The get-together began with warm hugs at the front door on a cold Friday afternoon, as the gang trickled into the Huntington Station home of Colleen DeGaetano. They came from New Jersey, Connecticut, Ohio, Texas and all corners of Long Island -- high school BFFs, eager to reconnect during an annual homecoming they have replicated for 40 years.
Meet the Spaghetti Dinner Girls, a cluster of 13 women, all about the same age, who took their name from the first meal they shared together in 1974. They have known each other since high school -- some as far back as grammar school. And for three days a year, they set aside jobs, marriages, children and pets to spend time together. When the first weekend in March rolls around, they know where they plan to be.
"Over the years, especially as we were presented with normal life challenges -- ill parents, raising children and job stresses -- we started to realize more and more how important this group of people is to us," said DeGaetano, who hosted the spaghetti dinner this year. "They are our support. They're the people who can keep us going, no matter what. We realized early on that making this time once a year keeps us connected."
Twelve of the 13 attended Holy Family High School in South Huntington. Lori Faller of Huntington Station was a student at Walt Whitman High School.
The long weekend is spent rehashing old times, catching up on the latest doings and forging new memories during walks, outings and other planned activities. On Saturday, the night of the signature dinner, howling laughter filled DeGaetano's house, as wine flowed and cosmos were sipped from martini glasses. The friends snacked on platters mounded with hors d'oeuvres -- all before the main course arrived. Tradition reigns: It's always spaghetti. Suggestions to call it "pasta" have been vetoed.
Membership is set
Make no mistake, these sisters-by-choice form an exclusive club. No tag-along guests are allowed and, unlike other clubs that seek new members to keep it going, the Spaghetti Dinner Girls have no plans to enlarge their circle -- not even with younger sisters who are liked by everyone. "It's special the way it is," explained Maria Radman of Centerport. "This is what we had at [age] 16; all of us at the table. There's no reason to change it."
That night, DeGaetano's home seemed more like a sorority house. "A coven," one member quipped. And the revelry came naturally. "We reconnect in a way that you can't connect with any other friend," said Joanne Morici, 55, of Centerport. "We pick up exactly where we left off."
Dinner evolved into equal parts function and spectacle. Ornate china, silverware, water goblets and wineglasses filled the large table. A ruffled white tablecloth was almost obscured by brightly colored gift bags; decorated boxes sat atop each place setting; another gift tote rested on each chair. No one is forgotten.
What started as a teenage birthday party has evolved into a celebration of the group itself, members said. "We didn't expect too much of each other," said Radman, who teaches English and drama at Ward Melville High School. "We all have these really different lives. We all have full-time jobs, kids. We never expected anything but this one weekend."
The Spaghetti Dinner Girls' first weekend together began when they were high school sophomores. Four of them were born in February, so to mark their Sweet 16 birthdays, they planned a dinner party, featuring spaghetti. From those scratch beginnings was born a circle of friendship that has never wavered.
"You see all these TV shows -- 'Real Housewives' and 'Frenemies' -- this is the counter to that," Morici said. "These are women who have supported each other for 40 years or more. There have been no major schisms. There certainly have been no hair-pulling fights. That's a model I'm certainly happy to pass along to my kids."
The high school Class of 1976 graduated; some went on to college; others started families. That's often where many stories of childhood friends end, but not for the Spaghetti Dinner Girls. With each marriage, they celebrated. Children were born, and they rejoiced. When parents died, the circle closed ranks. Through the decades, they've shared triumphs and pain.
"Everybody's got baggage. But when you walk in [to the reunion], you leave that at the door," said Ann Marie Palmeri, 56, of Floral Park.
Their bond is solid, unlike some things from the past. The parochial school that brought them together is history. St. Anthony's High School took residence there, moving from Smithtown, and was rebuilt on the bones of where Holy Family once held classes.
Community like a family
"Holy Family was a very close-knit community and very much a family, as its name suggests," said Paul Kovalesky, who taught at Holy Family from 1974 until it closed in 1984. "Both faculty and students bonded with one another and interacted well with each other." Kovalesky now teaches social studies at St. Anthony's, where he's had a chance to instruct the children of one-time Holy Family students.
When the Spaghetti Dinner Girls were in high school, they enjoyed wildly different interests -- from student council to tennis -- but the communal spirit of the school allowed them to embrace their differences.
"Some of us did cheerleading. Some did theater and newspaper club," said Morici, editorial director at Stony Brook University and mother of two. "As my kids said, I was an uber nerd in high school. Somehow it didn't matter. I credit the high school. There were really blurred lines when it came to those groups. . . . We all came together from very different circumstances, too."
The Spaghetti Dinner Girls grew up in Huntington, East Northport, Commack and Smithtown, the product of Italian and Irish families. As years passed, some have had a major impact on others.
Take Regina Cacciato of Dix Hills, who owns an accessories boutique in Commack. She arranged a blind date for fellow member Carol Quirolo, now of Ridgefield, Conn., who has been married to Joe Quirolo, the guy she met that day, for 37 years.
Pictures and diarylike entries are made at dinner every year. Leather-bound photo albums and a journal bursting with observations and notes from past reunions reprise fun moments. The faces age ever so slightly with the turn of each page, but one thing remains constant: their broad smiles.
The pull to attend is irresistible, especially for those who have missed previous years. After being snowed out the last three times, Debbie Malone Jennings flew in early from Sylvania, Ohio, by way of Detroit.
"Last year, I was stuck at the airport," said Malone Jennings, a legal aid attorney. "The year before that, I couldn't even get there. They kept closing pieces of the interstate."
Statistics for the Girls are a point of pride: There are no divorces among them. Collectively, they have 39 children. And, overwhelmingly, they have chosen service-oriented careers: Six have medical backgrounds and five others work in education. Some of them speculate it's because they are products of their Catholic upbringing and parochial schooling.
After gifts are opened and dishes are done, the dinner transitions to a pajama party. These 50-something women, used to creature comforts, have no problem sleeping on couches and inflatable beds so they can spend every minute together.
"We're called 'relic friends' because our friendships are so old," DeGaetano said. "The best part about us is our history doesn't need explanation. These people know everything about me. They know all the nooks and crannies of my life."
THE SPAGHETTI DINNER GIRLS
Peggy Bolger Beery, 56, Tinton Falls, N.J., teacher
Regina Kelty Cacciato, 56, Dix Hills, boutique owner
Kelly DiFalco Cullen, 55, Long Valley, N.J., school nurse
Colleen Burns DeGaetano, 56, Huntington Station, nurse
Lori Soldano Faller, 55, Huntington Station, school benefits administrator
Maria Radman Favre, 56, Centerport, teacher
Jacki Gomez, 55, Manhattan, nurse
Joanne Morici Gundlach, 55, Centerport, editorial director
Debbie Malone Jennings, 55, Sylvania, Ohio, attorney
Gay Gerardi Lupski, 56, Houston, Texas, nurse
Ann Marie Reagan Palmeri, 56, Floral Park, medical secretary
Carol Lombardo Quirolo, 55, Ridgefield, Conn., physician assistant
Peggy McNally Weaver, 55, East Hampton, school chief of staff