Three's a Crowd

My mother had two best friends, which often seemed to be one too many

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Triangles are the building blocks of everything from bridges to buildings to Christianity's trinity. Good luck, bad luck and death also appear in threes. But, when it comes to marriages and friendships, a third person seems to change the angles of attachment—and not always in a positive way. Threesomes sometimes stretch, but often break. My mother found herself in one of these threesomes from her early thirties into her fifties.

Mom's third friend appeared when she went back to work and insisted on spending her summers at the Jersey shore as her prize for teaching along with homemaking. During the next three years, she cemented a bond with her new best friend, "Aunt" Betty, while maintaining a friendship with her lifelong friend, my godmother, "Aunt" Bonnie.

Individually, it's hard to imagine what brought these women together. Mom was the college graduate who taught fourth grade and had two children. Bonnie was the rich girl who taught piano and had two children from two marriages, and Betty was the office worker with four children who lived in the city and never owned a car. What they had in common was motherhood, a love of partying (which changed over the years from beer to Old Fashioneds to Manhattans), and their cigarette choices. They all smoked Pall Malls for years before switching to Winston's because they thought filtered cigarettes would be safer.

More like the Sanderson sisters from "Hocus Pocus" than "Charlie's Angels," they were tall, medium and short. One blonde and two brunettes, they all wore their hair short and had green or greenish-brown eyes. Their bodies were so dissimilar that they couldn't share clothes.

All three women eventually socialized in Sea Isle City bars and on the beach together, but the push/pull of the third person made the sides of their relationship triangle uneven. Mom and Aunt Betty lived at the shore all summer for three years, so they had daily contact with each other. Besides enjoying the beach every day with six kids, they loved to pull pranks during the week when their husbands were still at home working. One in particular was to put creamy, blue eye shadow on their lips and hang maraschino cherries from their ears while they sat at a bar. Looking like the living dead, they would keep perfectly straight faces and watch the faces of the other patrons gawking at them.

Aunt Bonnie visited sporadically with her two kids during those summers. Her contribution to the trio was befriending the male pianists at the bars they frequented, sometimes playing duets with them, a skill that neither of the other women possessed. She became instrumental in forming friendships with a couple of these men that lasted for decades.

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During the school year, Mom often socialized with one or the other but rarely both. Bonnie lived nearby, so dropping-in was easy, but Betty lived in Philadelphia and had to be picked up and driven to our house, so visits were scheduled. The other two never got together by their own choice without Mom; she was the pivot point of their triad.

My father didn't like Bonnie so much, but his displeasure did nothing to weaken the ladies' bond. After her first divorce, Bonnie and her son briefly lived with us. Johnny and I were around the same age so we played, but Dad seemed to feel he had to compete with Bonnie for Mom's attention. Those three made their own tense triangle.

Bonnie eventually got a job, found a new husband and moved out. She and her husband still socialized with my parents, often playing poker together on weekends while drinking gallons of beer, but four was not as troublesome as three.

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Unlike his feelings about Bonnie, Dad really enjoyed Betty and her husband with whom he shared an avid interest in the Eagles. Like Bonnie, their whole family ended up living with us one summer, but that was also the summer that Dad departed as my parents' marriage fell apart. Betty and her husband provided extra financial and emotional support for Mom.

They also, however, remained friends with my father until his early death. Mom seemed uneasy about that triad, as though she didn't trust Betty to be loyal, but knew Bonnie would be.

In the winters, the three couples would occasionally go out together, with my stepfather replacing my dad. At Mom's second wedding, Bonnie was the matron of honor and Betty just a guest—longevity trumping closeness at the time. Yet, Mom never forgave Bonnie for refusing to wear a girdle at the wedding.

Tensions built after Bonnie had an early hysterectomy and got "wifty." The long-standing joke was how she refused to eat dinner with us one night, but grabbed a baked potato and threw it in her purse on the way out. Mom began to question many of Bonnie's decisions.

Bonnie and Betty's relationship with me may have also affected the threesome. Mom and I didn't get along, so having her friends be nice to me pulled at their bonds. One summer at the beach, Bonnie let me drive her new Mustang, the hottest car on the road, when I was only 16. Bonnie also took me and her daughter to Puerto Rico for a weekend when I graduated high school. Mom never did anything special with Bonnie's kids.

Betty became my second mother during those years. When I lived with adolescent self-doubt, she comforted me. She always made me feel valued and loved, especially when Mom berated me with "You're just like your father" in my teens.

Their triangle briefly became more uniform when all three ladies faced troubling situations in their forties: each of their second child suffered with substance abuse despite all three firstborns thriving.

Bonnie's youngest, a beautiful and brilliant blond girl, was heavily involved with drugs. One summer evening she wrapped her car around a telephone pole in Somers Point, NJ, on her way to meet her dad for dinner: dead at 19. Around the same time, Betty's son became a heavy drug user and simply disappeared one day, never to be heard from again. My brother, who developed hepatitis C at around 20 years old, survived his initial struggle with addiction but relapsed often and died in his fifties.

While they all helped console each other through these tragedies, their sadness seemed to undermine their friendship as each retreated to a far corner to grieve alone, eventually stretching the triangle to its breaking point.

Bonnie had divorced again so she needed to work fulltime. She moved to Jersey and got an office job working for the state. She still saw some of the friends from the Sea Isle City bars and continued to talk to Mom (eventually attending Mom's funeral), but their connection became more tenuous. By then, both women were alcoholics with fragile health.

Betty, a devout Catholic, remained married, but after her son's troubles, she gave her husband an ultimatum, "If you don't stop drinking, I'm going to leave you." So he stopped. Ironically, this put a huge strain on the relationship with my mother—if people didn't drink she had no time for them. They stopped seeing each other.

These very different women were clearly more than fair-weather friends, but each must have doubted herself when those second-born children became addicts. Despite the waning of their relationships as tragedy, age and then illness permeated the once fun-loving triad they shared, they provided each other support throughout divorces and dysfunction with playfulness and laughter to lighten life's responsibilities, even if it was usually two of them at a time, until there were none.

Tags: friendship