There’s a rare and beautiful purple hollyhock, named Baker’s globe mallow, found in the forests of California and Oregon. What’s unusual about this plant is that it only appears after a forest fire. Its seed requires intense heat to germinate. Interestingly, this blossom has been found in places where a fire hadn’t previously occurred for 100 years, showing the seeds can remain dormant for long periods until triggered by a blaze.
There’s a rare and ugly vein in my forehead named The Devil Vein. What’s unusual about this vein is that it only appears during a Wild Women’s Weekend. That’s when I’m with my roomies. And when I’m with my roomies, I laugh. I laugh so frequently and so loudly that a usually dormant vein becomes visible, bisecting my brow and splitting both right and left as it nears my hairline, forming a perfect pitchfork.
See what I’m getting at? My roomies are my forest fire.
Four of the five of us met during orientation, Pasquerilla East, 1989. Actually, freshman year, only two of us were roomies: Beth Strom (now Beth Louder) and Carmen Lund (now Carmen Nanni). I lived next door. Denise Chabot (now Denise Karkos) lived one flight up. We wouldn’t meet our fifth, Laura Heimann (now Laura Hajdukiewicz) for a bit; she lived in Pasquerilla West and we had to pull her in. And in fact, during our four years, there were periods when we roomies didn’t room together — I went to the ND London program, for example, and we had different apartments off-campus senior year. But looking back now, our fellowship seems as fated as Frodo’s gathering of the Ring. Even when we were on different journeys, even when we were living with other fabulous ND women, we were becoming: the roomies.
Every fifth year we meet at Notre Dame for our class of ’93 reunion — that Wild Women’s Weekend is always a given, blocked off months in advance. Other years, WWWs are centered on events. Our early post-ND years were rich with weddings: Laura’s and later Beth’s in Massachusetts; Carmen’s in South Bend; mine in Chicago; and Denise’s in a castle in Ireland. Or the weddings of our close guy friends, honorary roomies: Lloyd Adams in New Jersey, Danny Milton in Indianapolis. In subsequent years we converged on each other’s homes. (Oh my pride, when the roomies came here to Oxford, Mississippi, and closed the bar. The mythical and beautiful roomies. I felt like I’d unleashed a quartet of unicorns.) Sometimes we choose an ND football game. Mostly we just pick a city on the East Coast. Beth, Denise and Laura drive there, and Carm and I fly, and we split our two plane tickets five ways. We’ve done Boston three times and NYC twice in this manner, as well as weekends in Newport, Rhode Island; Frye Island, Maine; the Jersey Shore; and Martha’s Vineyard.
Outtake from the highlight reel.
South Bend, our 15th reunion. It’s late, after the banquet, and we’re driving back to our hotel. We’ve just learned that Club 23, which had been tied with The Commons for our favorite bar, is scheduled for demolition. A dark-paneled, ’70s ranch with carpet — carpet, in a bar — the Club was a true dive, but we loved the owner, Mo Hussein, and collected lots of great memories there.
Once, carrying two full pitchers down the stairs into the basement rec room, I lost my footing and bounce-skidded to the bottom on my bum. I landed with a bump, and the tables of drinkers looked down where I sprawled, still holding the pitchers. I braced myself for heckling. Instead I received an ovation. I’d fallen down the stairs, sure, but I hadn’t spilled a drop of beer. “The Stairmaster”: my nickname for a few weeks.
Years later, writing a novel set during Prohibition, I’d name the speakeasy Club 23 and place a character named Mo behind the bar.
But now the Club is to be demolished. Demoed. De-Mo-ed.
“Let’s drive by,” suggests Beth. “For old times’ sake.”
So we do, mournfully, we creep past the bar, noting the blocked-off parking lot and the “Closed” sign barring the entrance.
But from the side window, a light shines.
Without pausing to consult, Denise whips the car behind the Club. “We have got to check this out,” she orders.
At the stoop, we hear music, so Denise pounds on the door. Immediately, the music stops. For a long, tense moment we wait. Finally, the lock clanks, the chain rattles. The door opens an inch and two dark eyes peek out.
It’s been 15 years, but people tend to remember the roomies. Especially the loud ones. “Hey,” calls Mo brightly. “It’s Beth and Denise!”
