“Why don’t we paint our toenails?”

asked Jenny with a grin.

I’d spent a grand total of about forty-five minutes with my cousin’s teenage daughter when she popped this time-honored girl-get-together question. I answered in the affirmative with a happy smile. And so began a new friendship.

Jenny’s mother, Jackie, and I had been childhood buddies. I was close to most of my maternal Griffith first cousins – Jackie, Rosemary, Tim, Tom, and Joe. We were great friends despite the long distance between us. I lived in rural Lancaster County outside the small village of New Danville and they lived in rural Cambria County outside of the small village of Cramer.

1961 cousins

Barb, Rosemary, Jackie, Nadine in back

We were friends despite seeing each other only four times a year. My dad, mom (Jackie’s dad’s elder sister), my younger sister Barb and I visited at Thanksgiving, Easter and for two glorious weeks in the summer when dad’s job at RCA was subject to the mandatory plant shutdown.

As kids, we talked and giggled about our siblings, our parents, and about our “other” lives—the ones we lived when we weren’t together—school, friends, books, TV, and pets. I remember being quite the celebrity because I had many cousins on my dad’s side of the family and they, too, were good conversation material. When we ran out of real life topics, we switched to made up stories and huddled in the dark with flashlights to scare ourselves by talking of ghosts, insane woodsmen, and crazed wild animals.

The scenes of our childhood friendship are imbedded in my mind. I’ve got my own virtual photo album of snapshots in time.

Spring memories are centered on the exciting Griffith family Easter egg hunt! Saturday was spent decorating eggs in the tea cups grandma kept especially for this purpose. Each cup had a chipped bowl or a broken handle and had been deemed unsuitable for everyday use. We carefully added water, vinegar, a dye tablet, and gently dipped the hard-boiled eggs—sometimes drawn on with wax crayons to create a design—into the cup. I can still picture those brightly-colored Easter eggs peaking out amid the tall dewy grass and nestled in nooks and crannies around my grandparents’ house.

Summer memories are fragrant with the sweetness of crabapples and grapes and punctuated with the constant buzz of the attendant bees. There were picnics in the shade on long wooden tables covered by a rainbow of tablecloths. These picnics usually ended with a boisterous badminton game by the adults while a companion game of tag saw action by the kids.

Autumn memories are circled with the smell of burning coal and the sound of crunchy leaves being raked into precise patterns so that we would have a village of houses and streets in the tree-filled front yard. Thanksgiving dinner magically appeared year after year with tables stretched from dining through living rooms. In retrospect, it probably seemed like magic since we kids were shooed from the kitchen if we happened to wander in during the meal preparation.

As we reached our teen years, we weren’t quite as close. Let’s face it, non-stop playing would not have been cool. Besides, the Cramer cousins were tied up with their “other” lives of school and boyfriends and girlfriends whenever the Lancaster cousins visited. During our teen years, a second generation of cousins had been born—Tammy, Joanne, Shelly, Dave, Tracy, Mindy and Trudi—and I had little connection with these elementary school age youngsters.

We first generation cousins propelled into our 20’s and 30’s and grew further apart. Scattered geographically, we had perfunctory interaction at weddings, anniversary parties, baby showers, and death services. The second generation cousins formed their own bonds and memories and got on with the business of life as well.

Then along came the new millennium and Jenny. Jenny and I met at her grandfather’s house (outside of that still-small village of Cramer) in the spring of 2000 and our toenail-painting led to a correspondence which lasts until this day. Her mother and I also hooked up again via the wonder of e-mail. As Jackie’s sister, Rosemary, had been in constant touch with both of them she simply added me into her loop of correspondents. Their second generation sister, Joanne, jumped on the bandwagon as well.

family friends

We came full circle in our childhood friendship when Rosemary mentioned that she and Joanne were traveling to Montana for Adam, Jenny’s younger brother, high school graduation and added, “Want to go along?” Did I ever! We started our May trip with a rendezvous in the Washington/Dulles airport in one of those illogical travel itineraries that has you first travel east to get west. Our next step was clearly western bound with a layover in Chicago on the way to Billings, Montana and a final road trip to Jackie’s home near Red Lodge.

It was a magical trip framed on multiple sides by the majestic Beartooth Mountains—part of the massive Rocky chain. We did adult stuff together like cooking and hosting a backyard picnic for 100 friends and neighbors to celebrate Adam’s milestone. We did kid stuff together like pretending we were synchronized swimmers in the mineral hot springs of vintage Chico Resort and Spa and made a conscious point of performing the now traditional Griffith-cousins-toenail painting ritual. We did tourist stuff together like journeying through back-to-back National Forests on the winding and scenic Beartooth Highway. We truly felt on top of the world as the Beartooth climbed to 10,947 feet above sea level before dropping back to 7,600 feet at northeastern entrance to the famed Yellowstone Park.

The breadth and scope of the landscape during our entire trip was absolutely astounding to this easterner, but the grandeur did not render us speechless. We filled our days laughing and talking about our family, our children, our friends, our loves and losses, our activities, our work lives, our hobbies, our favorite books and, well, the list is endless.

My childhood playing buddies are, again, my friends and I found some new friends, too. To me, friendship is a gift and friendship the second time around is even more of a treasure with even deeper bonds. To me, family is a most treasured gift. I feel very blessed to have found both in Jackie, Rosemary, Joanne, and Jenny.


RoseMary note:

Just because pictures were taken before digital doesn’t mean they can’t come back to haunt you: Nadine, Jackie, Joanne, Jenny…