When you’ve known each other nearly 80 years, you can’t be expected to recall every detail.
But who can forget Arlene Dunaetz’s curls back in Boyle Heights, in third grade?
“Each one was pulled tight like a corkscrew,” says Helen Bialeck.
“I envied those curls,” says Joyce Sindel.
“They were dark and she had so many of them,” pipes in Charlotte Gussin-Root.
Dunaetz smiles and stresses all the combing involved.
They’re half a dozen old friends. They meet once a month to reminisce and catch up. This time, they are eating Italian, for Jackie Waterman’s birthday.
But an hour after they arrive at Maggiano’s in Woodland Hills, they still haven’t gotten around to ordering, even though the waitress keeps circling.
They talk about books, politics and grandchildren. They pull heart-shaped chocolates and boxes of candies out of their purses to give one another for Valentine’s Day.
Armony Share has been to the movies. “Have you seen `Fantastic Woman’?” she asks. Dunaetz is talking about her first job, when she cleaned a woman’s store on Saturdays. “She paid me $4. Then one morning, I told her I needed $5 or I wasn’t coming back.”
Sometimes two or three conversations are going on at once. And sometimes they don’t all see eye to eye.
“We fight all the time,” Waterman says, staring directly at Dunaetz. “But we fight like sisters, right?”
“That’s right,” Dunaetz says.
They can’t remember when the lunch tradition started.
“Maybe 10 years ago,” says Sindel.
“I think it’s more like 14,” says Share.
“Wasn’t it sometime in the 1980s?” asks Bialeck.
Honestly, no one’s much good with dates. In all that time since elementary school, most years tend to blur.
One they know: 1932. That’s when each of the ladies was born. This year, one by one, they’re all turning 86. Waterman leads the way.
They grew up during World War II, when Boyle Heights was mostly Jewish, Jack Benny ruled the radio and the smell of sweet waffle cones wafted through the air from Curries Ice Cream down Brooklyn Avenue.
Sindel lived on one side of Folsom Street, Share on the other. Dunaetz was a couple of houses down. Gussin-Root was around the corner, Bialeck and Waterman a few blocks away.
When they found each other at Sheridan Street Elementary — some in first grade, some in third — they all had different last names, of course.
A few went on to finish college. They all got married and had kids.
Through it all, they managed to stay in one another’s lives. It helped that they all ended up in the Valley.
Waterman remembers sleeping over at Share’s house and helping her get dressed for her first formal dance. When Share went off to France to follow her husband, who was in the Army, she wrote long letters to Sindel.
And when Sindel’s husband, Norby, died suddenly when she was just 31, leaving her with three babies — then 10 months, 2 and 3 — Share’s husband, Jack, came over to finish what Norby had not been able to: a two-story playhouse for the kids in the backyard.
“We know each other. We know our histories,” Sindel says. “With these girls, there’s never any pretense.”
For years, some of the group gathered for big holidays: Fourth of July, New Year’s Eve. They went to the Rose Parade together. They took trips, to San Diego and San Francisco.
Once in San Francisco during the 1970s, back when plane tickets cost $13 each way, the group lost one another in the big city.
Hours later, they all randomly walked into the same restaurant for dinner.
“Can you imagine?” Gussin-Root said. “That’s still a mystery to me.”
Today, only Bialeck’s husband is still alive. She and Sol were high school sweethearts. They’ll celebrate 65 years this summer.
With snow-white hair and thick-rimmed glasses, Bialeck likes to come to lunch to talk constitutional law.
She wanted to be a lawyer, but her father could support only one child through college and it had to be her brother, she says.
So she married, took care of her husband, then her in-laws, then two kids. She worked for years as a secretary at Los Angeles Valley College.
She got her bachelor’s degree — finally — at age 60.
“It took me tons of years,” Bialeck says. “But I did it.”
At lunch, she pulls out a newspaper clipping to show the girls.
It was an Ann Landers advice column, turned a warm yellow from age.
“How do you keep a friendship for so long? I think this explains it nicely, “ Bialeck says.
Then she reads a bit aloud to the table.
The Ten Commandments of How to Get Along With People.
1. Keep skid chains on your tongue; always say less than you think.
2. Make promises sparingly, and keep them faithfully, no matter what it costs.
3. Never let an opportunity pass to say a kind and encouraging word.
The ladies nod in approval.
“I think you’re all just nice people,” Sindel says. “That’s why we get along.”
They’re eating now, pasta and salad, and they skip back and forth from past to present. The waitress brings out a plate of lemon cookies topped with a tall, pink candle and they all sing happy birthday to Waterman before they get back to chatting.
“Do you remember being in senior ensemble?” Gussin-Root asks.
”I never was,” says Share.
“Were any of you ever allowed to go to that bowling alley on Brooklyn?” asks Sindel.
No one recalls.
“I wasn’t,” she continues. “But I went anyway, just to see what was there.”
Their earliest memories of one another are fragmented, tiny traces from another time:
Gussin-Root used to ride down Fickett Street on her bike. Share ate radishes and spicy food. Sindel had a lot of siblings. Bialeck was so skinny. And Dunaetz, well, she had those curls.
“My granddaughter says she’s not going to have children until she’s 30,” Dunaetz says with a deep sigh.
“Yeah,” says Gussin-Root. “That’s what they like to do nowadays. They make you wait.”
Gussin-Root folk-dances. Waterman takes a balance class. Bialeck likes to box.
“It’s great cardio,” she tells her friends. “Everything is moving.”
Sindel has perfectly coiffed blond hair. Her voice is both raspy and sweet.
A few years ago, she took up acting.
She got herself an agent, a website, business cards. She’s appeared in plays, commercials, a show similar to “Judge Judy.” She played an auntie in a reenactment for a documentary series called “Sex Sent me to the ER.”
When she saw a posting looking for an older woman with a group of longtime friends, she didn’t have to think twice.
The ladies could hardly believe it when they showed up on film day to a fancy hotel near downtown, where more than 100 crew members were on hand and they were given costumes to wear.
The ad they were in was on TV during the Golden Globes. For a second, you could see them, wearing pastels, gathered around an elegant table set for tea.
That the commercial was for Facebook didn’t particularly excite them. Socializing online isn’t exactly their style.
“Why not just call someone by phone?” Dunaetz asks.