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Staying Connected

The Importance of Being Social

by Cheryl Fusco Johnson

koppel reunion
Willy Koppel (third from left, back row) gathered with his brothers, niece, aunt, and uncle at a family reunion in Milwaukee last summer.

Bad news, introverts. Strong social networks preserve quality of life as we age. In Younger Next Year: A Guide to Living Like Fifty Until You’re Eighty and Beyond, authors Chris Crowley and Henry S. Lodge, M.D., tout not just the efficacy but also the necessity of preserving social ties.

The Catch-22? Your social circle shrinks as you age. With alarming frequency, loved ones die, develop scary health problems, or simply misplace their joie de vivre. Your own zest sags, too. Host a backyard barbecue? Ha! Even attending one feels like work. Shower then shave or dab on make-up to visit friends? The big-screen TV in your basement holds more appeal.

But blood runs thicker, right? Not quite. As the even-older-than-you-are generation dies off, the cement that held your weird amalgam of colorful relatives together turns to dust, too. For 47 years, descendants of my grandparents, John and Justine DiCaprio, converged on the third Sunday in July, usually at noon in New Castle, Pennsylvania’s Cascade Park. After we kids inhaled stuffed peppers, lasagne, and vanilla soft-serve plopped over lemon sorbet, indulgent but oblivious uncles kept us on the merry-go-round, rollercoaster, and dodge ’em cars so long we threw up. Those good times ended in 1996. That year relentless family organizer Nancy Antonelli died. No more reunions for us.

Playfulness does preserve connections, though. Twenty-one years ago, sisters Marjorie, Marie, and Laura Gerber made a pact to stay close. They bought and still wear identical gold rings inscribed with the word “veil” to remind them of Vail, Colorado, where they forged their pact. Today Marjorie Gerber, now an Iowan, Marie Vitcenda, who lives in Wisconsin, and Alaskan Laura Bruce chat weekly and devise sisters-only adventures. (Three brothers are loved but not invited.) On Margie’s last birthday, the Gerber sisters hiked around Las Vegas.

This summer Laura will turn 40. Keeping details secret, the birthday girl convinced her sisters to send $1,000 each for transportation, which she arranged. Laura will reveal the nature and location of the celebration only after Margie and Marie arrive at a Wisconsin airport.

Meanwhile, Laura periodically issues instructions as clues: Update your passport. Buy a black cocktail dress. Pack a blue swimsuit, a boating outfit, and a sporty coat for cool weather. Get a good backpack, and, after June 1st, don’t shave your legs! With each clue, the mystery deepens, and so does the sisters’ bond.

“When one of us has a need,” Margie said recently, “it is just known that one or both of the others will respond. When Laura had a baby, I was there. When I struggled with a divorce, Marie was there. When our parents died, we were all there to support the others.”

Gerber women support Gerber girls, too. When she turns 18, each niece receives a gold ring bearing the “veil” inscription. In 2010 two generations of Gerber women will travel together. Destination? Unknown, but you can bet your family photo albums the Gerber females will have fun.

Exploring family history strengthens connections, too. At the one-year anniversary of their mother’s death, brothers Willy and Steve Koppel escorted their dad, World War II veteran Erwin, aged 86, to the Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum in Savannah, Georgia. The brothers’ wives and two of their daughters, Rianna, 20, and Elissa, 13, went along. At the museum, the Koppels spent many solemn hours viewing reenactment exhibits, studying memorial plaques, and examining planes, like the B-24s in which Erwin served as navigator and bombardier.

The depth of her grandfather’s reactions resonated with Rianna, who said she felt “a very powerful, deeper connection to my grandfather” after exploring a part of his history the family hadn’t looked into before. “He was comforting me at the end,” she said. “He looked at me and told me, ‘Life goes on.’ ”

Another poignant moment occurred at a Savannah temple. The brothers wanted to observe yahrtzeit, a Jewish rite honoring the death of a parent, there. “We were strangers, but the congregation welcomed us,” Willy reported. This summer the extended Koppel clan will celebrate a bat mitzvah in Milwaukee.

Humble get-togethers foster closeness, too. One August evening my brother Robert and I speed-cooked on his Pennsylvania kitchen’s black marble counters. Guided by a Tivoed episode of Thirty Minute Meals, we tried, like Rachael Ray, to whip up a feast in half an hour. Ninety minutes later, we carried steaming plates of Tuscan Chicken with Wild Mushroom Risotto to the table for us and our by then famished (and slightly cranky) spouses. A trivial feat by Gerber and Koppel standards maybe, but introverts need to start somewhere.

Cheryl Fusco Johnson teaches Nia Fitness classes in Fairfield, Iowa. ©2009 Cheryl Fusco Johnson

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