updated 07/13/1998 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 07/13/1998 AT 01:00 AM EDT
It's a classic of the slumber party genre, true to form in all but one detail: The giggly revelers aren't adolescent girls but 49-and 50-year-old women, some of whom are grandmothers and all of whom grew up together in Hastings, Neb. (pop. 23,000), 159 miles southwest of Omaha. The Group, as they call themselves, has held this annual pajamanalia for the past 10 years. Leaving husbands and children behind, they gather on the second weekend in June to celebrate their lives and lasting friendship. This year's reunion, in cabins in Eugene T. Mahoney State Park in Ashland, Neb., was special, marking their crossing the threshold of the Big Five-O.
"Here we are, these old women, talking about when we lost our virginity," says Kathy Joseph, a kindergarten teacher who lives in Alma, Neb. "It's like we revert to being kids when we're together."
"You move to California, start a new life, think you're a whole different person," says Sandy Koepke, now an interior designer in Beverly Hills. "Then you come back to this group and realize, 'Naaah, you're the same girl.' "
"It takes me back to my roots and reminds me of who I am," reflects Carol Turner, a dental hygienist from Foley, Ala.—who was Nebraska's Junior Miss for 1966.
That was the same year she and her pals graduated from Hastings High School. In the three decades since, the 15-member group (there were two no-shows this year) has logged 15 first marriages, 5 divorces and 4 second marriages. They've borne 28 children, adopted 4 and have 12 grandchildren. They've had 5 hysterectomies and owned 11 Volkswagen Beetles. Nine graduated from college and four have master's degrees. Among them are: three dental hygienists; two therapists; a real estate agent—and no homemakers. None has tried cosmetic surgery, "but we're talking about it," says Sandy. "We're trying to see if we can get a group rate." And there's not a single tattoo. "That," says Kathy, hand over heart, "is so reassuring to me."
The Group first cliqued in seventh grade at Hastings Junior High. They scarfed down pizza and swamp water floats (root beer and orange soda with vanilla ice cream). They listened to Roy Orbison and the Four Tops and recall clearly the first time they saw the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. "We just freaked out," says Sue Wilson, a family therapist who lives in Pittsburgh. "Remember the songs we used to make out to?"
"Sue," chides Carol Turner, "you would make out to anything!"
Their slumber parties were locally notorious, with crank calls the entertainment of choice. "I'd call a bar and say I was pregnant and there was a blizzard," says Julie Fleming, who works in a bank in Republican City, Neb. "And I had to get to the hospital, all I had was a tractor and could they page my husband."
"It was so sweet," says Sandy.
"It was so innocent," says Betty Jo Harris, a seminar planner in Austin, Texas.
The Group kept in close touch after high school, but slumber parties were suspended, except for an impromptu soiree at their 10th class reunion. As they moved on with their lives, meetings were scarce. "Most of us had small children and schedules that didn't allow it," says Sue. But turning 40 proved a powerful impetus to re-Group. In 1988 the women rendezvoused near Phoenix, where they hit local dance floors wearing old bell-bottoms. Afterward, says Kathy Joseph, they voted to have an annual slumber party "for the rest of our lives."
This year's gathering was something like Group therapy, as they comforted each other in the face of life after 50, with its encroaching wrinkles, aches and waning eyesight. "I hate it when your meal is blurry," says Sandy. "I look down and see my mother's hands on my body," gripes Carol Turner. And the best thing about turning 50? The Group answers as one—with dead silence. Then they explode in laughter and slice into a birthday cake decorated with 15 names, a tree and the words that might serve as their real response: "It takes a long time to grow an old friend."
Sophfronia Scott Gregory
Kate Klise in Ashland