[Appearing on the front page of the Accent section of the February 27, 2014 edition of the Palm Beach Post. There is also a video HERE (be patient through the advertisement that plays first). ]
When Beth Cioffoletti’s cancer came roaring back, the girls from Bardstown, Ky., put out the word.
Betty Queen — as she was known back at St. Joseph Grade School — needed them!
“I think they think I’m dying,” Cioffoletti said.
It had been 46 years since this group of eight childhood friends had been together all at once. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, they’d spent 12 years as a clique, young girls sharing slumber parties and first dates, broken hearts and algebra homework. In their small town of 4,800, they’d all liked the same guys, sometimes even at different times.
But after graduating from high school in 1968, they’d scattered to various colleges, choosing various careers. A social worker. An artist. A lawyer. They were never all together again, yet the connection to their small town in the hills of Kentucky’s bourbon country was always palpable.
Distant, yet comforting. And so strong that, as life marched on, the girls from the Bethlehem High School Class of ’68 felt they’d never lost touch, even though they most certainly had.
One stayed connected with another, who stayed in touch with another, who stayed in touch with someone else’s mom.
“And a lot of us have sisters, and that helped,” says Felicia Ferrara, Cioffoletti’s cousin.
“Most of us didn’t even send Christmas cards,” said Cioffoletti, still known in this group by her old first name, “Betty,” and her maiden name, “Queen.”
When Cioffoletti, 63, of Palm Beach Gardens was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007, classmate Annette Walker, one of the original eight, started sending cards — sweet little notes in the mail, written in her pretty cursive that she’d learned from the nuns. Sometimes, she’d pull from a box of greeting cards she’d inherited from her mother.
“My mother was the letter writer in her group, too,” she said.
Of course, this gang already knew that.
They knew that, and so much more.
Cioffoletti’s dad was the dairy farmer in Bardstown, which made her the milkman’s daughter. Libbie Casso’s dad ran the hardware store.
Jane Hurst’s mom ran The Junior Room, where all the ladies in town got their clothes. Somebody else’s family ran the Dairy Bar, where several worked their first jobs.
And as word spread that Betty Queen’s cancer had spread, the childhood connection that was left untended for so many years suddenly felt stronger than ever.
“We didn’t want to say, ‘We wish we’d come,’” Walker said.
Valentine’s Day weekend, winter snow be damned, seven of the originals blew into town. With Betty Queen, that made eight.
“We cackled like geese,” she said.
“The energy was just so wonderful.” Indeed, there’s an intimacy — beautiful and unique — that comes from growing up like these women did, grade school through middle school through high school.
“We know our roots,” Cioffoletti said.
They know who is funny. (Casso. And Hurst has gotten funnier through the years.) And who’s the organizer. And who’s super brainy. Their friendships might be built on the memories of pigtails and four square and chugging that first beer (or shot of Maker’s Mark) in the woods, but the memories are vivid and strong and formative.
And who else could go gaga over the hot, homemade donuts served after early Mass? “They were worth getting up for,” Hurst said. Or the cherry cokes after the last bell at Bethlehem High School. (Catholic. All girls. And sophomore year they lost 12 girls to pregnancy.)
“I remember Prudence (Kramer) and I debated whether Kennedy or Nixon was the better candidate on the playground, and I think we were in the fifth grade,” said Cioffoletti, proving, once again, it is possible to argue politics without fully understanding the electoral college. So much of a woman’s girlhood is marked by “firsts.” First bra. First boyfriend.
First to pack up and leave town. Cioffoletti, whose odds aren’t great, is the first of her childhood friends to be confronted with her own mortality. Indeed, she’s considering drawing on her Social Security now because she might not live until she’s 65.
“It was wonderful,” she said about their visit. “I feel as though I can disappear into these women.”
“I think we’ve been able to process all this as a group,” Walker said.
Together again, for one sunny weekend.
Still trying to figure out life.