The Girls from Ames

They were 11 girls growing up together in Ames, Iowa. Now they are 10 women in their mid-40s, spread all over the country. And they remain the closest of friends.

They were 11 girls growing up together in Ames, Iowa. Now they are 10 women in their mid-40s, spread all over the country. And they remain the closest of friends.

Whenever "the Ames girls" get together, it's as if they've stepped into a time machine. They feel like they are every age they ever were, because they see each other through thousands of shared memories.

As 12-year-olds, they'd sit in a circle, combing each other's hair. As 17-year-olds, they'd go to parties together deep in the cornfields outside Ames. As 30-year-olds, they'd commiserate over the challenges of marriage and motherhood.

Like the Ames girls, millions of us have nurtured decades-long friendships, and we don't always stop to recognize the power of these bonds. As we age, friendships can be crucial to our health and even our sanity. In fact, a host of scientific studies show that having a close group of friends helps people sleep better, improve their immune systems, stave off dementia and live longer.

I've just spent two years immersing myself in the friendship of the Ames girls for a book project that grew out of my Wall Street Journal column, Moving On. I had written a column about the turning points in women's friendships. My story focused on why women, more than men, have great urges to hold on tightly to old friends.

That day I got hundreds of emails from people telling me about their groups of friends:

"We've gotten together twice a year since we graduated from high school in 1939.…"

"We met in Phoenix and call ourselves Phriends Phorever.…"

And then there was the email from Jennifer Litchman, an assistant dean at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. Jenny from Ames.

She told me about her friends, the Ames girls, and I got the sense that they had a moving and sweeping story to tell. Born at the end of the baby boom, their memories are evocative of their times. Their story is universal, even common, and on that level, it can't help but resonate with almost anyone who has ever had a friend. And yet some of their experiences together were so one-of-a-kind that I asked if they would let me chronicle their story.

The Ames girls agreed, and I set about writing a biography of their friendship, finding lessons for the rest of us.

In their adult lives, the Ames girls have gone in many directions. There's Jenny in Maryland. Kelly Zwagerman and Sally Hamilton are teachers in Minnesota and Iowa. Cathy Highland is a makeup artist in California. Karen Leininger, Karla Blackwood and Marilyn Johnson are stay-at-home moms in Pennsylvania, Montana and Minnesota. Diana Sarussi works at a Starbucks in Arizona. Jane Nash is a psychology professor in Massachusetts. Angela Jamison runs a public-relations firm in North Carolina.

But at the center of their relationship is the town of Ames, home to Iowa State University. All around Ames sit cornfields, with a farmhouse here or there, and not much else off into the horizon. But in the town itself, home to some 50,000 people, there was an energy, with adults falling in love and doing meaningful work, making mistakes and paying the price, and taking the time to teach the girls life lessons they've never forgotten. For the girls, who often say they feel like sisters, Ames was their shared womb.

Growing up, the girls often landed in each other's lives by virtue of alphabetical order or a class seating chart. They came to know and love each other in part through all the goofy things they said and did when they were young.

Like the time Karen, too anxious about spending a night away from home to have sleepovers, made up an odd excuse for why she could never stay at the other girls' homes. She said it was because she hadn't yet been baptized. Unbaptized Catholics must sleep in their own beds, she told Jenny. "Otherwise, if they die in their sleep on a sleepover at some other kid's house, they won't go to heaven."

Pop culture often bonded the girls. When the movie "10" came out in 1979, the girls convinced Karen that since she had the longest hair, she needed to get the full Bo Derek cornrow treatment. It took the girls hours to get the job done. But then, because Karen looked so good, the others got jealous. And so someone had to say it: "Who does she think she is? Bo Derek?"

The girls were always observing each other closely. They were constantly speculating, judging, measuring. They wanted to know everything about hygiene, acne, puberty, sex, and they learned by monitoring each other.

As a group, the girls sometimes seemed like they had an overabundance of self-confidence. When they were high-school sophomores in 1979, they loved to strut around singing Rod Stewart's "Da Ya Think I'm Sexy?" But most of them, as individuals, were insecure. They didn't really want to ask the question, and they didn't want to hear the answer.