Next thing you know, we five are hustled inside, and the door is locked again. Before us, a handful of locals gather around a guitarist. We’ve just magically stumbled upon Mo’s secret goodbye party for his beloved bar. He mixes us some free drinks and we join the party, which, it turns out, is a sing-along. As we pull up chairs, the guitarist starts in with Pearl Jam’s “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town.” It’s one of those times when lyrics seem to harmonize with reality, mirroring it, deepening it; “Lifetimes are catching up with me,” we sing, “All these changes taking place.” We are belting out the words, swaying with these strangers/new best friends. “My God, it’s been so long, never dreamed you’d return. But now here you are, and here I am.”
Bon Jovi we croon, and Aerosmith, and Radiohead, and Led Zeppelin (the guitarist’s oeuvre rather limited, I’m afraid, to ’70s to ’90s testosterone rock, but we know all the lyrics despite ourselves).
Later, much later, when we leave, we stand for a moment in the deserted parking lot, quiet, companionable, perhaps a touch melancholy. Laura points out that you can see the Dome between the buildings. I’ve never noticed this before.
Still gazing at Mary, she says, “Look, there’s some kind of new spotlight.”
And indeed there is, a pink spotlight glows on the east side of the Golden Dome.
“Oh my God,” says Denise, breaking our reverie. “That’s not a spotlight. That’s the sunrise.”
I go to bed at 10 p.m. these days; I didn’t even know I could stay up all night any more. But somehow, with the roomies, it’s possible. Anything’s possible, including, before the wrecking ball swings through the hallowed walls of Club 23, singing ourselves into sunrise.
I’m a writer now, and I teach creative writing at a university. My husband’s a writer. Most of our friends are writers. I didn’t mean for this to happen; I think it’s healthy to keep one’s circles large, to keep one’s thoughts nimble by exposure to various people and ideas. Nevertheless, my colleagues are great, and Tommy and I go to a lot of readings and conferences with other writers, so over the years, my social circle has narrowed.
Which is yet one more reason I value the roomies. All are so different from each other and from me. They enlarge me.
Can I brag on them? You saw us meeting in the halls of PE in ’89. Let me present them in 2017.
Laura teaches high school biology at a prestigious prep school in Massachusetts. She and her husband, Andy ’92, used to flip houses in their spare time, doing the work themselves, but recently they moved on campus with their three kids. At ND she wanted to become a vet before discovering her vocation, making science come alive for teens. She still loves creatures, especially aquatic ones, and every year she leads a team of student scuba divers to explore the ocean depths.
Beth is the director of social work for the largest prison in Massachusetts, an hour from her home where she lives with her husband and three hockey-warrior daughters. Picture her, a bossy 5-foot-1 redhead, keeping all those medium-security men in line. A favorite story: when an inmate needs counseling, he fills out a card. He can request a counselor who specializes in, say, anger management or addiction recovery. Once, a card was forwarded on that became the delight of Beth’s colleagues. “My only request for a counselor?” wrote the inmate. “Not the redhead. Please, I’ll take anyone but the redhead.”
Denise, former captain of the ND soccer team, is the chief marketing officer of a huge financial outfit, a Fortune 500 company. Her life seems both incredibly foreign and incredibly glamorous. I might email her from my small town in Mississippi, where I’m the mother of three. She might email back from Argentina, where she’s checking on the production of one of her commercials, or Scotland, where she’s golfing with her husband, or a college in the U.S. where she’s giving a motivational speech to student athletes. Last week we struggled onto barstools at the Morris Inn, after walking 17.9 miles as part of the Notre Dame Trail (more on that later), and I made her show me the photos on her phone she’s too modest to post on social media. Like the one where Matt Damon has slung his arms around her shoulders. She lives weekdays in an apartment in the West Village, and weekends in a house on the coast of Maine.
Carmen has perhaps the hardest job of all: stay-at-home mother of five. She also has another job that doesn’t have a title, but should. As the wife of Lou Nanni ’84, ’88M.A., vice president of University Relations, she is deeply involved in shaping campus life. When Carm and I were hiking, she told me the Notre Dame Trail had kind of snuck up on her because just a few days earlier she and Lou had moved their son Louie into his ND dorm to start his first year. “Also, we hosted a brunch during orientation for some new students and parents,” she added. “How many people?” I asked, thinking it would be challenging to host 10 or 12 while packing and moving a son into his dorm. “Oh, 250,” she answered. She didn’t seem to think that was anything remarkable. That’s Carm for you. Remarkable.
All of them, remarkable. Thus, I continue my remarks.
We’re kind of deliciously mean to each other. “Ripping on each other”: the phrase indicates a good bit of our humor is based on hard teasing. Let me confess it: Devil Vein refers not only to the throbbing pitchfork but to the fact that the roomies bring out the devil in me.
