By Nancy Tannler
Peering out the window on any given Tuesday morning – rain or shine – a contingent of women pull up to my neighbors’ house for coffee. These ladies have figured out a way to continue to gather, despite COVID-19, so as not to interrupt a 60-year friendship.
My neighbor, Cheryl DeFrancisco, grew up in Montavilla and attended Ascension Catholic Grade School where she first became friends with Patty Richnure and Alice Magnano.
The other “Regulars,” Sharon Hughes and Diane Lake, connected at Marycrest High School in SE Portland. They have been magnetized to one another ever since. They were dubbed the Regulars in high school because they were always together.
“We had so much fun as kids growing up here,” Alice said. “I was born to be wild and Mt. Tabor Park was my jungle.” The others concurred that they felt safe to ramble anywhere attending Catholic Youth Organization sports activities and dances, hanging out in SE Portland and in the summer waiting for the berry bus in the dark with no worries.
A common thread of these women was the support they received from their parents. “They were never too busy to be involved with our lives,” Alice said.
“As we grew older,” Sharon said, “we were there for each other’s weddings, births, funerals, dinners and other life celebrations.”
“It has also been like therapy for me, having someone to listen when I needed it the most,” Diane said.
A beautiful tribute to the group’s fidelity is the fact that those who married have remained married.
When asked if any of them had heard stories about the H1N1 Influenza of 1918, only Cheryl knew of family members who had died or were affected.
“I remember hearing the family talking about hair loss in those who contracted the disease and people dying,” she said.
Polio, however, was different. It was first discovered in the late 1800s and was quickly identified as contagious. The first epidemic hit New York in 1905 and in 1916 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt contracted the disease, which brought a lot of attention to the virus.
In the 1950s, there was a surge of polio cases, making everyone aware of the dangers of contracting this disease. It was in the mid-fifties that Jonas Salk discovered the vaccine.
There was a lot of controversy over the vaccine, much as there is today, due to adverse reactions. It was later discovered that certain manufacturers were not being careful in preparing the doses and they actually poisoned and even killed some recipients.
“I remember my mom keeping me home from school when I was in the sixth grade until I could get a polio vaccine,” Cheryl said.
It was serious, and most everyone knew people affected by polio, so there was no question about being vaccinated.
The Regulars gathered for dinners regularly until Cheryl became a full-time caregiver for her niece, Felicia De Francisco, about three years ago. It was then that they began their Tuesday morning gatherings.
While waiting for her niece’s dialysis treatment, she suggested that the friends meet at Freddie’s coffee shop to visit and catch up. It became their thing.
When COVID-19 closed all social gatherings, they decided to meet at Cheryl’s, either in her front yard or on her porch where they continue to social distance and wear their masks.
Cheryl is careful to keep the virus away from Felicia so she only goes to treatments and the doctors. In the meantime, these friends pick up the slack by doing all her shopping for her and occasionally delivering meals.
There are 350 years of accumulated wisdom gathered here so my final question to the Regulars was asking if COVID-19 had changed them personally and how about the rest of the world?
Alice: “I used to be outgoing and now feel more reserved, the world is more somber, too. This time has made me love and cherish my friends even more.”
Cheryl: “I realize how much I miss my family after being quarantined for a year. I’m sad that this has divided some people – maskers, non-maskers, vaxxers, non- vaxxers, etc. That is why I am so thankful for my dear friends that meet here on Tuesday mornings.”
Patty: “COVID-19 has changed everything, it might take years for everything to get back to a sense of normal and I’ve missed my antique business. Looking forward to going to dinner again.”
Diane: “It’s hard to understand why people can’t just be kind and get through this and wear their mask until it’s over.”
Sharon: “I’ve missed the freedom of being able to go on trips or out to eat or see a movie and I mostly miss my daughter who lives in TX. I am thankful to have the gathering of The Regulars.”
From my front window to Cheryl’s front yard, I have watched these women gather weekly and have been inspired by their commitment to hold on to their valuable relationships even when the going got tough.
I’m sure I am not the only one that will miss their presence, their voices and their laughter when “normal” returns.
Photo by Nancy Tannler