“Don’t forget, be here this Thursday afternoon for composites!” one of my sorority sisters would announce over dinner each spring. First time I heard it, I had a Hill Street Blues moment, wondering why we needed an appointment with a police sketch artist. There’d been a particularly rough night that weekend when one of the girls allegedly went missing in the alley between the Keg Room and the house. But, far as I knew, all sisters were currently present and accounted for.
In sorority lingo, composites meant composite photos, and no one could afford to be MIA for that. It was our chance to get gussied up and have our glam shot featured in the official University of New Hampshire Phi Mu lineup of ladies that year. The wall-sized composite would be framed and hung near the front entrance, making us the newest, brightest faces in a legacy of women that, at the time, seemed like it began in the dark ages. “For all posterity,” as my mother-in-law used to say when she’d sit for the camera. I didn’t think much about posterity back then. Or about needing to leave my mark on much. But I jotted a reminder in my calendar and yellow-highlighted it. Because I certainly didn’t want to be the hole in the tapestry—the weird “picture not available” girl with a name and white space instead of a face.
“Why didn’t I try harder to not look hungover or otherwise sleep deprived?” the girls and I wondered when we first saw ourselves in the finished composite. And I kicked myself for assuming that clear lip gloss and a touch of mascara was enough to make myself up for a portrait. Ah, well, good enough for black and white film, though, I thought. With our dark turtleneck sweaters and classic regal poses, we all seemed to fit right in—sisters from different mothers—captured in silver-toned sophistication for another year.
“It wasn’t that kind of sorority,” I tell people when they find out I was in one and start studying me from a new angle. How hard did she try to look like Farrah Fawcett? Did she wear mostly pink? Have PJ parties with Buffy and Mitzy? Nope, nope, and definitely not. We weren’t your typical stuck up/rich girl sorority. We were the party sorority. The one girls were comfortable calling their home after Alpha Xi Delta and Chi Omega didn’t invite them back. The one the frat guys came to looking for a fun date. We signed notes to each other LIOB for “Love In Our Bond” and sang Ramblin’ Woman, our theme song, every time more than a few of us got together and had a few too many. Still do.
And yet, surrounded by all that wild, kooky, unconditional love, I was alone. A solitary young woman bordered off from the composite whole. Oh, I had Tom, my then-fiancee, some dorm girlfriends, and family back home. But I kept myself freeze framed, under glass. On record, I was the fifth row from the top on the right-hand side of the Class of ’77. But in my heart, I wasn’t anyone’s girlfriend. Especially not my own. And I really didn’t like seeing myself smiling into the camera as if nothing was wrong.
It wasn’t so much being in front of the camera that bothered me. I was photogenic, so I was told, a poster girl for good orthodontia and clear skin. My mother used to call me her Ivory Soap Girl after the naturally pure-looking faces that sold soap back in her day. “Show me that smile,” she crooned each time I posed for a snapshot. For holidays, for prom, for first dates, for graduation. And then she was gone. The summer between high school and college, just weeks before I was heading off to UNH, she died so suddenly I went from “spreading my wings” to never wanting to lift myself off the ground. For years, I couldn’t put a picture of her out on display or look at a “happy” one of me for very long, couldn’t bear to see myself grinning into a camera without her in the picture. Her smile reminded me of my smile, the one she easily prompted in my pre-liftoff days when we’d sit around and chat about decorating my dorm room, about Tom, and all that girl-talk stuff I’d never be able to take for granted again.
I wouldn’t realize for decades that it was normal to want to isolate myself from other women, to feel awkward about sharing recipes, clothes, or hair styles. It was just me, I thought, arrested in development. I didn’t want to be motherless at barely 18. Didn’t want to admit it, discuss it, to be that much different from the other girls figuring out womanhood. So I faked it. I joined Phi Mu in my junior year and, although I deemed myself “not good girlfriend material,” they didn’t seem to notice. Immersing me, whether I accepted it or not, in the feminine energy of my new tribe, they kept me from shutting down, kept me partying and singing and playing along, until I was ready to open myself up again.
“Woah, would ya just look at how young and hot we were?” That was the general consensus when, forty-some years later, one of the sisters unearthed her copy of our composite and brought it to our summer reunion at Robin’s cabin. “Why didn’t I appreciate being that skinny while I was that skinny?” one of us asked as we all craned our chicken necks, adjusted our bifocals as needed, and peered at our respective pictures. Yup…or appreciate my smooth, symmetrical face, my naturally white teeth, my good hair day, and my miraculous contact lenses, I wondered as I honed in on my 20-year-old self. Because even though, relatively speaking, I stayed young and slim and evenly proportioned for a long time, I could not tarry in that moment, could not just be that Joy back then. I wanted to hurry up and graduate, marry my sweetheart, and get on with life. Meanwhile, I’d bury my grief, conquer my insecurities, trying to be even thinner, smarter, all-around better.
“Oh, how I regret not having worn a bikini for the entire year I was twenty-six,” I told the girls later that afternoon, reciting my favorite Nora Ephron quote. “If anyone young is reading this, go, right this minute, put on a bikini, and don’t take it off until you’re thirty-four!” We’d stashed the composite and were splashing around in the lake—admiring how each other’s bathing attire covered without overly constricting our Nana-bods. We all laughed and reminisced about our skimpy two-piece suit days, pleased that each of us, along with our drink holder-sized margarita sippy cups, fit so well in our floating rafts without spilling over.