Once they graduated from high school in 1981, and most made plans to move away, they maintained their bravado about remaining close forever. In their hearts, however, they struggled with the uncertainty of splitting up.

Late one night, before leaving for college, Jenny sat with her father on the family's front porch. Talk turned to the girls going separate ways.

For years, her dad had watched the loving chemistry between the 11 girls. But as an insurance executive, he was aware that in any group of people, odds can be determined for almost every outcome and tragedy that might befall them.

"You've got to look at the odds," he told Jenny. "Odds are you won't all be friends as years go by. And it's unlikely that everyone's life will go smoothly." Her father's actuarial instincts overtook him, and he couldn't resist being specific: "My guess is, in 15 years, one of you girls will be estranged from the group. Two of you will be divorced. One of you will still be single. One of you may be dead. You have to expect that. Because that's just how life works."

Today, Jenny has vivid recollections of that conversation how her dad's words hung in the air, and how she sat there thinking he had to be wrong.

On several fronts, her dad was right. One of the Ames girls would die mysteriously at age 22. Three would get divorced. Two would struggle with breast cancer. One had a child with a grave illness, revealing to the other Ames girls a depth of heartache no one could have imagined back when they were childhood friends.

But there has been no estrangement. Through all of the setbacks and losses in their lives, the Ames girls have been there to support each other. And though they haven't tracked all the scientific studies about friendship, they feel the benefits.

The research is clear about the positive implications of friendship. There was, for instance, a 14-year project at Flinders University in Australia that tracked 1,500 women as they aged. The study found that close friendships even more than close family ties help prolong women's lives. Those with the most friends lived 22% longer than those with the fewest friends.

All sorts of studies make similar points. Duke University researchers looked at hundreds of unmarried patients with coronary heart disease and found that, of those with close friends, 85% lived at least five years. That was double the survival rate of those lacking in friends.

Gerontologists say longtime friends are often more understanding about health issues than family members are. Friends are more apt to acknowledge each other's ailments without dwelling on them. The Ames girls do their share of talking about the aging process, but then they move on to the next conversation. And given how much they laugh, and how laughter is good for anyone's health, they figure their time together is completely therapeutic.

"It's good for my mental health to know there's a group of people I can turn to at any moment in my life, and they'll be my safety net," says Marilyn.

Now that the Ames girls have reached their 40s together, they're almost certain to remain enmeshed for the rest of their lives. By the time women are middle-aged, most have built the friendships that will sustain them. That was the conclusion of a study that began in 1978 at Virginia Tech, when 110 women over age 50 were first asked to name their closest friends. Fourteen years later, when these women were ages 65 to 89, they were asked the same question, and 75% of them listed the exact same names.

Similarly, a Harris Interactive Inc. survey in 2004 found that 39% of women between ages 25 and 55 said they met their current best friends in childhood or high school. Women are likely to connect early and then hold tight to each other. This is despite our transient society, or in some cases, even because of it.

Jane thinks that the distance between the Ames girls actually makes them closer. "Because we live in our own communities and have our own separate lives," she says, "we become safe, understanding ears for one another. We don't have to worry about baring our souls and then running into each other's kids or husbands on the soccer fields or at school."

In their adult lives after Ames, the women found newer friends. But these more recent friendships are built mostly around their kids, jobs or current neighborhoods. The bonds are limited to the here and now.

Cathy's friends in Los Angeles are fascinated that she holds on to old friends from Ames. They ask her what she still has in common with them. Her answer: "We root each other to the core of who we are, rather than what defines us as adults by careers or spouses or kids. There's a young girl in each of us who is still full of life. When we're together, I try to remember that."

Shared memories can bring great solace. Marilyn's dad was a renowned pediatrician in Ames. Several of the Ames girls went to Dr. McCormack all through their childhoods, and when they became mothers themselves, they'd often remark that they couldn't find a doctor with his bedside manner.

In later life, Dr. McCormack was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, and moved to Minnesota to be closer to Marilyn and her sisters. Marilyn's Minnesota friends were kind and well-meaning, and they would often ask how her dad was doing. But they knew him only as an old man with Alzheimer's.

