I was reminded of the Wrinklies, of my friends, of the ways in which they carry me, when I read A Train in Winter by Caroline Morehead, a remarkable book that tells the story of women French resistance fighters who were sent to Auschwitz and who survived by doing what women do: supporting, finding a way to love and nurture in situations marked by the absence of love, tenderness, sense, sanity, or even humanity. In a concentration camp they managed to make Christmas gifts out of string and sticks; they put on plays in their barracks; they supported the weaker women, often hiding them for roll call. They were “a team.”
Not a gaggle of bitches then, but women who survived against literally unthinkable odds, in a place where all the rules about how to be a human were disregarded, turned on their heads. When it was all over, the few that had lived returned home, but the connections they had with others weren’t as fierce, weren’t as strong. The ache of missing was intense: “Even when they were not able to meet, the survivors continued to feel bound to each other in ways that did not weaken with time. There remained a familiarity between them, a sense of openness and ease that they shared with no one else.” The book brought to mind movies that celebrate female friendship: Beaches, when a woman sits with her friend until she dies; Iris, when the novelist Iris Murdoch has been transformed by Alzheimer’s, her friends love her through it; Julia, when a distraught Jane Fonda tries to locate the child of her friend who was murdered during WW2. She wants to care for the child but she also wants part of the woman she loved. These are often called “chick flicks,” as if they had no truth or wisdom to offer to anyone but the silly, fickle women who shell out money to see them or rent them on Netflix.
Support, salvation, transformation, life: this is what women give to one another when they are true friends, soul friends, what the Irish call anam cara. It’s what the Wrinklies did for one another, what the French resistance fighters in Auschwitz did for one another, what women do for one another in real relationships with real consequences in real time, every day, what my friends do for me. We help one another other live and sometimes, we watch – and help – one another die. It happens in movies, sure, but it also happens every day, in real life – now, tomorrow, yesterday. It is transformative and transcendent. It is real. It is love.
I’ve also been blessed with a handful of truly deep and transformative relationships with women — friendships that have carried on for the majority of my life; friendships that have evolved into family; friendships that have kept me afloat when sinking felt inevitable. And it’s a shame that the value of female friendship isn’t recognized beyond films that are assumed to be silly.