Orange Street Gang takes over SJHS

by Bobbi-Jean MacKinnon - Saturday, September 23, 2006

This article is courtesy of Telegraph-Journal

SAINT JOHN - Carol Ferris has orange T-shirts, an orange watch, orange dishes, candles and picture frames. She even has orange Tic Tacs.

But it isn't because orange is her favourite colour. It's more than that.

It's part of her history, her identity, her family.

Ferris (formerly Dow), 68, grew up on Orange Street in the city's South End. That's where she met some of her life-long friends, affectionately known as the Orange Street Gang, or OSG.

The six women went their separate ways after graduating from Saint John High School in 1956 to attend university, get married and start families, with only occasional contact over the years.

But they were reunited in 1993 when the father of a mutual friend, the late Marilyn Melick, of Halifax, died.

"It was like a wake-up call," said Nancy (Fullerton) McLelan , of Oxford, N.S., who was in town this weekend for their 50th high school reunion. "We still had what we had when we were little girls, except we were big girls now."

"It was like we hadn't been apart," agreed Doris (Bradford) Norman, of Fredericton.

"The faces had changed a little bit, but it was still the same person you knew (40) years before - the warmth and personality you knew you could rely on. It seemed important to continue it."

In 1995, the women gathered again in Grand Bay-Westfield to celebrate their 60th birthdays.

And they've had an annual reunion ever since, taking turns hosting, with an extended group of another eight women joining them every fifth year to mark significant birthdays.

"What's the saying? New friends are silver, but old friends are gold. I think that says a lot," said Ferris, struggling to explain their palpable connection as they sat in her Millidgeville living room Friday, gathered around an album filled with photographs of them from elementary school, where they're wearing frilly dresses and bows in their hair; summers at Camp Glenburn, where they're standing behind outstretched towels, making it look like they're not wearing anything underneath; parties, where "a few boys" mysteriously appeared; and reunions, where the orange-shaped ceramic candle, that's ceremoniously passed from hostess to hostess, is featured prominently.

"It's our roots, our history. We have a lot in common," said Jean (Malcolm) Brown, of Fredericton.

Some of the women, all aged 68, have known each other since they attended the Centenary Queen Square nursery school. They lived just doors apart, between 111 and 162 Orange St., except Brown, who actually lived one block away on Duke Street. And their parents were all friends.

They went to the same schools - the former Sunshine Kindergarten on Germain Street, the old Victoria elementary school at the corner of Duke and Sydney streets, the former Saint John Junior High on Union Street, and SJHS. They attended the same community events. And they were in the same YM-YWCA programs, including basketball, ballet and gymnastics, sporting the same one-size-fits-all blue bloomer-style outfit with an adjustable belt. "Some fit better than others," recalled Brown, with a distinct, hearty laugh.

But it's the day-to-day memories that come flooding back when they're together that seem to mean the most - tobogganing down Pitt Street, keeping an eye out for cars; skating at an outdoor rink at the corner of Carmarthen and King Street East, where they warmed their mittens on a huge pot-bellied stove; and, when things got dull, a little "nicky nicky nine doors," ringing neighbourhood doorbells and running away.

They swapped comic books, played dress up, and swooned over their movie star "boyfriends," including Jose Ferrar and William Holden.

"And the Riv, don't forget the Riv," said Brown, referring to the old Riviera Restaurant on Charlotte Street, where they sipped cherry colas and shared chocolates sundaes with peanuts.

"These girls know things about me my husband doesn't even know," said McLelan, who's been married 46 years and is grateful her husband is understanding about the role OSG plays in her life.

"They're the sisters I never had," said McLelan, an only child. "We talk on the phone all the time. Thank God for (long distance) phone programs - and e-mail."

"But we're all computer illiterate," Brown and Norman said in unison, triggering an explosion of laughter among the fun-loving women.

Even identical twins, Helen Stephenson, of Grand Bay-Westfield, and Claire (Stephenson) Fidler of London, Ont., who have a powerful bond, consider themselves fortunate to have the OSG.

Stephenson, who is single, suffered a couple of illnesses over the years and "couldn't have made it without the letters and notes of support," she said.

Fidler described the OSG friendships as being even better than those in the Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, a movie some of the OSG members rented together for their 65th birthday. It's based on a novel about a group of lifelong friends in Louisiana who stage an unorthodox intervention to help a young playwright unravel the truth about her complicated, eccentric mother and let go of her painful past.

"We're a lot nicer to each other," said Fidler, including buying each other orange-coloured gifts every year - everything from orange rind peelers to drinking glasses and jewelry.

"We've never been horrid to each other, never," said McLelan. "If one got cut or sprained an ankle, we all hurt. If one cried, we all cried."

But Ferris has a chipped bottom tooth that suggests otherwise. She claims McLelan is to blame for swinging her roller skate key and hitting her in the mouth. "I have no memory of that," chuckled McLelan.

And Brown distinctly remembers running as fast as she could down Duke Street one day because the others were chasing her with a skipping rope. "I must have done something (wrong)," she said. "So we're not perfect."

But they're perfect together.

"We know each other's background; why somebody might act the way they do," said Brown, who's hosting next year's reunion and is already making plans; possibly tubing on the Nashwaak River.

"Don't forget your female friendships," she urged. "It doesn't matter what my schedule is, wild horses couldn't keep me away," said McLelan. "Orange Street stuff always takes priority."