On The Fly: My Wolf Pack

For the past 35 years or so, I have been part of a wolf pack. Don't panic, it's just what I call my collection of close women friends.

Like many women my age, I have picked up friends from each of the way stations of my life -- school, various jobs, different places I lived, and in one case, when I went to a Jewish singles' event at a San Diego synagogue hoping to meet a man but found the most interesting person in the room to be a woman; we became lifelong friends and she's part of my wolf pack.

Through me, all my close friends have become friends with one another. They are my extended family, hence the wolf pack analogy. And it occurred to me recently that while other, newer friends have a valued presence in my life, it is this core group of women that I count on most -- despite the fact we are, for the most part, scattered across the country. It was my wolf pack that came to the rescue when my husband had a heart attack, when my daughter needed major surgery and I fell apart, when I brought my children home from China without a clue about how to take care of them. It's my wolf pack that I turn to when I need a laugh, a lift, a shoulder to cry on.

And in this season of expressing gratitude, it is only right that I thank them for being in my life. As mid-lifers know, the quality of your life is largely based on who you chose to share it with. Girlfriends, this one's for you:

So who's in my wolf pack?

There is my soul-mate Amy, an only child like me, with whom I made a "let's be sisters" pact 25 years ago. Our kids refer to the other as "Auntie" and we even fight like sisters do -- feeling awful while we are quarreling and so much better after we make up. Amy's is the first number on my speed dial, which is sort of funny since we long ago switched to texting or emailing over phoning. Amy's sons are older than my kids and have become role models for my two. I study how Amy raised them, hoping for the same outcome and not believing her when she says she just got lucky.

Along with the rest of my wolf pack, Amy and I intuitively know how to share a kitchen. Cooking together is a central activity of my wolf pack and is accompanied by some dancing music, free-flowing Girlfriend Wine and the constant chatter of shared secrets and stories interrupted by comments like "I think this needs more salt." We are in the process of trying out a new Girlfriend Wine because the Ferrari-Carano Chardonnay that has been present for the past 25 years at every hike -- brought in by a mule packer once -- at every holiday meal, celebration, birthday party and wolf pack gathering, has been disappointing our palates lately. But it almost feels like the Ferrari-Carano is an integral member of the wolf pack, so it's hard to give it the boot.

In the wolf pack, I've known Vani the longest. She and I met when I was 26 and we both worked for the same suburban New Jersey newspaper. Vani was a single mom for most of her beautiful daughter's childhood and I was blessed to have that little girl in my life; it was because of her that I knew I wanted to be a mom. Both Vani and her now-married daughter are free-spirited travelers who live life dreaming large. Vani lives down the hill from me in Los Angeles now and I love having her this close. On the Halloween that I missed because my husband was in the emergency room for 15 hours, it was Vani who showed up at my door with trick or treat bags of candy for my kids; she brought Halloween to them -- a gesture so kind that it flooded my heart with gratitude and unleashed the torrent of tears that I had kept in check all that stressful day.

Then there is Cindy, originally from Georgia who now lives in Texas and who I keep promising I will come to visit instead of the other way around all the time. We always say that Cindy, an editor, missed her calling. She has the singing voice of a rock star (great for our sing-alongs in the car on road trips) and the comedic timing of Billy Crystal -- all wrapped up in a Southern drawl ribbon. Every wolf pack needs someone responsible for comedic relief and Cindy's perspectives on life have left us rolling on the floor.

For many summers, Cindy and I made an annual pilgrimage to Greece -- including a trip that presented one of those life-defining moments. We were eating at a harbor-front taverna on Zakynthos and wound up sharing a dinner table with six German businessmen, talking to them into the wee hours of the morning. The six men rented a yacht each summer and roamed the islands painting and sculpting; it was a bonding retreat, not unlike the trips that my wolf pack takes but without the captain and crew. We were enthralled with the freedom and abandonment of responsibility that the six men described; it just sounded so idyllic. But when they offered us a lift aboard to our next destination, we said no. Sometimes I need to remind myself why. "Remember Zakynthos" has become a phrase we still toss around when we fantasize about taking chances -- or just taking off.

Then there is Barb, the journalist-turned-stock-broker who I've never seen without knitting needles in her hands. She is our practical wolf packer, the methodical and patient solution-seeker, the one who always remembers to set the GPS (before we get lost) and print out the MapQuest directions "just in case" the GPS fails. Barb always brings the moleskin on our hikes because she knows one of us will need it.

Barb has the best knack for money-management in the wolf pack, which is why when the check comes, we automatically hand it over to her for sorting out. We also like that she married Richard, the doctor, so that we can get free medical advice for all that we think ails us. Richard is a good Joe who accompanies Barb on knitting vacations -- often being the only male on the bus. Who knew there was even such a thing as "knitting tourism," right? They went to Ireland to knit sweaters last year.

Barb taught me to knit while I was hospitalized and on a morphine drip. I've kept the "scarf" that I made, using it as a personal PSA reminder that "this is your brain on drugs." And maintaining the tradition, Barb babysat my hospitalized daughter last summer and also taught her to knit in a post-surgical state. We now have matching scarves and matching reminders.

And last but not least, there is Therese, who flies airplanes and is road-testing life living aboard a sailboat. Therese is a passionate baker whose current boat home lacks a proper oven so I was the beneficiary of her recent need to bake holiday pies and cookies.

Therese may be the strongest hiker in our wolf pack, but she rarely takes the lead when we are out on a wilderness trail. It's just not her style. She brings up the rear because she is a kind person who knows that at some point, Cindy or I will fall to the ground and beg for mercy. We will tell the others to leave our exhausted bodies behind for the real wolves to feast on and just go save themselves. Well, that actually happened only once. And I still thank Therese for staying with me through those three days of painful hiking in the High Sierras.

I am the lynchpin in my wolf pack of friends who have become friends. I remind us that we have each other. For decades we took an annual girls hike, a practice that has given way to less actual hiking and more just talking about it. That's actually OK.

Like everything else in life, things change. But wolf pack bonds? Hopefully never. If you agree, please share this post with your wolf pack.

Earlier on Huff/Post50:

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