From high school in Turkey to the coast of Maine
We five girls gathered together on a small island in the Casco Bay for a long weekend to celebrate high school friendships formed over 45 years ago in Izmir, Turkey. Women flew north from Texas, North Carolina and Pennsylvania as I drove toward Portland from New Hampshire. For several, it was the first time flying as far north in the United States as the state of Maine, although they had traveled widely in the world. Three of us had been “military brats” in Turkey, and two were tobacco company children. The tobacco fathers had been North Carolinian entrepreneurs in the industry, living as ex-patriots with their young families on the local Turkish economy for 30 years. These two women had grown up in Izmir and spoke Turkish fluently. All of our mothers had supported our fathers by raising us and building family life in sometimes challenging conditions, setting aside whatever personal aspirations they may have had of their own.
As we boarded the Casco Bay Lines ferryboat that first evening together at sunset, the clouds broke away to reveal the perfect arc of a rainbow across the wide sky. We were meant to reconnect this summer. We landed on the island 45 minutes later and boarded an old blue bus that carried our luggage, food supplies and us up the bumpy VFW hill to a small cottage overlooking the sea. We had brought treats for one another: evil eye earrings, olive oil soap, Turkish Delight made of apricots, almonds and honey, sweet Halva, sesame honey roasted cashews, pistachios. Each day we cooked simple meals together in the tight kitchen, walked around the small island, sipped afternoon tea on the porch, and sat on the white sandy beach near the cottage to watch the sun set. In the evenings we told our life stories to one another and recalled funny moments when we had been teens together. One night we laughed till we cried playing a crazy game of Balderdash.
We worried about the political turmoil in the streets of Istanbul today. Although we all had returned to Turkey or other spots in the Middle East as adults, we wondered when it might be safe again to go back to this exquisite part of the world that had captured our hearts so many years ago. Now in our early 60s, we began to share what had become of our teenage hopes and dreams that began in Izmir. Who knew in the mid-1960s where we would land in our lives? Of the five of us, three still enjoyed long-standing, loving marriages, and two had divorced twice, both determined to remain uncommitted. One woman’s husband had just been diagnosed with early Alzheimer’s. She shared difficult, touching moments of losing her lover and best friend ever so gradually, a heartbreak that seemed in some ways more painful than the unexpected loss of love the two divorced women had known. Each woman, save one, had experienced the joys and challenges of raising children, as well as the pride and delight of becoming a grandmother.
We remembered details of our days studying French, English and Algebra in the old tobacco warehouse that served as our small high school in Izmir. We spoke fondly of our favorite teachers and the romantic interludes we were sure they had enjoyed with one another. We laughed about pretending to take showers after gym class by covering up in a towel and putting drops of water on our shoulders. We tried to recall the movements and chants from our cheerleading days and talked about the fun basketball tournaments and student council exchanges with American high schools in Ankara and Athens. We recalled long, sunny Saturday afternoons on a rickety old boat called the “Holiday,” which carried us out into the Aegean Sea to swim and to learn how to waterski. We smiled remembering nights at our Teen Club, where we danced for hours, played pool and looked for dark corners to hold hands with a sweetheart under the careful eyes of our adult chaperones.
We talked of the iki buçuk (25 cent) horse-drawn carriage rides that would take us to the dilapidated movie theater at the dusty edge of town and remembered eating gevrek (simit or sesame bread rings) off the trays that were carefully balanced on the heads of Turkish street vendors, treats our mothers warned us would surely lead to hepatitis. We recalled our excursions into neighboring Turkish villages, the high school trips to swim in the hot springs of Pamukkale or to climb through the ruins of Ephesus. We relived the sweet taste of fresh baklava and charcoal grilled lamb on a spit. We remembered staying up all night to share secrets at slumber parties at one another’s apartments, dancing to Motown music in our pajamas, and seeking our destinies on the Ouija board.
As teenage girls, we had been in such a rush to grow up: mini skirts, plenty of eye make-up, Weejun loafers, printed Villager blouses, and lots of colored pocket books. Our days seemed to revolve around boys as we fell easily in and out of love. Sometimes we actually passed our boyfriends on to one another, for the school community in which we lived was small. We longed to break away from our parents to live into adult experiences; after all, we knew so much more than they did, and we all wanted to grow up to be freer, more adventurous women than we thought our mothers had been.
Now in our sixties, we wanted only for time to slow down. Sometime over the years, we began to recognize the significant lessons our mothers had taught us. We had grown to admire the courage and strength they demonstrated to raise us in this foreign land, often alone when our fathers worked long hours and traveled to other distant sites away from home. We laughed at how old we had thought our parents were when we attended high school. Now our own children tease us about our irritating habits, forgetful moments and tired bodies. Today we all color strands of gray hair, work hard at eating healthy foods, and find joy in a quiet evening alone at home with a good novel. One of us has surgically enhanced her body. The others notice their wobbling necklines in photographs, wear bras with a bit more support, and lift weights to stem the tide of the sagging underside of our upper arms.
We all have achieved in some small way accomplishments of our own in rewarding professions (counseling, medicine, military service, teaching). A few have even explored multiple careers, unlike our fathers who spent their entire lives with one institution. Only one of us has actually retired at this point, but she remains active managing stock portfolios, reading widely and volunteering as a docent in her city’s art museum. Each one of us practices some kind of yoga and walks regularly; one still runs races, and another plays tennis regularly.
We five did not stop talking for four long sunny days on the island, and we grew together like close sisters after many years apart. We discovered that there never had been “a happily ever after” waiting ahead for us, as we had once imagined in high school. Yes, we had each been lucky enough to know passionate romance and the joy of deep love, but we had also experienced disappointment and heartbreak. We had each fallen down at different times in our years apart and had picked ourselves back up again, somehow finding strength and courage from within. In our few days together in a small seaside cottage with half bedroom walls, one toilet, no heat, no internet, no television and no car, we rediscovered the deep comfort of honest female friendship. And as the long weekend drew to a close, we began to talk about what we each wanted as we moved into the “last gift of time” in our lives beyond sixty. We parted, vowing to meet again the following summer and to begin making plans to travel back to Turkey when it is safe.
(Candice J. Dale teaches humanities at St. Paul’s School in Concord.)