Wednesday, February 4, 1998
They'll take whatever's dealt

BY CLIFF RADEL
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The lunch invitation sounded too good to pass up.

''Topless Nursing Moms Play Poker . . . Come play with us.''

Deal me in.

Being of clean mind, I approached this from a purely journalistic perspective. This midday card game, I figured, would make an interesting ''Lunch with Cliff'' column.

The invitation, tastefully lettered with multicolored Magic Markers on two 22-by-28-inch pieces of poster paper, included a poker hand, five cards glued to the paper. It was a royal flush. My luck was improving.

Inside, I found this disclaimer: ''Just kidding!''

But I went anyway.

After two hours of poker, laughter, hearty food and caring banter with Melanie Millspaugh, Laura Kennedy, Trish Baker, Mary Blevins, Holly Heinrich, Nancy Gallat and Kristi Holsinger, I came away charged with the power of friendship.

Melanie, the instigator behind the homemade invitation, formed this weekly group of seven stay-at-home, poker-playing moms in 1992 with her around-the-corner Westwood neighbor, Laura. They ran into each other at LaLeche League meetings.

Both were lonely, making the transition from the work force to the home front and in need of friends. They found five other women with the same concerns.

''At first,'' Melanie said, dealing cards around Holly's dining room table, ''we were all breasts and babies.''

Today, Mary said, ''there's a rare depth and trust and honesty.'' She has the group's longest weekly commute, a 40-minute, one-way drive from West Chester.

''But it's worth every minute,'' Mary said. ''These guys are more than friends. They are treasures.''

That was apparent when I opened the front door to Holly's tidy Bridgetown home. Laughter raced across the threshold and drew me inside. The warmth of the women - whose ages range from 31 to 42 - and their obvious closeness showed that this wasn't a group that just meets in dining rooms once a week, eats well - Trish makes a mean lasagna - and then goes on about their business.

''We're like family,'' Holly said.

''We're better than family,'' Trish added, upping the ante. ''I didn't pick my family. But I choose to be here.'' Heads nodded in agreement around the oval oak table.

''There's no back-stabbing,'' Mary declared with a rush.

Added Holly: ''If somebody's not here, they don't have to worry about being talked about.''

How refreshing. In an age when so-called friends make secret tapes of their conversations, it's nice to hear that true friends still exist.

With simultaneous conversations breaking out across the table, the game began. It's a hybrid of Tripoley and poker. Pennies landed in cups atop a whirling Lazy Susan. The game was penny ante. But the friendships were pure gold.

''We can literally discuss anything here,'' Melanie confided during a lull in the action.

''Anything you can imagine, we have talked about in great depth,'' Nancy added.

The table-top talk shifted to food and movies. Mexican restaurants and As Good As It Gets were reviewed.

Looking at her cards, Melanie folded and then added: ''There's nothing I've kept inside with this group.''

The women went around the table and listed topics they've discussed: foreign films, Indian restaurants, literature, suicide, depression, a libido that's missing in action.

And a big one Kristi reminded everyone about: ''Men are in major denial about seeing the doctor.''

''We're lucky,'' Nancy said. ''We don't have the answer to every problem. But we always have someone who will listen.''

And they hear it all - the happy with the sad.

''All of us have had losses,'' Mary said. They told me stories about the passing of parents and the sudden deaths of infants. The room grew quiet. Suddenly, the sounds of a ticking clock and six little kids playing in the basement were plainly heard.

''We've all had some kind of tragedy,'' Mary continued. ''But here, no one says, 'You should be over your grief by now.' ''

Seconds later, with the dealing of a new hand, the subject changed to a happier topic. The room filled with giggles.

To hear them laugh, you would never think these women ever had sadness in their lives. Then it dawned on me why. They have each other.

Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.

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