Girl Talk

Girl Talk

I made someone cry yesterday.  And a few moments later, I was pretty close to crying myself.  And it was all because of an amazing book called “The Girls from Ames: A Story of Women and a Forty-Year Friendship.”  This is a book which has been a consistent presence in the New York Times Top 10 Non-Fiction Bestseller List since its publication back in March. . . and although I’m sure it was intended with female readers in mind,  I loved this book as much as any I’ve read in the last year.  (And by the way, its author – Jeffrey Zaslow- is on quite a roll, because he is also the author of “The Last Lecture,” the blockbuster bestseller he co-wrote with the late Randy Pausch.)

In a nutshell,  Zaslow – a columnist for the Wall Street Journal – wrote a piece in 2003 about how women more than man seem anxious to preserve their closest friendships for long periods of time. . . and of how those friendships nevertheless often face severe challenges of one kind or another when women are between the ages of 25 and 40. (I haven’t read that column, but I am guessing that Zaslow was writing about how women in their mid-twenties onward begin to get married, have children, enter the work world, etc.  and that those kind of intense life transitions can often shake us loose from the friends of our earlier life.)   Hundreds of women (and maybe a few men) wrote him emails in response- mostly to share stories about the exceedingly close friendships they had managed to sustain over many decades – and one of those emails came from someone named Jenny who told Zaslow about a circle of ten very close friends who had grown up together in Ames, Iowa and were still incredibly close after forty years of friendship.   And although that email got filed away with all the others once it had been read,  it made a lasting impression on him and Zaslow returned to that email in 2006 – contacted the correspondent – and decided to learn more about this circle of friends and their exceptional story.   And that ultimately led to “The Girls from Ames,” in which he closely examines not only each of these eleven women, but also the way in which their collective friendship has managed to endure through all that has transpired over the years, and despite the fact that they have scattered to all corners of the continent.

This book was sent to me at the radio station, and as soon as I saw the name Jeffrey Zaslow – whom I interviewed twice regarding “The Last Lecture” – I decided that I needed to read this book.    It just happened to be right around the time that I was to fly down to Orlando, Florida to join the Tremper High School choir for part of their spring trip – and this book became an almost constant traveling companion for me.   And whenever one of Polly’s students would spot the book under my arm and ask me what it was about,  I always felt a little bit self-conscious about its subject matter.  When I would say “it’s about a group of really close girlfriends from Ames, Iowa” I would usually get a strange look or two,  as if I were reading the Good Housekeeping Guide to Cosmetics.  True, it wasn’t the latest issue of Field & Stream or the biography of Eminen,  but it was a book about something as universal as friendship. . .  and although the book happens to look at a group of female friends specifically,  I didn’t find the book to be especially feminine. (Of course, the guy saying that owns a pair of pink garden gloves-  see the July 10, 2009 entry for more info on that.)

A couple of things makes the book fascinating.  One thing is that these are not famous women – nor even exceptional women as individuals.  But it is the intensity of their bonds of friendship and the extent to which those friendships have only deepened over time that makes the Girls from Ames so out of the ordinary and their collective story so compelling.  But also, we learn in the pages of this book that even their lives as individuals are much more fascinating than one might ever imagine.  And that’s because Jeffrey Zaslow is such a discerning writer;  he has such meaningful insights into these women’s lives and what has shaped them and writes about that so beautifully.  Contrast that with the typical “reality TV” trash in which just the opposite occurs, and human beings with all their complexities and contradictions are boiled down and reduced to the most cartoonish basic characteristics.  Jill, the Slut. . .  Mike, the Flirt. . . Greg, the Nerd.   This book accomplishes what the typical Reality TV show does not even try to do – dig beneath the surface and show us real lives in all of their beautiful complexity and humanity.

Anyway,  yesterday I recorded a follow up interview with Jeffrey Zaslow-  and then a few minutes later got to speak with one of the actual “Girls from Ames.”  I spoke with Karla, who now lives in Montana with her husband and children.  Her particular story is compelling for a couple of reasons.  For one, she was given up for adoption shortly after she was born.  Zaslow writes:   For the five days that followed

[her birth] Karla was brought to her mother’s side for every feeding. Her mother held her, nursed her, and talked to her.  And then, on the sixth day, her mother gave her up for adoption and disappeared from her life. . .    Now, as a mother herself,  Karla finds it almost unfathomable that a woman could nurse and hold a child through all those feelings, and then walk away.  That image of abandonment would remain with Karla, informing the woman she became.

This is one reason why Karla became such an incredibly devoted mother to her three children.  And then, in 2002, the unthinkable happened when Karla’s daughter Christie was diagnosed with cancer- and despite her courageous battle against it, she died in February of 2004, at the age of 14.  And as you might guess, it was as we reached this particular topic in our interview that tears were shed.  What I hate to admit is that when I first brought up the subject of Christie’s illness and eventual death,  it never dawned on me that five years after the death Karla’s grief would remain so acute.  (How clueless of me.)  As Karla first began talking about her daughter’s diagnosis with cancer she began to weep. I swallowed hard, silently praying that her sorrow wouldn’t prevent her from managing to say what she wanted to say about the beautiful daughter that she loved so much and still loves so deeply.   And then I started to lose composure myself – which is exceedingly rare for me when I’m doing interviews – when I read these words aloud:  At 8:07 P.M. that night [February 20, 2004] all Karla could bring herself to type onto the [Caring Bridges] website was this:  Christie Rae Blackwood, 1/9/1990 – 2/20/2004. . .  In Massachusetts, Jane [another of the so-called Girls from Ames] had been monitoring the site all day.  When that final posting went up, she mouthed the worlds “O my God” and was ssoon calling the other Ames girls. She too described her response as an instinctual act, as if she were a bird calling out to other birds that they all needed to return to their nest.  The girls began calling their bosses to say they wouldn’t be coming to work the next day.  They tracked down babysitters for their kids. They called their husbands. And one by one, they made plans to head for airports. They were going to Minneapolis to be with Karla.

 

And indeed, all ten Girls from Ames congregated in Edina, Minnesota to be with Karla and to share in her grief – for those next difficult days.   And Zaslow writes later in that chapter, All ten of them later realized that they saw clearly that true friendship means a willingness to share both joy and complete despair.

It turns out that Karla is one of the Girls from Ames who was a bit reluctant to participate in all of the press for the book and only recently agreed to begin doing a few appearances and interviews – and in fact, if I understand her correctly, my interview with her was among the first she has done for the book.  So I would like to think that doing the interview with me was somehow helpful for her-  and I was really honored then to read in an email from Jeff Zaslow that he had chosen to have Karla be the Ames Girl I spoke to because he thought I was the kind of sensitive interviewer with whom she would feel comfortable and safe.  Of course, a truly sensitive interviewer would not have been caught so utterly by surprise when Karla began weeping over the death of her daughter – but nonetheless, it’s a moment that’s incredibly powerful, when we sense the devotion and pride and sorrow that is wrapped up in this powerful thing called a Mother’s Love.

note:  the interview is tentatively scheduled to air on Thursday, the 30th of July, on WGTD’s Morning Show.  And when you listen, you’ll not only hear Karla’s eloquence and grief for yourself . . . but you’ll also hear me just barely managing to hold on to my composure.   When my days of hosting the Morning Show are done,  I am sure that this moment with one of the Ames Girls will be very close to the very top of my list of most unforgettable, most meaningful moments.