In 1954, a group of local women started a book club. They still meet once a month, but their six decades of friendship has proven richer and more illuminating than the tens of thousands of pages they've read.
Eight old friends sit around a white oval table in a high-rise apartment overlooking the lake. They are women, all in their 80s and 90s. They munch on cucumber sandwiches, passing plates of cheese and sipping iced tea. Laughter rises from the table, giving way to familiar banter informed by many decades of conversation.
“You know, today’s the anniversary,” says Barbara Elsner, half-smiling and looking around the table as the room grows quiet. “Does anyone remember where they were on December 7, 1941?”
Barbara returns her gaze to her friends at the table. Most have known each other since they were young mothers in their 20s. Since then, for 60-plus years, they’ve met once a month in each other’s Milwaukee kitchens and living rooms.
For 700 Mondays, they’ve had lunch and discussed literature. They’ve read Chekhov and Tolstoy, Shakespeare and Philip Roth and Virginia Woolf. Mark Twain, Charlotte Bronte, Toni Morrison, John Updike and Isabel Allende. They’ve read Macbeth, War and Peace, Madame Bovary, Ulysses, Lonesome Dove. Sophie’s Choice, The Fire Next Time, The Feminine Mystique. Cold Mountain, The Life of Pi, A Lesson Before Dying, The Warmth of Other Suns, Behind the Beautiful Forevers. And many more.
Seven hundred Mondays, seven hundred books.
Once, they were 19 women, most living within a few blocks of each other, on Milwaukee’s East Side. Today, gathered in the apartment of Nici Teweles, there are eight: Barbara, Nat Beckwith, Penny Egan, Martie Watts, Jill Heavenrich, Betty Bostrom, Nici (pronounced Nikki), and my mother, Sally Tolan. All are widows except Barbara; all but Martie live here at the retirement home, St. John’s on the Lake. They’re here because they can afford to be (St. John’s is not cheap), and because it keeps their friendships thriving.
Of the other women, two live outside Wisconsin; one is ill today; eight are gone.
“Time is a funny thing,” Martie says. “And it goes pretty fast as you get older.”
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