When I was a kid, my sister used to laugh at how much my friend Debbie and I talked on the phone. She was right; we were always on the phone. Through elementary school, and most of high school, we talked on the phone every afternoon, or evening, about what had transpired at school during the day.
I remember my sister saying she had a vision of Debbie’s and my future. We’d be like Lucy and Ethel. We’d both be married with small kids; our houses would be next door to each other; the supper would burn, and the kids would run wild while Debbie and I talked and talked over the backyard fence. Ha. Despite the dated preconceptions, I still love that image.
|Grade eight in the photo booth at Zellers.
When Debbie and I were older and we shared an apartment, even then, I’d call her at her work from my work (or vice versa) to discuss our shenanigans the previous night. Or to say something funny about a young man with whom one of us had been on a date. Those poor boys, once they were under our microscope, we showed no mercy. But that’s another story.
The evening of our twentieth high school reunion in 1994, we arrived at the big dance together, both our husbands left behind in Ontario. I remember we were greeted by a guy, who neither of us knew, standing open-mouthed in the doorway, saying, “Are you two STILL always together?” Then he walked off shaking his head. “No, not always,” we chortled. But when we are, no matter how long we’ve been apart, it’s as if no time at all has passed.
Do you have friends like that, backyard fence friends? I don’t have many, but those I do have I cherish.
Like my dear friend Colleen. That’s her below in the zebra striped top at our junior high reunion in 2016. We’ve been close since grade two, ever since the school bus driver used to climb down from his seat to lift little Colleen up onto that big first step on the bus. People used to think we were sisters because facially we look somewhat alike. In fact, I’ve always thought of her as my “little” sister because sisters could not be any closer, or have faced any more travails together, than she and I have.
|Mary, Donna, Colleen, and me at our class of ’71 junior high reunion, in 2016.
Some of our shared “travails” have been serious, and some less so. Back in 1983 when I ditched my big city job and moved back home for a year, Colleen and a co-worker drove all night from Fredericton to Ottawa to pick me up and bring me home. I’d stored my furniture at a friend’s in Ottawa, but Colleen’s little old car was still crammed to the roof. There was just room enough to wedge one of us into the back seat amongst all my clothes and suitcases before we set off.
Thus began a fraught, exhausting, and hilarious twelve hour drive. Colleen’s battery went dead before we’d even cleared Ottawa city limits. We had to purchase a new one, and since the old battery had only recently been replaced, the mechanic wrapped it up and crammed it into a free spot in the trunk, so Colleen could get her money back. Then we drove through the afternoon and late into the night. Laughing, talking, stopping for coffee and snacks, smoking countless cigarettes, and swapping seats every so often to share the driving.
On a dark stretch of road outside of Edmundston, New Brunswick it became clear that something was very wrong. The car engine roared like a Maack truck. Colleen was driving, and she signalled, and then eased the car onto the shoulder. I was in the back, and I’d been in mid-funny story when we’d all heard the roar. Now none of us spoke. Colleen shut off the car, pulled on the parking brake, then took a long drag on her cigarette, and turning around to me, said with a grin, “Please finish your story Susan. I think I’d like to have a good laugh before we face the music.” Maybe it was just Colleen’s irrepressible good humour, which has seen her through many difficult moments in her life, or maybe we were just all dippy and hyped up on caffeine, but I’ve never laughed harder in my life than I did at that moment.
That was not the last break-down we’ve faced together. There have been several, too many to describe here. And I do believe I’ve earned a reputation in Colleen’s family as being very bad luck to have in the car. Ha.
|Dinner with friends new and older in France in 1988.
Not all of the women I consider kindred spirits are friends from my childhood. That’s my friend Eunice, above, closest to the camera, in the white shirt and earrings. This shot was taken in France in 1988 when I travelled with another friend to visit Eunice and her husband who were teaching on a Canadian airbase in Europe. That’s her husband at the far end of the table, grinning.
I still wasn’t entirely at ease around him at this point in my life. He’d been my first principal, and thus my boss, when I’d started teaching just three years before. And Eunice had been my mentor; you know, the slightly older co-worker who kindly takes the newbie under her wing and shepherds her through those scary few months of being in charge of a class for the first time.
Eunice and I both taught at an adult high school, where students and staff were on a first-name basis. So I had no idea that her last name was the same as the principal’s. No clue who she was, in fact. So when Hubby (who was only my boyfriend then) called me one night to say that he played hockey with my principal, who’d told Hubby that I should call his wife if I needed any help, I was aghast. “Oh, no,” I replied earnestly, “I won’t need to trouble Mr D’s wife. I’ve met this really nice lady who is helping me.” Ha. Took me almost a month to realize that they were husband and wife. Eunice loves that story. She always says she knows I liked her for herself and not because she was the boss’s wife.
In fact, she and I were laughing about that story at the hockey Christmas party the other night. Which brings me to the rest of our conversation, and actually to the whole point of this post.
At the party, Eunice and I mused about friendship, about our friendship, and the nature of friendship in general. And about those friends whom we cherish. Those friends who we may not see every day or even every month, but when we do it’s as if no time has passed at all.
It was a sad, but very restorative conversation. In many ways Eunice is still my mentor, and so I had sought her out partly to tell her of the recent death of my good friend Barbara. And partly because I simply wanted to speak of Barbara, and what she meant to me, and I knew that Eunice would have a sympathetic ear.
You see Barbara was one of those friends who I didn’t see very often, but who meant a lot to me. I met her when we worked together briefly back in the nineties, and we bonded instantly. We had long discussions about our classes, but mostly we talked about books and fashion. About my love of vintage hats, and her passion for Hermes scarves. About my growing up on the farm in New Brunswick, her childhood in Illinois, and her first teaching job in Newport, Rhode Island. She could do a perfect imitation of the accent of the well-heeled matrons of that city. And we talked and talked about books. In fact, Barb introduced me to the Mitford family. I still remember her surprise that I’d never heard the name, and her clasping her hands together and whispering, “Oh, my. You have such an adventure in reading ahead of you.” Yep, I sure did. Despite the difference in our ages, we got along like a house on fire, kindred spirits from the outset. I was in my early thirties, and Barb, well, Barb was a woman “of a certain age”, as she said at the time. Ha. That was the first time I’d ever heard anyone use that expression.
For the past few years, Barb and I have caught up during a long and chatty lunch every summer. We swap books, take notes on what the other has read, and thus which titles we should try to procure, discuss our travels, and talk of our husbands, my mum, and her children and grand-children. We almost missed our lunch this past summer. She’d been ill, so we delayed; I came down with shingles, so we delayed again. But she was adamant that this lunch would happen. So we rescheduled for a third time, and because she was not well enough to drive, and I’d not long been back on the road either, her husband drove her the forty minutes out to the restaurant we had chosen in Manotick, and a few hours later drove all the way back to bring her home. She looked wonderful, immaculate as usual, in a new Hermes scarf, and we had a lovely afternoon together. Our last as it happened.
I will miss her terribly. Not every day, because I hadn’t seen her every day for years. But as Eunice said the other night, I will miss the idea of her being out there, a phone call or e-mail away. And I will miss our lunches, and her supportive, enthusiastic desire to hear all the myriad detail of whatever I was doing… no matter what it was. Because she was one of those backyard fence friends.
Those friends who, every time you meet up, it’s as if no time has passed. As if you were Lucy and she Ethel. And you just stepped out the back door to hang a load of laundry on the clothesline and, instead, end up leaning over the backyard fence talking, talking, talking for an hour, or three. While the kids run wild and supper burns.
If you’ll pardon the outdated imagery.