A 'girlfriend getaway' unites us

Middle-school friends, decades later, meet to share their lives in Lake Geneva, Wis.

"Girlfriend getaways" is the alliterative phrase the travel industry uses to describe an increasingly popular category of travelers – women who vacation now and then without the men and families in their lives.

Nearly one-quarter of American women have taken a girlfriend getaway in the past three years, according to a new survey by AAA. Forty percent plan to do so within the next three years. One important purpose, they say, is to renew and solidify bonds with other women whose busy lives often leave little time for friendships.

As if to test the concept, 10 of us who have been friends since junior high school gather at a lakefront hotel in southern Wisconsin for a three-day reunion. We have come from seven states, including both coasts, to reconnect – to relax and reminisce, to catch up on family news, and to share conversations both lighthearted and serious.

Who could have imagined, all those decades ago in school, as we cheered each other's accomplishments and offered comfort and counsel during disappointments and a steady procession of boyfriends, that those friendships would endure into the 21st century?

Today the 10 of us have 20 children. All but two of us have grandchildren – 32 in all. Four members of the group have been divorced, and three have remarried. Only two still have a living parent. Seven are retired.

Growing up in the Midwest in the Eisenhower era, we were – by today's standards – remarkably sheltered and naive. We graduated from high school the year John F. Kennedy was elected president. Three years later, Betty Friedan published "The Feminine Mystique," paving the way for seismic social changes that would forever alter women's lives, and men's, too.

Like legions of women in our generation, many of us spent years as at-home mothers, returning to work only after children entered school or left the nest. Our career titles, past and present, include teacher, speech therapist, artist, bridal shop owner, marketer, legal secretary, hotel manager, and journalist.

Now, as we settle into a vacation mode, we share pictures of our families. We play tourist by taking a two-hour cruise around the lake. We stroll through town, browsing in bookstores and gift shops. On impulse, we even buy matching T-shirts for a group photo. But mostly we treasure the chance to talk.

Some of it is girl talk: fashion, beauty regimens, hair color. But there are serious topics too, ranging from work and retirement to children, caregiving, and the loss of our parents.

On the last afternoon, as late-summer sun shimmers on the lake beyond our balcony, the mood turns reflective. During a lull before dinner, we share our hopes and plans for the next five to 10 years.

Not surprisingly, good health tops everyone's list of priorities, for ourselves and our families. Financial security ranks second. Travel echoes as a common theme as well. There is also a desire for companionship. "I'd love to find one person I could travel with, go to shows with," says a woman who is divorced. What about marriage? "Maybe."

"I'd like to not be caring for anybody else," another friend says. "I'd like to see my kids whenever I want to. I'd like my husband to be happy and have things to do – to feel contented in and of himself so I'm free to pursue my interests."

A woman who is still working adds, "I'm a little concerned that my husband and I can find useful things to do with our lives in retirement." Another says, "It's important to have a sense of purpose. Hobbies are so important. And you need to share time with friends."

One woman hopes to continue working part time after she retires next year. "I want to be active," she says firmly.

There are tears as one member of the group tells of her adopted daughter's successful search for her birth mother. More tears flow as another woman shares her anguished longing to reconnect with a wayward daughter.

But laughter returns when one friend says, "I'm surprised by how much I'm turning into my mother. You see so many things you do that are like your mother, and you realize she was right."

Another woman echoes that gratitude for parents. "My folks were always behind me," she says.

A few reflect on the road not taken – and on the bumpy roads they have traveled. Others share a yearning for their adult children's happiness. "We want to protect them from negative things, and yet we can't," says a mother of two. "All we can hope for is that they rebound."

As the conversation winds down, several express appreciation for these long friendships. "I've moved so many times that nobody knows who I am," says one woman. "Old friends like you know me."

Buoyed by the success of the weekend, we decide to hold another girlfriend getaway next year to continue the conversation. We settle on a date and place, then bid our goodbyes with hugs and misty eyes.

As we leave, another friend offers advice that is both heartfelt and upbeat. "Don't waste a single day," she says.

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