We always eat well when we’re together. In the early days of these weekend getaways, we ate three full meals a day. (Before each weekend, we divvy up the meal responsibilities, with one or two couples being in charge of each meal.) It began to feel like all we ever got done was preparing for a meal, eating it, and then cleaning up afterwards, not to mention never really being hungry when time for the next meal rolled around. Finally, we got smart and scaled down to two meals a day – a mid-morning brunch and an evening meal. But those two meals are always feasts, whether they consist of traditional fare or new recipes that the gourmet cooks among us like to try.
Last fall, on our way home from a return vacation to the Outer Banks, Dale and I searched out the house the Pelicans rented in 1996. From the outside it showed clear signs of wear and tear: hurricanes, tropical storms, sun, sand and wind have beaten down on it. I couldn’t help thinking that the way the house has weathered a lot is something of a metaphor for the Pelican couples as well. We’ve weathered much and we’re showing signs of age, but like the house, we’re still standing strong and ready not only for the next stage of our lives but also for more good times together with treasured friends.