Women Make History With Friendships


March 04, 1991|By ALICE STEINBACH

I brought up the subject of my funeral arrangements right after dinner. Served it up, you might say, to my four women friends along with their decaf espresso.

"I've decided I want "Appalachian Spring" played at my memorial service," I said. "That and Ella Fitzgerald singing "Funny Valentine."

"Well, all right," answered one of the women. "I'll try to remember. But I can't promise."

"And I want you all to see that someone with a really nice voice reads the 23rd Psalm. And whatever you do, no lilies. I hate lilies."

"Well, OK," said another friend. "If I'm around when you die, I'll take care of it. Of course, I could be out of town. Or worse."

We all laughed. Then without missing a beat we moved on from the subject of my funeral -- an inevitable but not, I hope, imminent circumstance -- to discuss politics, recipes, literature, sex, cosmetic surgery, children, work, shoes, music, ex-husbands, current husbands, boyfriends, the future of nuclear power and how difficult it is to snap stockings into those little hooks on a garter belt.

We do this once a month, believe it or not: meet for dinner on a Sunday night and talk non-stop for four hours. Sometimes I think of us as a contemporary version of the March sisters -- Jo, Meg, Amy and Beth -- in "Little Women," except that in this group we all want to be Jo, the active, independent sister who does more talking than listening.

Funny. You'd think that five women who've been friends for more than 20 years would run out of things to say. But the Gang of Five -- as I like to call this group -- functions a lot like your average, teen-age clique in high school: We can't wait to get together to talk about the world in general and, in specific, our places within that world.

Of course, our places in the world keep changing. The world, after all, is a precarious place full of random joys and sorrows; and over the years we've known each other, the Gang of Five has shared plenty of both. We've watched our children grow into adults; seen marriages dissolve; careers blossom, spouses die; new lives emerge from the ashes of the old.

In other words, the Gang of Five shares a lot of history.

Which brings me to this: March is Women's History Month, a time set aside to look back over the lives and accomplishments of women throughout history. But as a number of historians have pointed out, you're not likely to find the history of women in textbooks. "Women have constituted the most spectacular casualty of traditional history," is the way historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. puts it.

Still, for those willing to do a little research, women's history can be uncovered.

It's there in the quilts and samplers lovingly pieced together by anonymous 18th and 19th century women.

It's there in the poignant and brave diaries and journals written by pioneer women who traveled the perilous Overland Trail to open up the American West.

It's there in the letters written in wartime by wives left to run a household, raise a family and keep the home fires burning.

And the history of women -- and how we've made our way in the world -- is there, I believe, in the strong friendships forged by women throughout the ages.

We have told each other our histories -- often because no one else would listen. At sewing bees, quilting parties, church bake sales, club activities, book discussion groups, volunteer activities and professional gatherings, women have woven a tapestry of oral history using the thread of friendship.

Here is an account by Harriet Beecher Stowe of what you might have overheard at a quilting party in the 1800s:

"One might have learned in that instructive assembly how best to keep moths out of blankets; how to bring up babies by hand; how to mend a cracked teapot; how to take grease from a brocade; how to reconcile absolute decrees with free will; how to make five yards of cloth answer the purpose of six; and how to put down the Democratic party."

As I read that passage, I thought: Hey! Update that conversation a bit and you've got the Gang of Five!

So. I say women's history is where you find it. And while you won't find the stories of the Gang of Five in any textbook, they have been, nonetheless, recorded. Over many years and countless Sunday dinners, my friends and I have shared the triumphs and defeats of daily life which, when added up, tell the real history of our lives.

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