12: The Swill Gang

12: The Swill Gang

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Just Us Girls

The Swill Gang

Friendship is a treasured gift, and every time I talk with you I feel as if I’m getting richer and richer.

~Author Unknown

The phone rang one Friday night when, as a single parent of four, I had just settled into my green rocker for another night of TV watching. It was a woman named Sunny calling from Valdosta, Georgia.

“I just read something you wrote in Single Parent Magazine and I have to talk to you. I’m a single parent too and sometimes I just don’t know if I can make it on my own. I thought it would help to talk to someone else who’s raising children alone.”

We talked for an hour and Sunny continued to call every couple of weeks. We commiserated with each other because that year, 1989, was the worst year of my life.

It was the year the man I’d dated for ten months suddenly moved to Oklahoma to start a new career. It was the year my ex-husband, Harold, died of leukemia, not long after he married his girlfriend the day our divorce was final. Our nine-year-old son Andrew was devastated by his father’s death but I was too angry at Harold about the divorce to even know how to grieve.

1989 was the year my oldest daughter, Jeanne, got caught in the middle of the California earthquake and I lived through nightmarish days wondering if she was safe. Jeanne was only twenty at the time and I thought she should have stayed in nice, safe Wisconsin for college, rather than taking off to explore life on the edge of the continent.

1989 was the year my eighteen-year-old daughter, Julia, graduated from high school and decided to spend the summer before college testing my sense of “loving motherhood.” We hollered and picked at each other all summer. I’m not sure if the thought of leaving home for the first time to go to college had her befuddled or if I just couldn’t get used to the idea of first Harold, then Jeanne, and now Julia leaving us. Many nights that year my family room felt like an empty auditorium as I sat alone with the TV set.

A few months later Sunny told me she wanted to move back to the northern part of the U.S. (her original home) so I invited her to Milwaukee for a weekend to attend a conference for single people. She stayed for a week and bought a house while she was here. She kept calling me her best friend even though I was wallowing too deep in my own miseries to be anybody’s “best” anything.

I desperately wanted to find Sunny a few other friends, so after she made the move with her two young daughters, I decided to gather some of my female friends to meet her. I called every woman I knew. Friends from church, work, and the neighborhood. Women I met over the years through other people. Mothers of my children’s friends. A couple from my writer’s group.

I was nervous about inviting them to my house all at once, knowing that few of them knew each other. But I needn’t have worried. When they arrived I introduced everyone and before long we were talking, laughing, and gabbing like old friends about our jobs, children, and lifestyles.

Sunny commented, “The women I meet in southern Georgia are generally described as precious. You people aren’t just precious, you’re downright interesting!”

Tina piped up, “We should do this every month! Let’s call it the Southeastern Wisconsin Interesting Ladies League! S.W.I.L.L.”

I laughed. “SWILL! SWILL? We’re going to form a club and call it SWILL?”

“Why not?” Sharon asked. “We can gather together and just unload all the swill that creeps into our lives periodically and get support from each other.”

And so we began at the end of 1989. We decided to meet at my house each month since I had the largest family room and the fewest family members to uproot on Friday nights.

We kept it simple. SWILL had no dues, no minutes, no committees, no rules, no dress code, no bylaws, no agenda, and no purpose. We simply got together and shared whatever was on our minds. The only suggestion I gave at each meeting was that only one woman talks at a time. That way everyone could hear what everyone else had to say.

I never worried about cleaning the house before a SWILL meeting because nobody was there to do a white glove inspection. And I didn’t worry about fancy refreshments. If one of us was having a chocolate or salty foods craving we’d bring a bag of candy or pretzels to toss on the coffee table to share. We resolved from the beginning never to get bogged down, as some clubs do, with a “fancy food” complex.

Over the years at least 100 women wove their way in and out of the SWILL meetings. Anyone could bring an interesting friend to SWILL and if that friend liked us she could come forever. Sometimes we had twelve or twenty women present, and other months, because of hectic schedules, only five or six.

But it didn’t matter how many. What mattered was that as we got to know each other, we began to care more and more about each other. We became a family of friends, sisters to the core.

SWILL welcomed everyone regardless of age, race, religion or occupation. Everyone from Carrie, a young married woman in her late twenties with four small children, struggling with the possibility of her marriage ending, to Eunice, who had been married for forty-two years and taken enough college-level classes in her retirement to be one of the most interesting people in the group.

When one of our group, Linda, died of heart failure at age thirty-nine after only meeting with us a short time, we mourned together and discussed ways to solve the medical insurance problems that often face single, overstressed parents like Linda who must work three jobs to make ends meet.

When Jody’s teenage son, Daniel, died in a car accident, we held each other and cried with Jody at the funeral.

When Mary shared with us that her ex-husband had decided to live on the street to avoid child support, we encouraged her to go back to court to get some disability funding, which would include child support for her. She did and the SWILL members were her biggest cheerleaders.

When Gail, whose children were starting college, went back to school to study nursing, we spent hours talking her into staying in school when she wanted to quit. One of our members, a counselor, helped her through some test anxiety problems one night. When Gail graduated from nursing school we all took a bow.

When Barb’s son came home from the army and moved back into her “empty nest” home, and then a few months later her daughter moved back home with her new baby, we listened to the ups and downs of Barb’s five-adults-in-one-house, three-generation family. We gave her lots of advice, including the fact that it was okay for her to go back to work full-time.

Diane, whose happy marriage rubbed off on all of us, pointed out that even a happy marriage isn’t perfect all the time but that a wonderful sense of humor can get you through most of the “swill” that marriage can dish out.

Sunny became much more independent, found a good job in the school system, and eventually transferred to the Chicago area to start her own support network.

What did SWILL do for me, the one who was simply trying to find a few friends for Sunny? I’m the one who benefited the most. Those women who were married, single, separated, divorced, or widowed came from all walks of life to open their hearts and their lives at every SWILL meeting. They listened to me, laughed with me, and helped me through the rough times of being a single parent. When I had three children in college at once and a fatherless twelve-year-old at home, they helped me even more through the struggles by offering financial advice as well as emotional help.

When my youngest left for college 1,800 miles away from home, I talked about my fears, failures and fantasies. I learned from my SWILL sisters that it’s okay to love your empty nest after thirty years of full-time parenting.

In 2004 I moved from Milwaukee to Florida and the SWILL Gang meetings ended. But one thing’s for sure. What I learned from the SWILL Gang during those years will last me a lifetime. I learned that when you open your home and your heart to other women and nourish your friendships on a regular basis, good things happen. These days, it’s working here in Florida with a whole different group of women friends.

~Patricia Lorenz

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