We have reunited faithfully every year, these college friends and I. One weekend every year for 20 years. We’ve celebrated the job promotions and accolades, the weddings, the births of children, the cross-country moves and new homes. And we’ve seen each other through those other life events—the ones you usually don’t read about in alumni magazines—the job losses and identity crises, affairs and rocky relationships, divorces, miscarriages, depressions, and cancer. These women are my friends, the kind who accept the whole package and love you the more for it.

Our reunion tradition all started a few weeks after we graduated, when someone suggested we spend a weekend together at the beach that summer. Ten of us traveled to Sea Isle City, New Jersey. We economized by cramming into a dumpy efficiency with two bedrooms and a pullout couch. Most of us were still unemployed, after all, so we shared the required beach tags and brought our own towels to avoid detection by the humorless motel owner, who sternly reminded us when we checked in that the room slept six—and only six.

Though we lacked money, we were rich in other ways back then—in dreams and determination and in years. So much lay ahead. The engineers and business majors among us were heading off to good-paying entry-level positions at well-known corporations. The studious planned on graduate school. And the clueless, myself included, hoped that a life’s ambition would somehow—and soon, please—spread out before us a path gleaming with possibility. We never imagined the twists and turns and obstacles we would encounter along that path.

We made a pact that summer to reunite every year, no matter what. The rules were simple: no boyfriends, no spouses, no kids. This would be a weekend to nurture and savor our friendship.

I was the only one who ever broke the rules. One year, when I couldn’t bear the thought of being away from my infant daughter, I brought her along, and my husband, too, so he could take care of the baby. By the time I had two children of school age, I would break into song and start to skip as soon as I was out of their sight. Lately I have been lobbying hard for longer reunions.

Over the years we’ve explored some great places together. We were in Washington, DC, in an election year and shook candidate Bill Clinton’s hand (well, some of us did; others were less than thrilled with him). We have gone winery hopping in the Finger Lakes, lived history in Williamsburg, and huffed and puffed together through a kickboxing class at a health spa. Trips to Denver and Bermuda have been highlights. But really, it doesn’t matter where we go; the important thing is being together.

We’ve dwindled in number over the years. Some of us have moved too great a distance or have lost touch. Those of us who remain may not see each other at all in between these annual reunions, but when we gather together on the Friday that begins our treasured weekend together, the connection is immediate and reassuring. We giggle like teens and stay up all night gabbing with our roommates. (We can afford more than one hotel room now.) Amid the expectations and obligations we now shoulder, this one glorious weekend each year offers the chance to be the carefree young adults we were when we met.

The dynamics on these annual reunions are nothing like those at formal class reunions, where you worry about losing weight or hiding the crinkles around your eyes or impressing others with your career accomplishments. With this group of friends, that’s irrelevant. We know and accept each other for what we are. We don’t feel the need to impress or to pretend. Instead, we commiserate and seek advice and sometimes support and validation.

Twenty years ago we discussed our own academic interests and relationship woes. Today we talk about our children’s education and social development and find solace in discovering that their growing pains are quite common after all. The same holds true with other sensitive areas of life: relationships, health, all those closely guarded secrets and fears. We unburden ourselves, and it feels good.

When Sunday afternoon comes—too soon, as it always does—we go our separate ways again, as ready to take on the world as any 21-year-old.