The Extraordinary Lives of Ordinary People: Rita and Joyce
When I first met Rita 22 years ago, I was just a toddler and she was my sitter. Never did I imagine that decades later she’d still be one of the most important people in my life. Rita is always there to cheer me on, listen to and comfort me when times get hard, and inspire me creatively and academically. What continues to amaze me most about Rita is just how easily she’s able to connect and bond with the people around her. I’ve watched her make friends with the guy behind us at the grocery store checkout line, and I’ve tagged along as her guest to her dentist’s graduation ceremony. But none are closer to Rita than her oldest companion Joyce, who’s been her best friend practically since birth.
Many have strong bonds with their friends or siblings, but Rita and Joyce exemplify true friendship. The innumerable similarities between the two only strengthens their bond. Their lives mirror each other in many respects, and through the nearly eighty years that they have known each other, they have been loyal, kindred spirits who have always been able to rely on one another. They’ve shared experiences from giggling together at school to rebelling against their fathers to protecting each other from rude boys to loving each other as family.
Born exactly one month apart in 1941 and growing up just one block apart in the inner-city of Pittsburgh, Rita and Joyce quickly became inseparable. Summers were spent trekking to the neighborhood pool and swimming until the sun set and the street lights came on. Come fall, they’d walk arm and arm the half mile through Pittsburgh’s alleyways to and from school, ducking into toy stores and candy shops, every so often splitting their allowances and indulging in a bag of gummy worms. In class, they’d pass notes and giggle behind the nuns’ backs, only occasionally managing to remain undetected.
Both Rita and Joyce’s fathers were city policemen, just one of the numerous similarities the two shared. As the girls aged, they both rebelled against their strict upbringing. They’d lie and pretend to be going over to each other’s houses, instead hopping on the bus to attend rock concerts downtown. Rita wasn’t allowed to date in high school, but that didn’t stop her and Joyce from tracking down a cute boy from Joyce’s cousin’s yearbook all the way at the University of Pittsburgh's campus, just to give him their phone numbers. Unfortunately for Rita, it turned out that he was more interested in Joyce!
It’d be easy to assume that there was jealousy between the duo as there is with almost all friends and siblings, but that simply wasn’t the case. Instead, they were fiercely loyal to one another, embracing their tomboy sides (both grew up with older brothers) in order to stick up for each other when needed.
In grade school, Rita punched a boy in the nose for making fun of Joyce’s new glasses, earning her a paddle-beating both from the nuns at school and her father at home. Several years later, Joyce returned the favor at a Pitt frat party, breaking another boy’s nose for insulting her friend’s hair style. Rita likes to point out that this didn’t result in any paddle-beating, but nevertheless she appreciated it. To date, the pair has never even had so much as a disagreement, let alone a fight.
Though they went their separate ways after graduating high school – Joyce to work in a bank, Rita as an assistant to the headmaster at Bishop Canevin. The deaths of their fathers only a year apart made them both want to focus on the importance of family. They each took care of their mothers and started families of their own. While neither marriage ended up lasting, Rita and Joyce are both exceptional mothers and now grandmothers! Their children and grandchildren are the light of their lives and something they both brag about to anyone who will listen.
Joyce single-handedly put her three kids through college, all of them graduating with honors and eventually having children of their own. Rita let her only son run loose, allowing him to carve his own path which led him to compete in snowboarding and surfing competitions instead of attending college. The freedom she gave to her son would pay off later on when he earned a spot on the Forbes 40 Under 40 list for his work in the sports industry.
Despite their growing families and responsibilities, Rita and Joyce have always made time for just each other. Every month, they go out for dinner and drinks, laughing over the silly things their grandchildren did or reminiscing about the mischief they got into when they were young. Each are invited to one another’s family functions and vacations – Joyce has joined Rita on many Disney excursions, and Rita has tagged along with Joyce for ski trips.
At parties, friends and family alike roll their eyes as the pair are able to communicate with only a look or single word “Just ignore those two, they have that weird telepathy thing going on,” Joyce’s daughter mused recently. Even when life forces them to be apart longer than they’d like, the two will text throughout the week, just to check in.
Through love and marriage, death and divorce, each knows that the other is always a phone call away. The kind of connection and loyalty they share is something some people spend their entire lives searching for and never find. But Rita doesn’t consider Joyce to be just her friend.
“We’re sisters,” says Rita.
Seventy-six years and counting.