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STEADFASTNESS BINDS BREAKFAST GROUP

For about three years now, I've been meeting once a week to have breakfast with five women for the express purpose of nurturing friendships and sharing lives.

Same day, same place, same women every week. And we order the same things, more or less, every time.We are intelligent, educated, resourceful women with families and jobs and full, productive lives. We could change the world, I'd say, if we put our heads to it. You wouldn't want to get in our way. So tell me, how come we never have a clue as to how much we owe for the check or how much to leave for the tip?

How can we possibly sit there for an hour or more - poised and articulate, engaging in deep, meaningful, philosophical discussion - only to find ourselves, when it's time to pay the bill, turning into Lucy and five Ethels?

"How much for coffee?"

"I only had hot water."

"Anybody got change for a $20?"

"What's 15 percent of $1.25?"

"I forgot to pay last week so I'll leave extra. How much is extra?"

"I need cash. How about I put the whole thing on plastic and you guys just give me your money?"

In the end, the accountant among us takes the check, counts the cash and, if it's short . . . which it usually is, well, then she gives us that look. And we all start throwing dollars at her until she says it's enough.

It's probably not the most efficient of systems, but it works well enough for us. On average, I figure we tip anywhere from 15 to 500 percent, give or take. And if the coffee is cold and the bananas are brown and the cinnamon toast needs more cinnamon and sugar sprinkled all the way out to the edges - well, never mind. Nobody goes home hungry.

We do like to eat well, but eating is not what this group is about. It's not even about friendship, really, though certainly there is that.

Mostly, the group is about steadfastness - a beautiful and old-fashioned word whose meaning has been all but lost in the blur of the '90s. We meet to be steadfast - to know one another, not just with honesty and compassion, both of which can be had from a stranger - but with consistency and endurance, once a week, over years.

In fact, it is steadfastness that binds us together, I think, more so than our beliefs or personalities or lifestyles. Of course, we are also bound by postcards. (The only excuse for missing breakfast is to be way, way out of town. Then you have to send postcards. I have quite a collection. Letterman's mother and her traveling jones would fit right in with this group.)

And by celebrations. Recently, half the group threw a party for the three of us who had 25th wedding anniversaries this year. We enjoyed it, too, even if they wouldn't let us eat until we put on those dumb veils.

And by prayers. Each week, they ask, "How can we pray for you?" and I say, "Take your pick."

I know quite a few decent, caring people who seem to fare just fine without prayer. But I don't seem to do so well without it myself. So I am comforted daily knowing five strong women are praying for me. And I'm changed, somehow, by praying for them.

Our group is not likely to go on meeting forever. We know that. Life has a way, doesn't it, of passing out newly revised blueprints every morning?

But someday, many years from now, we hope to meet again - all six of us, with our husbands and children, our families and friends - in a place my granddad liked to call the Hereafter. And we will sit down together for a real breakfast - where the coffee will be hot, the bananas won't be brown, and the cinnamon toast will have lots of cinnamon and sugar all the way to the edges.

Of course, when it's time to take care of the check, we still won't have a clue. We're hoping it'll be on the house.