Pa. women forge 60-year friendship over monthly meals

LANCASTER, Pa. — It all started with a game of pinochle.

Six decades ago, four friends started meeting once a month, after work, to play cards.

They had all graduated from Lancaster’s J.P. McCaskey High School in the late 1950s or early ’60s and were secretaries in the same law office.

The table of four eventually turned into a table of eight. The pinochle party was eventually replaced with a once-a-month dinner, and, more recently, with a monthly lunch.

During the past 60 years, women have left the group and others have joined, but this core lunch bunch of eight retirees still meets at a different restaurant every second Wednesday of the month.

“When it’s getting close to that second Wednesday, I’m always thinking, ‘Oh boy, I can’t wait to see the girls,’ “ Gale Ziegler of Mountville says.

On a recent Wednesday, while perusing the specials on the menu at the Outback Steakhouse on North Pointe Boulevard in Lancaster, the women try to figure out when that first pinochle game was held — 1958? Or was it ’59 or ’60?

It doesn’t really matter.

What matters is that these eight women make a commitment to each other to show up every month — to catch up on each other’s lives, to laugh a lot and sometimes cry a little, and to see whether there’s anything someone in the group needs.

This enduring friendship has seen these women through divorces and widowhood, multiple bouts of cancer and a severe heart attack, a late-term miscarriage and the loss of a daughter-in-law.

It also has lifted them up through children and grandchildren, through birthdays and picnics and beach trips.

“We have been through everything in this card-club group that you can imagine in life,” says Alice Murray, of Lititz, one of the original Pinochle Four. “The best to the worst. We were always friends.”

Salads and support

Over soup, salad and sandwiches at the Outback, the eight women ranging from 74 and 82 years old chatted, laughed and engaged in some good-natured ribbing.

Murray says she had worried some forecast snow might have kept her from making it to lunch.

“I would have come to get you,” Sandy Engle, of Lancaster, says. “I would have sent a sleigh up for you.”

Jean Shindle of Lancaster, the other original pinochle player in the group, says that, in the beginning, the card game moved among the women’s homes, with the hostess providing the food.

Four other women soon joined the group, establishing the magic number of friends at eight –where it has stood until the present day.

But the women found they were concentrating more on socializing than on playing pinochle.

“It was always, ‘What’s trump? What’s trump?’ because we were always yakking, yakking, yakking, and no one was paying attention to the game,” says Ziegler, who joined the group when her twin sister left to get married and move to North Carolina.

“So, we stopped playing and started eating,” turning the card party into a once-a-month dinner club, she added.

Once all eight had retired, dinner was switched to the midday meal.

“Now, we have to go out at lunch because we can’t see to drive at night,” Murray says.

Highs and lows

Some of the women have known each other since they were children.

“Barbara and I knew each other since we were babies,” Engle says of fellow lunch bunch member Barbara Schulter, of Mount Joy. “We grew up on the same street in Lancaster.”

“And Carole and I were neighbors on Union Street for a while,” Ziegler says of another group member, Carole Matt, of the Welsh Mountain area near New Holland.

These women have seen each other through life’s ups and downs.

“My husband died on Sept. 11 a couple of years ago, and we had been married for 60 years,” Matt says.

“I looked up and every single one of them was there,” Matt says, sweeping her hand in a gesture of inclusion around all eight women seated around the table.

Sandy Brisson of Millersville talks about how the women supported her through a health crisis.

“When I had breast cancer, they were all there with gifts, flowers, cards, calls,” Brisson says. “They worked around my chemo schedule so I wouldn’t have to miss anything.”

Murray tears up while talking about how the women have supported her through cancer treatments, as well.

Engle recalls the aftermath of her severe heart attack a few years ago: “I almost didn’t make it.”

The lunch-club women visited, boosted her spirits and made sure she had anything she needed.

“When I went through my divorce, they were supportive,” Ziegler says. “Everybody just supported everybody, no matter what. You get together once a month and you talk about your good and your bad, and everybody always had your back.”

“When I graduated from nursing school, we were all there” for the party, Schulter says, noting all eight women formerly worked in the legal, financial or health care fields.

“Some of us might not remember that (graduation) day because some of us were three sheets to the wind,” Brisson says, to raucous laughter from the rest of the group.

One of the women had a little too much to drink and wound up falling off the back of a pickup truck, they recall.

But let’s not talk about that, the women say, a cacophony of laughter rising above the coffee-and-dessert course.

Judy Koenig of Lancaster says the group’s September meeting every year is a picnic at her house in Lancaster.

She provides the enclosed porch, in case of inclement weather, and the hot dogs. Everyone else brings food to the party.

Koenig and the other women recall years of trips to the beach — both times with husbands and kids along, and vacations when they all left their families at home and rented a house.

The women recall visiting Atlantic City together during the weekend of the Miss America Pageant, and jokingly judging the looks — all in good fun — of the contestants on the boardwalk.

The women have dressed up in Halloween costumes for their October get-together, and exchange names for holiday gift-giving in December.

Lasting friendship

So how has this commitment to friendship lasted for six decades?

“I think underlying it all is the same values,” Schulter says. “We were all brought up in Lancaster and we have the same values of family. And we all went to the same school.”

“I think it’s just people to commiserate with, and boost each other up,” Shindle says.

“It’s something you look forward to,” Engle adds. “You don’t ever miss this” lunch date.

“I feel so fortunate to have such good friends, and forever,” Brisson says. “We’ve been through so much — kids growing up, getting married, having their own babies, and their babies having babies.

“Our personalities all mesh with everybody,” Brisson adds. “There may be something that’s annoying, but nobody really dwells on that.”

“It’s just a closeness you build all these years,” Schulter says.

As the women pay their Outback Steakhouse checks, perhaps Matt expresses it best as she recalls the cards she sent to the other seven women, thanking them for their support after her husband died.

They read, “Roses are red, violets are blue, I don’t know any better friends than you.”


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