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Prime Time | Sue Bruns: ‘Wine and Friends, Better with Age’

Six high school friends park their vehicle in a field outside the Lake Carlos Winery near Alexandria, ready for the Grape Stomp Festival. They are wearing matching black T-shirts with the bling-lettered message: “Wine and friends, better with age.”

The Grape Stomp is one event on their four-day weekend agenda, and the weatherman couldn’t have been kinder, sending clear, sunny days in the 70’s all through this mid-September weekend. By the end of the day at the winery, at least three of the friends will be noticeably sun burnt, but that doesn’t slow them down. They browse the many artisans’ kiosks, sample wine and various vendors’ snacks, and watch the grape stomp competition.

This is the 11th annual get-together for the six of us. We decided to start the tradition when we met up at our 30 year high school reunion. The first girls’ weekend almost didn’t happen. As many “we-should-get-together-sometime” promises often do, our first went unplanned and was almost cancelled. We had picked a tentative weekend, but no one had reserved a place to stay. As the weekend grew nearer, Emails were flying: “Are we still going to try to get together? If so, when? Where?” “Don’t think I’ll make it. We’re going to be at the cabin that weekend.”

Then Mary offered her mother’s house in St. Peter as a place we could meet (her mother was out of town), I laughingly suggested a slumber party, and three others said they could make it for the weekend. Colleen cancelled her plans to go to the cabin and chimed in: “Nobody’s having a slumber party without me!”

So we met in our home town, took a drive down the main drag and snapped pictures outside our old high school. One thing we had never done together was to stop at the local liquor store. Not much of a drinker, I was surprised at the variety available there. “Wow, look at this one!” I said, taking a tall bottle of chocolate liqueur from the shelf. The label read “HOT SEX.” Indifferent to the taste, I purchased the bottle for its crazy name.

Our signature photo for that first reunion featured the six of us around Mary’s mother’s kitchen table, enjoying “HOT SEX” together on a Saturday night. A copy of that 5-by-7-inch photo decorated our first (now traditional) year-at-a-glance wall calendar.

The rest of the weekend we caught up on each other’s lives, snacked on peanut M&M’s and Twizzlers, played games, sipped Mary’s soon-to-be-a-tradition margaritas, and dipped chips in Jayne’s unforgettable guacamole.

The first reunion was a great success and made the six of us true believers in the value of renewing and maintaining old friendships. Since then, we have gathered at various sites: Bemidji, the North Shore, Minneapolis, Alexandria, Nisswa. This year was special, marking the beginning of a new decade. On Sept. 7, the youngest of the six turned 59; on Sept. 9, the oldest turned 60. By the time we meet again next fall, all of us will have entered our sixth decade of life and our fourth or fifth decade of friendship.

Throughout the year we share good news: “We’re heading to Italy next month,” or “My daughter’s getting married next summer,” or “Guess what! I’m going to be a grandma!” And sometimes not so good news: health issues that have yet to be diagnosed, the return of a husband’s cancer, stresses at work, anxiety about an upcoming surgery, a death in the family.

We laugh together during our reunions more than any other weekend during the year. And sometimes we shed tears together. But mostly, we bask in the warmth of our friendship. We keep in touch by phone, Email and snail mail throughout the year, but during those reunion weekends, we resume our friendship as if no time has passed at all.

This year, one friend missed a nephew’s wedding to attend the reunion. (“I told him not to pick that weekend, ‘cuz I wouldn’t be there!”) Another, pre-occupied by her husband’s returning cancer, had thought about staying home with him, but she knew she needed her friends now more than ever.

After four days, we say good-bye with embraces, happy tears, good wishes, and a tight group hug: Becky, Elli, Mary, Colleen, Jayne, and I. For days afterward we read, “I-Miss-You-Already” Emails with attached photos from the weekend. Back at home other friends and relatives enviously comment on the latest friends’ photo calendar hanging above our workspaces or in our homes.

“You’re so lucky to have such a great group of friends you’ve stayed close to for so long,” fellow workers and family members say.

And we each answer sincerely, “I know.”