Jackie Carney Taylor and Donna Gardner Simmons met in the pre-primary grade at the Mills Road Elementary School in Maple Shade, N.J., in 1952. Taylor said being a “social butterfly,” she was always getting herself, and her friend, in trouble for chatting too much in class.
“As typical little girls, we giggled and talked our way through school,” said Taylor, 67.
Simmons knows they were in Mrs. App’s class together that year but doesn’t remember all the details. Looking at snapshots from those early years makes it clear to her, however, that they were friends from the start.
“A picture of us in second-grade class shows we had (already) connected,” said Simmons, who is 68 and lives in Alfred. “Jackie is looking past the girl beside her to me. For 61 of my 68 years she has been my best friend.”
Through decades, longtime friends share life’s joys – children and grandchildren, memorable vacations and good times together – and lows – health concerns, divorces and deaths – and are there for each other through it all.
What does it take to retain such strong friendships through so many years? Is it just shared history, or something more? While growing up together has played a role, it is much more than that for the women.
For Taylor, maintaining a long-term friendship is all about trust and knowing that someone loves you no matter what – and will lend support when it’s needed most.
“She is my rock, my touchstone and sometimes even my savior. I cherish the times we are together and even though we don’t see each other as often as we might like, we are still close in heart. When we do get together, it is like we have never been apart, just picking up where we left off,” said Taylor. “I am so thankful that Donna is in my life and still my best friend.”
Cynthia Berdeen Sirois and Diana Hutchins Abbott have been friends for almost 60 years, meeting their freshman year at Kennebunk High School. Sirois grew up in Kennebunk and Abbott in Wildes District, a neighborhood between Kennebunkport and Cape Porpoise.
“We were friends right away, but not as close as we became,” said Abbott, 75.
Sirois remembers that she and her friend had “an immediate connection.”
The women also had an unusual thing in common, which they didn’t really talk about. Each had contracted polio, Sirois during the fifth grade, spending the better part of a year at Children’s Hospital in Boston, and Abbott as a freshman.
“I was diagnosed in November of 1955. Two weeks later the vaccine came out. I was gone for most of my sophomore year,” said Abbott. “I went to Hyde School, which was a rehabilitation facility then. I came back to Kennebunk in my junior year and graduated with my class in 1958.”
Although they didn’t talk about it, Sirois knew what Abbott was going through. She jumped into action.
“My brother was a senior at the time. There were no elevators at the high school and I told him that he was going to have to get his friends together to carry Diana up and down the stairs. I knew she would need help,” said Sirois, who is 74 and lives in Ipswich, Mass. “And he did.”
A card Abbott came across recently says it all about her relationship with Sirois.
“It reads, ‘Our friendship’s very dear to me, it means more every year, for you’re such special company life sparkles when you’re near. I trust you and depend on you, I always call you first. It’s a joy to share the best with you, and it helps to share the worst.’ When she needs me or I need her we are always there for each other, we just shared our lives and still do,” said Abbott, who now lives in Wells.
When Abbott came back to high school after polio treatment, her friendship with “Toots,” as Sirois is known, grew. Abbott wore braces on both legs and used crutches and Sirois went right back to helping her friend get around through high school, college and beyond.
“Junior year we both volunteered in the library. We got really close,” said Abbott. “We went to college together. I wasn’t sure where I was going to go because in those days they didn’t really want physically disabled students. But the president of Gorham Teachers College (now University of Southern Maine) came to Kennebunk to recruit students and said to me, ‘Come to our school, we’ll take good care of you.’ So I did.”
Abbott and Sirois were roommates through college.
“It cemented our friendship,” said Abbott.
“We had a wicker basket in our room. We thought we were rich,” Sirois said, chuckling.
Abbott admires Sirois’ intelligence and the way she has always advocated for her.
“One time we were in Boston. She pulled over to let me out of the car at the entrance to where we were going,” said Abbott. “When we stopped, the car behind us started tooting and other cars began lining up. Cynthia let me out and then sauntered over to the car behind us. The driver could by then see my crutches and braces. She asked him, ‘Is there a problem?’ He was devastated and said, ‘No, no. I’m sorry I didn’t mean to toot.’ She said, ‘I can accept that,’ and took her time getting back to the car. She will go to bat for me no matter what or who it is – even if it was God! She has a quick wit.”
Taylor and Simmons lived at opposite ends of town, so until the seventh grade most of their interaction was in school. Once they hit their preteen years, the two became inseparable.
“I spent almost every weekend at Donna’s home. Her family became my family and I loved being there,” said Taylor, who now lives in Asheville, N.C. “We were involved in sports and Girl Scouts and would, on many occasions, laugh ourselves silly. We shared secrets and dreams and met our first husbands at the same time.”
