A small metal replica of a yellow Terrace chair sits on my desk at work in Durham, New Hampshire. It was given to me in 2007, shortly after I attended a nearly thirty-year reunion of five women, all of us graduate students who attended UW–Madison in the late 1970s: Mary Falvey PhD’80, Pat Porter PhDx’81, Chris Dollaghan PhD’81, Jan Bedrosian PhD’81, and me. We had formed our own women’s support group soon after meeting in fall 1977, and we had not all been together since 1980.
I wanted to write about the experience, but I soon gave up, feeling that I couldn’t do justice to these remarkable women or to our extraordinary group. But after returning from our second reunion in Madison in 2009, I wanted to try again.
We originally came together for support while living far away from family and friends, and facing the daunting task of earning a doctorate. We wanted to explore some basic questions, such as how to balance one’s personal and professional life, how to be appropriately assertive, and which role models we wanted to emulate. We talked at the Terrace, weather permitting. We talked at the Ovens of Brittany (no longer there), the Nitty Gritty (still there), and at many other Madison gathering places.
Given how demanding our graduate programs were, I am amazed that we were able to maintain our commitment to the group to the degree that we did. Pictures from those years, as well as a journal we kept, clearly document numerous activities: potluck dinners, cross-country skiing at the Arboretum, running/jogging together, and Spring Frou 1 and 2 (which was like a spring fling, but fancier), to name just a few.
Talking, connecting, and caring about each other was the heart and soul of our group. We were there for each other, to celebrate the achievements, to console during the losses, and to listen deeply as options were sorted through, paths chosen. In retrospect, it seems we managed to create a little family for ourselves — family at its very best.
Our first reunion in June 2007 was nothing short of exhilarating. We sat at a round table on the Terrace and talked for seven hours straight. Granted, we had many years to catch up on; most of our contact had been via holiday cards or meeting at an occasional conference. During our marathon session, we may have taken a few breaks for ice cream, but we mostly talked and laughed, and realized that it was possible to pick up right where we had left off —that, in spite of career changes, long marriages, and raising children, we were, at our essence, the same five women.
Our most recent reunion in June 2009 was also amazing. The weather allowed for hours on the Terrace, a walk along the lake, and a stroll through a sun-filled farmers’ market. But I think we were louder this year. No, I know we were louder this year. We met our fifth arrival at the airport Thursday evening. As she descended on the escalator, the four of us gathered at the bottom and sang “On, Wisconsin!” On Saturday morning, just before leaving our hotel, the same woman was last coming down to the lobby with her luggage. This time, we greeted her by singing, “We are family. … I got all my sisters with me!” Those who see us only in our professional roles might have been a bit surprised.
These women whom I am blessed to know are bright, kind, funny, and wise. Although I could list more than twenty adjectives that aptly describe them, doing so would make them sound too perfect, when they are, in fact, all perfectly human. We were able to be lost and confused, or scared and self-doubting, with each other. We brought our whole selves to the table during those years, and we still do. That may well be what makes the group so important to us.
We plan to meet again this summer. If you see a group of women sitting on the Terrace, looking like they thoroughly enjoy each other’s company, it just might be us. Come on over and say hello. We might even sing you a song.
Joy Ann Roddy Downs PhD’80 has been a staff psychologist at the University of New Hampshire for more than twenty years. She lives with her husband and daughter in nearby Madbury.