We laughed even louder when the whole bevy of us donned goofy tropical sunglasses for our official Phi Mu girls of summer group photo shoot. “It only took us 40 years, but we finally put some color into our composite!” I said, with a grin almost as bright as my heart-shaped flamingo shades. Forever “the writing major,” I dubbed us the “PHI a-MU-sing Besties” and offered to create a Facebook group. A special private one, we agreed, so we could tag posts of ourselves letting it all hang out without other friends and family members creeping on us. That way, even in the middle of winter, we could log on and relive all our fun and games. Except for the Cards Against Humanity game we played on Saturday night. Any mention of that, and all the definitions we had to learn from the Urban Dictionary, would stay officially off the record!
“Ya know, we really shouldn’t be so shy about strutting our stuff,” Deb said from behind her toucan glasses. “For a bunch of sixty-somethings, we’ve got it goin’ on!” Yes, time had been good to us, mentally and physically. We were healthy, active, engaged in our communities. We felt good about our jobs as mothers, as wives, as nurses, educators, scientists, program directors, as caregivers to parents passed and those still in need. We’d weathered life’s storms relatively unscathed. And, by gosh, we all had really nice hair and only a few well-earned wrinkles. “We’re having even more fun now than we did in college,” Linda declared, her bright blue eyes shaded by ice cream cone lenses. “But other than that, we haven’t changed.”
Yes and no, I thought. In the mirror, if I stood back far enough, I could still see vestiges of the fifth row from the top girl on the right-hand side of the Class of ’77 composite. But I had changed. On the inside, in my mind and in my heart. After years of convincing myself that Christmas cards and social media was enough—of asking why the heck I needed to drive all the way to Robin’s lake when I lived on my own—I was there. Really there. So much so, I wouldn’t need a picture to remind me. But when I saw one, all the colors and sensations of the moment would come bursting back to life. With me in it. Surrounded by beautiful, funny, talented, like-minded soul sisters, I’d recognize myself—not merely captured while wanting to be someone or somewhere else. Candidly caught in the act of living.
I call it there-ness. Being mindful in real time so photos don’t leave me vaguely bewildered, trying to recall being part of something that, apparently, I posed for. Being open so I don’t miss out on possibilities just outside my comfort zone. Showing up so I can be shown love and acceptance. After two Phi Mu reunions in a row, I knew I was finally getting the hang of the whole there-ness thing, of being one of the girls. I’d slowed down long enough, come to just the right place, to find my old college chums waiting, ready for me to catch up. When I did, I started becoming better girlfriend material all over the place. With my grown daughters, my “sistins” (sister+cousins), my sister-in-law (and love), and my almost long-lost biological sister. With the awesome Rangeley women who welcomed me to my forever home. And, especially, with my mother, my original best friend. She’s always in the periphery now, casting light.
Our next Phi Mu summer reunion would be even better, we decided as we left Robin’s. Maybe at Kate’s new house, or Donna’s. Until then, we’d meet up at Lynn’s, go see a show, go out to dinner. We wouldn’t wait for months on end to keep “the summer fun” alive.
But that was last summer’s fun. Before COVID-19 made it not such a good idea to cram into someone’s cabin to share every available inch of sleeping and eating space with women from five or six different states. Suddenly, connecting online seemed like a lackluster substitute for real face time. Until the Ramblin’ Women zoomed into cyberspace!
“Well hello ladies! Looks like we got our composite back, and it’s the Phi Mu version of Hollywood Squares!” I said, doing my best Paul Lynde impression. We were on our first of many Zoom chats, and I was thrilled to see how a shared giggle could simultaneously highlight so many side-by-side screen profiles. Fifteen of us had logged on, and were queued up beaming into our devices from living rooms as far away as Alaska and Australia. “Hiiiiii!” we’d holler, or “There she is!”—shouting out each other’s names like a bunch of laughing gulls flocking up after a long winter. For the next hour or so—one by one or all at once—we gave our coping with Corona reports. So far, we were all well and accounted for, taking it day by day, joking when we wanted to scream. Crying when we couldn’t help ourselves. I peered round and round the chat room at each lovely face, mine included, until the edges of my laptop screen disappeared and we were all back at Robin’s, socially not distancing in our usual style.
“Wow…so many friends in one Zoom meeting! How did you deal with the constant interruptions, or figure out who should be talking when?” I got asked recently. Easy, I said. Like we always did, with a lot of yelling over each other. You can’t live in close quarters with a big bunch of boisterous women and not know how to jockey for air time. And what about Zoom fatigue? Don’t I get exhausted having to work so hard interpreting nonverbal cues and mirroring facial expressions through my video monitor rather than in person?
Not yet, thank goodness. Matter of fact, my “composite” chats make me feel the exact opposite. They energize me. With girl power and gratitude and hope and new perspective. And each time I sign off, blowing virtual kisses into my web cam as the online visits end, I feel like I’m in the last scene of Love Actually. While the Beach Boys sing “God only knows what I’d be without you,” the lens pans out. From each face, each pair of friends reuniting, zooming out to infinity, until I see how perfectly I fit in the mosaic of all things worth holding onto for a lifetime. Love, actually, is all around me. And it’s held together with lots of girlfriend material—soft, stretchy, super comfy, really good girlfriend material.
For more Corona bright spots, see: