Call us ripe. The Jersey Tomatoes have chalked up 362 birthdays and eight marriages, given birth to 11 children and welcomed 13 grandchildren.

"The Donna Reed Show" and "Father Knows Best" aside, three of us are single again.

Never mind that we recently stared 60 in the face. We've been pals since we were in training bras.

Some may consider us past our prime, clutching, rather than clinging to, the vine. But we're sweet and juicy, with just enough acid to make an interesting marinara.

Every summer we gather at the beach and replay a female bonding ritual as old as Eve and whomever she turned to when Adam was out to lunch.

Within moments of greeting each other, we've arranged our beach chairs in a circle and reverted to adolescent behavior -- chattering and cackling and tuning out the rest of the universe.

Kerchiefs once kept our fly-away strands in check. A fragrant elixir of baby oil and iodine accelerated the release of melanin from our as-yet-undamaged skin. We would lie on beach towels for hours. Every 30 minutes a self-appointed timekeeper would remind everyone to turn over. In our prime, one could be disqualified from life for an uneven tan.

Now we help each other out of canvas chairs. Hats protect our bottle-enhanced hair from turning to straw. In bathing suits several sizes larger than the ones we wore when Elvis ruled, we grease up with SPF45 and huddle under umbrellas.

Once upon a time we gathered at sleepless slumber parties to gossip about guys. The objects of our affections would drop by to slow-dance in dark basements, the damp stucco smell commingling with potato chips and Canoe.

Now, slathered with Retin-A, we turn in early after talking about the partners we've lost to golf, the remote and/or bimbos half our age.

We used to drool over glossies of Tab Hunter and Sal Mineo. Now we cluck over Clint Eastwood and photos of grandchildren.

We've traded vanilla Cokes and milkshakes for margaritas and martinis. Given up french fries and burgers for pommes frites and filet de boeuf. Hung up our hockey sticks and ice skates for weight training and sticky mats.

Long ago our conversation turned from Chuck Berry and periods to Yanni and hormone replacement therapy. Once we pored over fashions in Seventeen. Now we research ways to camouflage cellulite in Modern Maturity.

Some things remain the same. We're still rehashing our parents' harsh rules about curfews, dress codes, cigarettes and alcohol. If we'd had an inkling of just how young they were when we were coming of age, we never would have waited until the second date for a goodnight kiss.

Over the years, we've supported each other through deaths and divorces, betrayals and breast cancer. No English teacher has to tell us what John Donne had in mind. When the bell tolls for one of us, it tolls for all.

We don't agree on everything. Among us are Catholics, Protestants, a Jew and an atheist; Democrats, flaming liberals and one recalcitrant Republican.

Despite our differences, we can't wrap our minds around the hype over aggression among girls. Our biggest conflict to date: seafood or Italian? And that we settled with a coin toss.

It matters not that we reconnect only once a year. We're a phone call or e-mail away. And the good thoughts always transmit. There's never a disconnect.

Every year our get-togethers become more precious. We no longer kid about being middle-aged. We don't expect to be around when we're 120.

But one thing is certain. As long as there are summers, we'll be rocking on an oceanfront porch -- maybe toothless, stockings rolled around our white ankles -- still yakking and giggling to beat the band.

From left, Chris Hildebrand, Sue Clark, Beth Rubin, Sandy Wotanoski, Bobbi Fox and Susan MacKinnon have traded beach towels for a shady porch.