Sometimes, when our Wild Women’s Weekend looms, one of us feels she shouldn’t go, conflicts with work, or more likely family — after all, we’ve five husbands and 14 children under our dominion. And then the ripping begins, the heckling designed to make the hesitant roomie cave and agree to come.
- Passing Through
- Time Travel
- Outtakes from the Highlight Reel
- A Series of Fortunate Events
- Involuntary Prayer
- The Power of Paying Attention
- And the Last Shall Be Best
Beth and Laura couldn’t come to the Notre Dame Trail. Both had solid reasons, but no matter, we heckled anyway. The Trail, if you don’t know, though if you are reading this magazine you probably do, was a massive and brilliant undertaking designed to celebrate the 175th anniversary of our great University. Briefly (to learn more, go to trail.nd.edu), in 1841, Father Sorin sailed from France to America with six Holy Cross religious. After 35 days at sea, they landed in New York, then took a paddleboat up the Hudson to Albany, then took a flatboat to Buffalo, then took a steamer to Toledo. Where they learned that the Miami Canal wasn’t yet finished. They could boat a little bit closer, but then, well, they’d have to get out and hoof it. So they did. And 67 days after leaving France, they settled in Vincennes, Indiana. From there Sorin and seven brothers later walked more than 250 miles to the parcel of forest, 524 acres, that Bishop Hailandière had offered them, Notre Dame du Lac.
To commemorate this epic journey, a team of ND visionaries (I don’t use the term lightly — this was one of the most inspirational and best-run events I’ve ever been a part of) invited “pilgrims” to retrace Sorin’s footsteps. The core pilgrims walked 300 miles over 12 days. (I bow down.) A second group joined them later, completing the last five days. Denise, Carm and I joined the “three-day pilgrims.” The very last day was open to all, a short three-miler, from South Bend to the campus. More of a parade than a walk, we were escorted by the marching band and cheering students past the cemetery where Sorin is buried, past the Grotto, past the Log Chapel, ending at Bond Quad where Father John I. Jenkins, CSC, ’76, ’78M.A. said Mass, followed by a campus-wide picnic.
But like I said, Laura and Beth couldn’t join us. And like I said, we three pilgrims weren’t about to let them escape without suffering.
Denise’s Facebook photos of the weekend include the beautiful state parks we hiked through, the arching green tunnels of trees and the farms and the rest stops where pilgrims refueled on Gatorade and nectarines. One photo shows the three of us at a bucolic dairy farm. In the background, over Carmen’s shoulder, black-and-white Holsteins poke their heads from the barn. Denise’s caption: “Look closely and you’ll see our other roommates.”
I was a bit nervous about completing the back-to-back walks of 17-plus miles. That first chilly blue-black predawn (departure time organized so we’d log our miles before the August sun was at its zenith), we were bused from the hotel to the Trail. We joined the other pilgrims in the prayer, then the swaying rendition of “Notre Dame Our Mother,” then the huddle, which broke with a “Go, Irish!” En masse, we set off, the same adrenaline rocketing through my veins as before a 10K race. But adrenaline would only get me so far; this wouldn’t be over in 55 minutes. More like five hours.
“Tell us,” said Denise, “what are your kids up to?” thus beginning the catch-up that always takes place during Wild Women’s Weekends. And we talked the miles away, our feet, our stories unscrolling, finding their rhythms. We’re 46 now; we met when we were 18. Our conversation speeds to the deep places because we can pick up in medias res; we need no backstory. It’s not just that we know each roomie’s husband; we know the boyfriends before the husband. It’s not just that we know each other’s parents, siblings, children; we know each other’s parents’ siblings, and siblings’ children.
It’s not merely that I know these women. It’s that, by them, I’m known. Known deeply, thoughtfully, compassionately. As Simone Weil writes, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”
Though it’s fair to add that our friendship puts a lot of pressure on itself. When I look back at WWWs, I recall various tensions. Lots of tears — often from me, I’m a crier — our weekends so long anticipated, so fraught and emotional. Friendships have their rhythms. It’s natural that a 28-year friendship among five women would have its dips, its arguments, its rivalries. We’ve hurt and disappointed each other. We’ve taken the great gift that is our friendship for granted. We haven’t lived up to the best versions of ourselves.
But mostly what I think of is how much we’ve been through.
One of us got in a near-fatal car accident, so close to fatal she entered a coma and received last rites. One of us suffered a miscarriage. One of us almost died in childbirth. One of us had a fetus that had to be operated on in utero, a miracle operation so new and risky at the time that it was documented in medical journals. One of us left Catholicism. One of us had an estranged parent die from alcoholism. One of us had a beloved parent die from cancer. One of us had a sibling with addiction issues. One of us had a sibling get divorced. One of us had a sibling die. One of us had a child who suffered from a mental health condition. One of us drank too much and had to get sober.