Simmons remembers ice skating on the creek behind Taylor’s house and at a local rink, using skates her friend had outgrown.
“Her mom would take us to the skating rink,” said Simmons. “As teens we would walk to the Roxy Theater on Saturday night and scare ourselves with horror flicks. Eventually, we double-dated a pair of Air Force guys and were in each other’s first weddings. Jackie and her husband were transferred to England, mine went to Vietnam.”
Taylor had a daughter while in England. When she returned to the United States, the first person she saw was Simmons.
“She picked me up in her leopard skin PJs with the pants rolled up under her long coat. We got a flat tire. There we were, stranded on the highway, Donna’s PJ legs coming unrolled and a gentleman stopping to help,” said Taylor. “Unfortunately, a newspaper journalist stopped to take a photo of the ‘good Samaritan’ who helped two women with a baby. Our photo was front page on the South Jersey Courier Post. So much for keeping my arrival secret. We still laugh about it today.”
Abbott and Sirois were in each other’s weddings one week apart. They both became elementary school teachers – Abbott taught in Arundel and Wells and Sirois in Sanford and Ipswich – and took a trip together most summers. They shared in the births of their children and grandchildren. Abbott has one son and three grandchildren and her friend, a daughter, son and three granddaughters. They also rented camps in Maine together with several other close friends for two weeks every year.
“We loved our summer vacations. Husbands came down on the weekends and friends from Kennebunk would stop by or spend the night,” said Sirois. “There was a comfort level there. I would go out early in the morning with the kids and Diana would make breakfast.”
While the two have shared in many joys, there have also been some tough times through the years, not the least of which is the polio that continues to impact Abbott and more recently has caused problems for Sirois.
“Post-polio comes up and slows you down,” said Sirois. “Diana is in a wheelchair now but more mobile in a way. She helps me around now. Her mind is so sharp. She retired from teaching when her husband became sick and took care of him for many years – he died young. It was hard for her and us.”
Sirois said that Abbott was always there for her, despite her own challenges.
“She used to drive over and help my mom when I couldn’t be there. She always has time for everyone,” said Sirois. “She just does what needs to be done, doesn’t talk about it, just does it. I love her loyalty, her hair, her fingernails, everything about her.”
For Abbott, the feeling is mutual. The two talk on the phone and get together as often as possible.
“She is amazing. I laugh with other people, but never the belly laughs I have with her. We have had such a bond from the beginning,” said Abbott. “We’ve gone through a lot together, children, marriage, deaths, divorce, illnesses – always there for each other no matter what.”
Staying in touch was more difficult for Taylor and Simmons as time went on. As with many service families, the women moved often. Taylor had three children and Simmons had two while their husbands were in the military.
“My second husband and I were transferred to Pease Air Force Base in Portsmouth, N.H. Much to my joy and surprise, Jackie and her second husband were also at Pease,” said Simmons. “We watched each other’s children and gave birth to our last children seven months apart.”
Taylor moved to the Midwest and Simmons stayed on the New Hampshire seacoast. When Taylor’s youngest son died, she and Simmons lost communication.
“It certainly wasn’t that I didn’t think of her and her family, but my life had drastically changed,” said Taylor.
Simmons never stopped thinking about her friend and stayed busy with her work as an accountant, educator and writer.
“As happens sometimes when you are swallowed up with grief, we lost touch,” said Simmons. “I prayed for her often and toasted to her health and healing each year on her birthday.”
The women were reunited 18 years later when a mutual friend shared Taylor’s phone number with Simmons. Taylor was living in Florida at the time. Simmons and her husband flew down from Maine to see her.
“It was like we hadn’t lost any time at all,” said Simmons.
Two years later, heartbreak struck again. Twenty-years after Taylor’s son, Danny, died, Simmons lost her son, Rob. This time, the two women drew closer.
“We have both experienced tremendous tragedy in our lives,” said Taylor. “We have shared heartache, sorrow, sadness, laughter, happiness and love. The hard times made us stronger – survivors.”
Simmons said it’s not necessary to be physically together for women to be close friends.
“I like that when one of us picks up the phone the other one understands,” she said. “Our friendship, our love, is unconditional. We share laughter and tears, life’s ups and downs. It’s an acceptance of who we are and what we’ve experienced. We both have sisters, but Jackie is the sister of my heart.”
Jackie Taylor, left, was in her best friend’s wedding in September 1965. Donna Simmons returned the favor a short time later.Photo courtesy of Donna SimmonsJackie Taylor and Donna Simmons were friends all through elementary, junior and senior high school. The girls are pictured here in second grade. Taylor, second from the left in the first row, is paying more attention to her friend, fourth from the left, than she is to the photographer.Cynthia Berdeen Sirois, top, and Diana Hutchins Abbott have been friends and have remained in touch with each other for 60 years. Photo courtesy of Diana Abbott