The fog clung to the horizon, and the women gathered at Four Mile Beach Club knew that this year they would not see the moon ascend into the sky and illuminate their party with its silvery mystique.
Faced with a darkening sky, the spirits of the women were still radiant — it was as if nothing could dampen their joy as they celebrated their July tradition of an annual beach party – always scheduled for when there is a full moon.
That is because they are always happy together, this group of 15-18 women, mostly from Old Lyme, who have shared an easy- going friendship for 30 years in a group they refer to as SOS — an abbreviation for Sisters of the Soul.
"It just stuck," Barbara O'Connell said of the name, also noting its double meaning as a distress call. "If you need help, call us," she said. O'Connell, a 35-year resident of Old Lyme, is one of the group's founders and the hostess of the beach party.
A long table was set with turquoise-themed tableware and flowers. The pearl napkin holders (each with one turquoise bead) doubled as bracelets for the women to take home – the pearls signifying the 30-year-mark associated with anniversaries.
The women have been together through good times and bad – raising children and seeing them married; and enduring death, divorce, and sickness.
"The gift of friendship helped us through the darkness and into light," said O'Connell. "Everyone has ups and downs — we are extremely supportive, standing at the ready for being counselor or cook — all that is needed. All they have to do is ask, and it's done," she said, citing the food chains that have gone on for weeks at a time when a member is sick.
Thirty years ago, O'Connell owned and was running a shop called the Cornerhouse, when she met two other local female business owners who were also raising families — Anne Haviland, the owner of Anne's Kitchen, and Linda Hase, the owner of Old Lyme Bookstore. The women clicked. They began matchmaking friendships with women they met through their businesses – and SOS was born.
The group's organic formation and longevity are a point of pride and joy to the women.
"We're really blessed and grateful for each other," said Emily Roberts of Old Lyme – affectionately nicknamed "hummingbird" by her friends for her flitting nature. "It's an interesting dynamic of women – we're very optimistic." Despite an injured rib, Roberts still came out to the party – knowing she would feel better amongst her friends, she said.
A few women echoed the upbeat nature of the group, citing a successful group dynamic that was also devoid of gossip.
"I've never been in a situation where people talked about each other," said JoAnne Carter of Essex.
It's a women's club – and while that wasn't a conscious direction when they first formed, the women do feel it has imparted a distinct atmosphere to their gatherings.
"It's a very feminist vibe – the sisterhood thing that happens," said Linda Hase, who now lives in New Haven.
"Conversations are freer without men," said Anne Haviland. "When you talk about women's body issues, children, grandchildren … you can laugh, you can cry – things you may not do with men around."
O'Connell and other women expressed a desire to see their daughters start similar groups, noting the great lifelong benefits of friendships and community.
The age range of the group is about 50 to 75, and, as Hase says, a lot of living happens in 30 years, which is reflected in a book of photographs and memories compiled by O'Connell, "SOS Celebrates A Long and Special Friendship."
O'Connell has been the keeper of memories for the group, taking photos and collecting mementos, such as thank-you notes from families the group assisted during holidays through Old Lyme Social Services.
Also documented is the trip to Tuscany a large group of women took together, living in a villa, savoring Italy's beauty, and deepening their friendship.
"Thirty years makes a big difference to a lot of us," said Sandy Garvin of Old Lyme, reflecting on the book. "I've got to say the common thread is everyone has a big smile and evolving wisdom in the later pictures."
"It's just about the joy and being there for each other," Roberts said, summing up the essence of SOS.
As Roberts went to descend down a flight of stairs onto the beach with the stream of women for a group photo, one effortlessly came over to her and linked her arm around her waist, helping her friend – whose news of an injured rib seemed to be common knowledge – almost as if by osmosis.