During these times, we were with each other, knowing and known.
Outtake from the highlight reel: Denise’s 40th birthday party at the super-trendy NYC gastro-pub, The Spotted Pig. The roomies arrived, checked into the hotel, started getting ready, preparations a bit more complicated for Carmen and me, both of us with babies at home. Happy memories of the party? Yes. But strangely, the happiest: sitting next to Carm on the hotel bed, laughing and catching up after 12 months apart, both of us bare-chested and strapped to wheezing suctioning tubes, pumping breast milk so we could go dance at Denise’s party.
We talk a lot about “the Notre Dame family,” but I’m a believer. While at ND, I was the only roomie with parents less than a three-hour drive away; Carmen is from Brazil and the other three from the East Coast. That’s why, for short breaks, the roomies would decamp to my house. Ah the elaborate Easter-egg hunts my parents would plan, noting good hiding spots weeks in advance.
So while the first branch of our ND family tree is the bond between roommates, soon the “roomies to parents” branch was established.
But the tree branches out from there. Jump ahead to 2009, when I’m awarded a Fulbright to Brazil, a semester to study the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop. While there, my husband and children and I visit Carmen’s parents (Sue and Chris Lund ’61, in São Paulo). So another limb of the tree grows strong, roomie to parent without the child-roomie there.
And the tree branches further. When Carmen’s singer-songwriter daughter, the lovely Isabela Nanni, performed at the open-air music festival, Ravinia, in Illinois, my mom drove the 30 minutes to hear her. Now we have the mom of a roomie going to see the child of a roomie, the middle-generation missing altogether.
Already my arms are greedy to hold the grandbabies of my roomies.
When I’m on book tour, if I can schedule a gig within driving distance, they come. And oh, an auditorium with a roomie is an entirely sunnier place.
I look up from the page I’m reading, and sometimes I see, blossoming through, the teenage girls who would sit cross-legged on the floor of our dorm room, listening to the poem I was about to turn in for John Matthias’ poetry writing workshop, the poem I’d be so nervous about.
If I tell you they are as beautiful to me now as they were then, you will say sentimentality clouds my vision. But it’s worse than that, actually. They’re more beautiful. Intimacy is beautiful, and what’s more intimate that being privy to a body’s gentle ripenings? The crow’s feet. The laugh lines, come by honestly. Age spots, reading glasses. Scars. Caesarean, hysterectomy. The saggy bits. The one whose right hip aches because for years she carried a child there. The one whose back aches because she was almost killed in a car accident. Proof of life. Proof of our lucky lives.
One of us lost a sibling. I said that already.
I didn’t say: It was me. I lost a sibling. My only. My sister. My Julie. She died without warning; she died of pneumonia, nine years ago. Something happened to my brain when she died. I mean that, at some neurological level, my thinking malfunctioned, sped or slowed, whiteout or blackout, some unnamed, unnamable shock. Those days are mostly lost to me, though sometimes an image ruptures through so violently I live again in the dark hours of her death.
But what I really want to tell you is this: they came. The roomies came. They were with me at the funeral and they were with me after. I turned to them like a medicine chest. Like a drowning woman reaches for a life raft.
One of the things they brought to me was laughter, which might sound strange, but everything was strange, I was a stranger to myself. Like I said, I can’t explain my interior state and don’t remember transitions, but I do remember at one point we were at my mom’s house and the roomies started ripping on Carmen’s handbag. Probably Carm packed in a rush and God knows she had other things (me) on her mind, but she’d paired her tasteful black funeral dress with a tasteless multihued handbag, huge, out of season, with overlapping disks of leather, blue, green, yellow and pink. I think the roomies roasted that handbag for a solid 10 minutes. I remember Denise at one point threading her arm through it and mock-strutting the catwalk: “Nothing says I’m grieving like a dead armadillo dangling from your shoulder.” Laughter, laughter, tears streaming from my helpless, hopeless eyes.
Outtake from the highlight reel: my husband experiencing the greatness of the roomies.
Tommy grew up in the woods of blue-collar Alabama, in a family of hunters. He was thought strange, my husband, because he wanted to be a writer, not a mechanic like his father or an industrial worker like his uncles. The first in his family to earn a college degree, he worked days at a chemical waste factory and at a hospital morgue, and he took literature classes at night. Earning his B.A. cost him seven years and a healthy back. I’m as proud of his degree from that small local college as I am of my ND diploma.