During the years her father was fading, Marilyn found herself feeling surprisingly emotional when she went to Ames girls reunions. The first sight of the other women would bring her to tears. In time, she figured out why. They reminded her of her dad when he was in his prime.

When Dr. McCormack died in 2004, Marilyn's newer friends in Minnesota offered condolences and told her they would be there for her. She appreciated that.

But the women from Ames their condolences were so different. It was as if they hardly had to share any words with Marilyn. "Her new friends…might have met Dr. McCormack in his last few years, but they didn't know the real man, the man he was," says Jane. "We knew him as this completely phenomenal human being. And so we knew. We knew what Marilyn had lost."

Email has been a great gift to the Ames girls' friendship. When they were kids in Ames, they passed notes in class, or wrote each other long letters from summer vacation. In their 20s, they'd trade letters and phone calls, but because they were getting so busy raising families in different parts of the country, their interactions tapered off. Then, starting in their mid-30s, email became their foremost bonding tool.

Like the Ames girls, many women look back and realize that their early adult years required them to work harder to stay connected. That's because those are the years when women are starting their careers, getting married, having babies. They're busy.

Again, the research is consistent. More than 200 girls and women were interviewed by Sandy Sheehy for a five-year study that culminated in her book published in 2000, "Connecting: The Enduring Power of Female Friendship." Of the women, 85% said they had trouble maintaining friendships between ages 25 and 40. "Then all of a sudden, around age 40, an equal percentage reported an uptick in friendship activity," Ms. Sheehy says in an interview. "It's like all of a sudden, a light goes on and they say, 'I need women in my life.' "

Meanwhile, the Ames girls notice that their husbands do far less emotional sharing with other men. Men tend to build friendships until about age 30, but there's often a steady fall-off after that. Male friendships are more likely to be hurt by geographical moves, lifestyle changes or differences in career trajectories. Among the reasons: Many men turn to wives, sisters or platonic female friends to share emotional issues, assuming male friends will be of little help.

Few of the Ames girls' husbands have longstanding groups of close friends they confide in regularly. Men's friendships tend to be based more on activities than on emotions. They connect through sports, work, poker, politics. In an Australian government study, 57% of men said they bond with friends through "recreational activities." That compared with just 26% of women who defined friendships in those terms.

The Ames girls insist that they will remain friends right up until the end of their lives, in part because they won't need much physical energy to maintain their bonds. They won't have to play racquetball or walk 18 holes on a golf course.

"It's not like we're couch potatoes," says Marilyn, "but we could sit for hours talking, and we'd be totally happy doing that."

Because most women outlive their husbands, old friends are often even more crucial in old age. The Ames girls know this.

Right now, two of them, Kelly and Angela, are struggling with breast cancer. The support of the other women has meant the world to them.

At one recent reunion of the group, they all went hiking in the mountains. Not long after that, when Angela learned she had cancer, Kelly sent her an email alluding to that walk and to the next time they would all be together.

"I am standing before you," Kelly wrote, "and saying with absolute certainty that next summer we will again climb mountains together. And if you become weary, I will carry you. When we both start to stumble, our sisters will be there, walking beside us, ready to catch us and help carry us up that mountain."

There's a Spanish proverb: "Tell me who you're with and I'll tell you who you are."

The story of the Ames girls will have many more chapters, of course. There will be losses ahead, they all know that, but there will be great joys, too. And they have no doubt they will be there for one another always, whatever happens.

There was a photo taken in Ames in 1981, as they were graduating from high school. In the snapshot, all 11 girls look so happy. On their faces, there was no indication that their ride would not always be easy, or that some of them would endure great grief.

During a recent reunion at Angela's in North Carolina, they posed on her back-porch steps for a photo replicating that 1981 picture. All of them took the same positions, and this time, their smiles were even broader. They touched each other even more effortlessly. And why not?

In this moment, hundreds of miles from Ames and half a lifetime later, not much had really changed. There was much to be grateful for. They still had each other.

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