Their lives had already been entwined for two decades when Patricia Conroy, Joanne Howald, Linda Pirkle, and Marguerite Sexton began their weekly meetings.
It started in the early ’80s with breakfast at 7 a.m. — the only time four women with careers, marriages, and more than 25 children, stepchildren, and other children they helped care for between them, were reliably free. Nearly 40 years and four retirements later, morning coffee has morphed into afternoon wine, but the heart of the weekly ritual remains unchanged.
Usually, each friend shares her week’s news and anything else she wants to discuss. She is rewarded with the laughter, tears, support, or — only when asked for! — advice of the three women who know her best.
Sometimes, one friend needs all of that week’s time and care.
“We have just been there for each other,” said Joanne. “It has been the most amazing gift.”
It is a gift assembled from the pain of four profound losses: two mothers, a father, and Mary — the sister/best friend missing from a circle that coalesced around her.
Marge, Pat, Mary, and Linda all grew up in the McKinley section of Abington Township. Joanne lived a mile away in Jenkintown. Marge, Pat, and Mary, biological sisters, lived with their parents and brothers on Tulpehocken Avenue. In the spring of 1951, when Pat was 4, Marge was 8, and Mary was 13, their mother died suddenly of a heart attack.
That fall, on the first day of freshman year at Notre Dame Wyncote High School, Joanne took an empty seat in front of Mary. Within a few weeks, Mary told her about her mother’s death and Joanne told Mary that her mom was dying of breast cancer. By the time Joanne’s mom died in 1953, she and Mary were best friends. They grieved together, and, eventually, had fun together, too — fun that included dating, then marrying the Howald brothers, Landy and Herb.
Mary and Landy moved around the corner from her family’s home to a twin on Cadwalader Avenue — much to the delight of Pat, whose best friend, Linda, lived with her family on the other side of the shared wall.
Marge and Pat lived at home until 1961, when their dad died from throat cancer. Their brothers were already grown and out of the house, but the girls moved to Cadwalader Avenue with Mary and Landy and their growing brood.
Joanne, husband Herb, and their children, plus Linda and her family, often joined in the joyful chaos of the household.
“Mary and I both had six children and no mothers, so we really supported each other,” said Joanne.
The Cadwalader twin remained a gathering place even after Marge, Pat, and Linda grew up, married, moved to other homes in the neighborhood, and had children of their own.
Each child born to any of them felt like a child born to all of them. “There was this time when Mary, Marge, and I were all pregnant at the same time,” remembers Pat. “It was the greatest bliss ever, and the world felt easy.”
That blissful ease ended a few years later, when Mary was diagnosed with breast cancer. There was no hospice program then, so her sisters and sister-like friends helped her husband care for her until she died in 1973 at age 35, and then continued to love and support him and their children.
For a time after Mary’s death, the friends felt engulfed in a blur of pain and sorrow and work and keeping it together for all of their families. Then one night Pat invited Joanne and Linda over for wine. “Linda and Joanne and I were screaming and laughing the whole night,” she said.
From then on, Linda, Joanne, Marge, and Pat were a single unit. “There would be phone contact, or we would get together,” said Marge, “but it was almost always involving kids, there was never any time for just us.”
The women’s realization that they wanted and needed time to focus on just themselves and their lives was the genesis of their weekly breakfasts. In 1998, they briefly considered starting an investment club but abandoned that idea to instead found the Literary Sisters Book Club, through which they and other friends have read everything from Anna Karenina to Malcolm X and a plethora of historical novels. “Marge brought a cake with her to the first meeting that said, ‘Read your book, Bitch!’ ” said Joanne, who still laughs about it.
They have together celebrated so many joys: a slew of births and birthdays, weddings, career triumphs, retirements. Before retiring, Marge, now 77, was a nondenominational celebrant and founder of Journeys of the Heart; Linda, now 72, owned a manufacturing business that made an instrument that prevented locomotives from freezing; Joanne, now 82, was secretary to the nurse recruiter at Abington Hospital; and Pat, 74, was a real estate agent.
They have supported one another through divorces and breast cancer treatments — Marge and Joanne are both responding well to treatment. They have helped one another through more losses — parents, siblings, and most devastatingly, children.
Linda’s daughter, Nicki, was in a car accident in 1993 while away at college. Pat went to the hospital to support her. After Nicki died, all of the women supported Linda, in part by supporting her other children. They also needed to support their own children, as the loss traumatized the entire extended family.
Marge later told Linda that her surviving that loss meant she could survive anything. “I could not have survived it if it wasn’t for the love given to me,” Linda said.
Witnessing her friend’s experience made Marge feel like she could also, with the support of their group, get through anything.
On Christmas morning 2015, Marge’s son, Ron, died by suicide. “It was, and continues to be, devastating,” she said, “but at the same time, I don’t know anybody who ever went through anything like this that has received so much love and care and healing.”
Like Mary, Nicki and Ron remain frequent topics of the four friends’ long, ongoing conversation.
COVID-19 has only increased the physical distance between them; their weekly meetings and monthly book club go on.
When the weather was nicer, Pat transformed her driveway with tables, chairs, and flowers into a private wine cafe. The women also met for socially distanced and masked walks at Alverthorpe Park.
As temperatures began to fall and COVID cases to rise, the women pivoted to Zoom wine and the Literary Sisters of Zoom.
They miss trips and restaurants and hugging, but as long as they can continue to share the good and bad, mundane and exciting, soothing and exasperating moments of life, no pandemic can make them feel disconnected.
Said Joanne: “You can handle anything with great friendship and love.”