Tommy found it hard to believe my roomies would feel the same way, however, and was intimidated when we gathered in a large group. “They love you,” I assured him, or tried to. He just sighed and shook his head.
Tommy grew up a baseball fan but, because his family didn’t travel, he’d hardly ever been to a real game in a real stadium. After Wrigley Field, he most wished to see Fenway. It was Laura I think who came up with the idea to surprise him with Red Sox tickets. So we all met up in Boston with our husbands, and some of our guy friends, too — Lloyd and Danny and Mo Elevado — for a night on the town. When we clambered aboard the T, talking and laughing, Tommy only knew we were going to a bar. He glanced at the map of the train stops. “Wow,” he whispered, “This T goes to Fenway!” He was excited even to sit on a train that passed the long-dreamed of stadium. “Yes,” I told him, “we’re going to an Irish pub right near there.”
“Huh,” he said. “How cool that we’ll be nearby.”
Some revelers boarded the T, clearly Fenway-bound in their Red Sox jerseys. Tommy gazed at them wistfully. At the next stop, a few more red-clad fans squeezed on, the next stop, a few more, waving foam fingers. I could tell Tommy was getting a little blue. “What is it, hon?” I asked.
“It’s just — to be so close, you know? So close, and on game night. I’m kind of . . . aching a little.”
I nodded and squeezed his arm, struggling to swallow the secret.
When our train reached Fenway, we departed, Tommy casting a longing glance at the stadium as we walked into the pub. Where my roomies presented him with game tickets.
Unbelieving at first, and then joyful, so boyishly, unabashedly joyful: “We’re going to the game?” He looked around at the conspiring smiles. “You did this — you planned this — for me?”
Well, I already told you I’m a crier. You can picture what I was doing right about then.
Of course, this is a roomie story, so there’s an addendum that pushes it from pathos to comedy. An old-school Irishman was tending bar, observing these shenanigans. Later when Tommy was buying a round, the bartender asked Tommy his story. Although the bartender had to be jaded and tired of tourists, he laid a hand on Tommy’s shoulder, clearly moved. “That’s brilliant,” he said in his brogue, and set out two big shot glasses. “Me and you, we’re gonna drink a whiskey.” He filled the glasses to the brim, then hoisted one in the air. “To friendship,” he said.
Tommy doesn’t drink whiskey. And he certainly can’t quaff a glass of it. But what choice did he have? Flush with affection — the roomies like him! The bartender likes him! — he lifted his glass and threw it back. One-Mississippi, two-Mississippi, the whiskey stayed in his gut, where it belonged. Then he leaned over the shot glass and neatly puked the whiskey back in, filling the glass exactly to the brim.
The bartender gazed at him sadly. “Aye, mate,” he said, removing the glass to the sink. “Ye needn’t go ruining a good whiskey.”
How many miles, I wonder, have Denise and I clocked, running side by side? While students, we’d run the lakes, we’d run them for exercise or fresh air or to relieve tension after she lost a soccer game or my poem was badly received in workshop. In 1998, we ran the Chicago Marathon together (well, technically, I ran it about an hour behind her, but still). Every WWW, too, we run, and if we can get to ND for any reason, we run the lakes, and I feel grateful for these marvelous machines of our bodies, grateful that the joy, the simple and profound joy, of moving a body through space is still accessible to us, may it always be so.
At one point on the Trail, it occurs to me that, with good choices and good luck, we’ll be around for the 200th anniversary of ND. Will there be another ND Trail? Could we hike the entire 300 miles next time, like the 80-year-old Holy Cross brother who gave the blessing at the celebratory supper? We’ll be 71, a daunting thought, but not an entirely unpleasant one. Growing old with the company of my wild women: it sure beats the alternative.
Classes of ’68, ’73, ’78, ’83, ’88, ’93, ’98, ’03, ’08, ’13: are you going to our reunion in June? Look for me. First, find the circle of five laughing women. Then find the woman with the pitchfork athrob on her brow, the one bearing the mark of the devil.
I’ll introduce you to my beloved roommates. And you can introduce me to yours.
Beth Ann Fennelly ’93, poet laureate of Mississippi, is the author of six books, most recently Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs, for which she is currently touring (events listed at bethannfennelly.com). In 2016, she became the first female recipient of the Rev. Robert F. Griffin, CSC, Award, presented by the Alumni Association for Outstanding Achievement in Writing. She was nominated for this award by her roomies.