magnolia   For years, we kept in touch through Christmas cards. Those were the years when life cruised by slowly enough. We scribbled our own handwritten notes inside and included the occasional photograph. We lived secure in the cocoons of our mostly untested faith, smug that our lives were on some straight, invisible track. It seemed easy then to have faith, because hadn’t our lives turned out so “fair?” Family photos showed us as attractive young women in our prime, radiant with good health, flanked by the innocent faces of our precious children and our still, supportive husbands.

Our children grew up. We moved to bigger houses and advanced in our careers. In a blink, 20 years passed. Enough time for illness to strike, for marriages to dissolve, for families to be broken, for hope to be lost. We didn’t know it then, but individually, a kind of had shame had set in. Our lives were not what they appeared. No one’s dreams had come true and stayed. We wondered, each of us from our comfortable middle class homes with plenty of food in the refrigerator and a lady who cleaned for us every few weeks, what had gone wrong and if maybe (our secret shame) it wasn’t our own fault?

Two summers ago, we reunited for our first girl’s weekend in historic Charleston. During those few precious days, we discovered that in friendship time, 20 years pass like nothin’. I looked into those faces I once knew as well as my own, faces with whom I’d shared countless sleepovers, teenaged pranks, broken hearts and midnight snacks. We confided about the challenges and humiliations we had privately (and sometimes publically) faced during those years without each other’s knowing. We gave thanks to God for dreaming bigger dreams for us than we could have ever dreamed ourselves and for giving us the strength to go on. We deemed ourselves “Steel Magnolias”, an ode to our “Southern-ness” and our ability to persevere.

That weekend, we remembered how to be silly again. God, how I’d forgotten to be silly! We splashed in fountains, made mischief, sang, danced and closed that bar down! We meandered along Charleston’s magnificent cobblestone streets, beneath fringed canopies of Spanish moss. We peeked through wrought iron gates into private courtyards, intoxicated by scents of Confederate Jasmine, boxwood and oleander. On the way to their wedding, an elegant couple passed us in a white horse-drawn carriage. Clip clop, clip clop… They were so beautiful and the moment held such hope and promise. Spontaneously, we burst into an a cappella version of “Goin’ to the Chapel.”The couple laughed and clapped in delight.

Can you believe, they invited us to their reception???

Oh, and we went skinny dippin’… (Shhhhh, yes again!) Fifty year old bare asses shiny and wrinkled like newborns. Breasts floating on water like jellyfish in the moonlight.

“Oh puh-leaze, don’t let me lose my clothes!!!” And laughter. Always laughter, even with the tears.

Before heading home, we took a final walk along those pristine streets and happened across a patch of freshly poured concrete in the sidewalk. Who cared if someone else had already written on it? I smoothed away that writing as best as I could with a Kleenex and wrote with a stick…

“S-T-E-E-L  M-A-G-S”, because there just wasn’t room for magnolias!

Steel mags       A more appropriate name, I suppose, for girls (I mean women) who skinny dip in the moonlight and crash other people’s weddings.

In a friendship spanning nearly forty years, we stand as the guardians of each other’s innocence and protect that fragile girliness that is too easily lost in this world. Today, we are disproportionately the same as we were then, Older, but wiser. Beautiful, but not young.

Time has taught us not to judge. We rediscovered the beauty of friendship. We view each other’s skewed lives and tragic missteps with the compassion given to a baby bird fallen out of a nest. We lift each other up with a grace and tenderness that can be difficult to bestow on ourselves. Later, we will head back to our separate lives. Before departing, we pause to take refuge from the sweltering heat for a brief libation in one of the city’s swanky hotels. From the rooftop garden, we grasp the stems of our champagne flutes and raise them high, bubbles dancing to the top like laughter. “To the Steel Magnolias!” we say in unison, then someone giggles and we correct ourselves.

“To the Mags!”  The Steel Mags

This re-post is dedicated to my Aunt Betty Jo, who is hospitalized and very ill. She is the original “Steel Magnolia”. There will never be another. I love you Aunt BJ! xxooxxoo