‘Like family’

‘Like family’

Cover photo:

Nancy le Coutre, left, has been best friends with Antoinette “Toni” Klima for more than 50 years. Inset: At Toni’s wedding in 1968, Nancy was a bridesmaid. Courtesy photos

bridal party

Bride Toni Klima, center, made sure her best friend Nancy leCoutre, far right, was a member of her wedding on June 15, 1968. Courtesy photo

taryn plumb (author)

Taryn Plumb

Taryn Plumb is a Maine-based freelance writer who has written for a variety of publications, including daily and weekly newspapers, Web sites, trade and business journals, wedding, art and regional-themed magazines.

They’ve known each other longer than they’ve known anyone else.

They share every secret, every fear, every tidbit, every triumph, seek out each other’s advice before anyone else’s, cry together, laugh together, refer to each other as “sisters,” or “other halves.”

Nancy le Coutre of Portland and Antoinette “Toni” Klima of Scottsdale, Ariz., were BFFs – best friends forever – decades before the term was even conceived of, and they’ve lasted quite a bit longer than Paris Hilton and any of her succession of gal-pals.

Both age 62, they’ve been best friends for more than a half-century – despite their divergent life paths and the often hundreds or even thousands of miles separating them.

They can’t really explain why it is. It just is.

“We’re simpatico,” said Toni, a retired special education teacher and mother of a grown son and daughter. “She has my history, and I have her history. If you had a sister, I would hope and think it would feel like this. Really, she feels like my family.”

“I think, more than anything, we loved each other, and we went to great lengths not to drop the contact,” agreed Nancy, a CPA who works for Portland Public Schools and has two grown sons. “I pick up the phone and it’s like time has not passed.”

Writer Jeffrey Zaslow, author of “The Girls from Ames,” a book that recounts the story of a lifelong friendship among 11 women from Ames, Iowa, cites scholarly evidence of the long-term value of friendship: “Having a close group of friends helps people sleep better, improves their immune systems, boosts their self-esteem, staves off dementia,” and helps people live longer. He also mentions a 14-year study of 1,500 Australian women, in which those with the most friends outlived those with fewer friends by 22 percent.

And, according to writer Gale Berkowitz, “a landmark UCLA study suggests that women respond to stress with a cascade of brain chemicals that cause us to make and maintain friendships with other women.”

The friendship of Nancy le Coutre and Toni Klima started out quite simply: In 1960, growing up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the two seventh-graders began sharing walks home from school, and swapping bologna and eggplant Parmesan sandwiches. They were two impressionable, 11-going-on-12-year-olds growing up in what Nancy called an “awful” and “wild” environment, and what Toni described as a “very tough and very rough,” “scary” and ethnically diverse area.

Not exactly the trendy Manhattan of today.

But they were instant kindred spirits: they were both quiet and shy, they both liked books, they both did their homework, and neither of them got into trouble. Quickly, they started spending every afternoon (and often overnights) together.

“She was a person I saw myself in,” Toni said.

Still, they weren’t alike in every respect. Nancy’s family was “large, poor and pretty dysfunctional,” as she described it, with one apartment housing seven kids and two adults, and basic meals for that raucous crew including noodles and butter, or bologna and mustard on white bread.

Toni’s family, on the other hand, was smaller and middle-class. Her mother was a Ph.D mathematician. Her father was a firefighter who worked for the New York City department until he died, and followed an active, spiritual, vegetarian lifestyle long before it was en vogue (sending his kids to school with eggplant Parmesan sandwiches and bottles of milk).

The difference in families was particularly palpable and transformative for Nancy.

“They exposed me to a life I never knew existed,” she said.

That included family dinners around the table every night, and summers horseback riding, swimming and waterskiing – as well as much more substantial impacts. Nancy had no plans to go to college; she figured she’d be a secretary. But Toni’s mom encouraged her to further her education.

“Her family was a huge influence in my life,” said Nancy, and Toni agreed that her parents embraced her childhood best friend like a daughter.

Still, they weren’t inseparable (physically, at least) for long.

Nancy’s family upgraded by moving to Queens when the two were in ninth grade. Undeterred, the best friends commuted back and forth on the train (about an hour ride) almost every weekend.

Later, even when their lifestyles – and time zones – branched further apart, they maintained their intimate connection.

Toni got married at 19 to a husband who was quickly shipped off to Vietnam, and moved around from Virginia to New York to Arizona. Nancy got married at 26, moving from Maine (Lovell, to start) to New York and back again (finally settling in Portland in the 1980s).

Yet throughout the years, they sent long letters back and forth, and made the occasional visit. Nancy also called on Toni’s parents before they died, while her kids spent weeks away with “Aunt Toni.” Most recently, the lifelong companions saw each other when Toni made a visit to Maine last summer – and the two even broke out their matching diaries from middle school.

These days, they e-mail each other constantly – now gushing over photos of Toni’s first grandchild – and talk on the phone at least once a week.

“It’s probably more impressive that we’ve been able to stay so close, being so far away from each other,” said Toni.

It’s a sense of longtime commitment, she noted, that’s being lost today – perhaps a side effect of the throwaway society.

“If you have a good friend,” she said, “hang on to them.”

Nancy le Coutre, left, has been best friends with Antoinette “Toni” Klima for more than 50 years.Bride Toni Klima, center, made sure her best friend Nancy leCoutre, far right, was a member of her wedding on June 15, 1968.Toni Klima and Nancy le Coutre at Toni’s wedding in 1968; Nancy was a bridesmaid.Taryn Plumb is a ?Maine-based freelance writer who has written for a variety of publications, including daily and weekly newspapers, websites, trade and business journals, wedding, art and regional-themed magazines.

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