In the past, when Tim and I planned our usual summer vacations, we practically closed our eyes and let our collective, unguided finger decide our destination on a map of Europe. For some reason, Europe was the place to be. We tended towards Ireland, the British Isles and France, but ventured to Belgium, The Netherlands, and Italy, as well. Last year, due to uncertainty around work commitments, we stayed in the U.S. and it felt strange, like we were missing out on something. However, our summer trip took us to Austin to visit our son and then on the Lake Charles and New Orleans so it was not a total disappointment. We saw ‘merica and it was intriguing to say the least.
This summer, we chose to stay on the continent, but our destination was not in the United States. When our friend, Bernie, proposed visiting Prince Edward Island for a joint getaway, we were intrigued. Canada, while just a short ride away, was never on our vacation docket. And aside from dinners out, concerts, and just hanging out, we had never traveled with Bernie and Deb. This adventure could get very interesting.
I had known Bernie from my childhood as a grammar school classmate and a shy, quiet, freckle-faced little boy and, although we had lost contact over the years, we reconnected a few years back through our mutual friend, Janine. Janine attended our local Catholic school, Saint Raphael, for only a year during our seventh grade but she made an impression. This tiny blond girl from Prince Edward Island, an unfamiliar place a million miles away to the twelve year old me, had a quirkiness and impishness that we attributed to her being Canadian. Janine was a novelty, speaking with a funny accent that was punctuated with a few well placed “Ehs?” Our class adopted her as a sort of a “pet” since she was so different and she had a natural magnetism that helped her to connect with everyone. When she left us in June of that school year, we were sad to see her go and Janine and I pledged to stay in touch. Over the years, we wrote frequently, visited only once when she came back to Boston a few years later, and eventually found our way to Facebook. With technology, our written correspondence evolved into to a mere annual Christmas card with a quick signature. It was sad in a way that our our extensive letters detailing our lives of boyfriend stories and house moves, marriage, and babies, were reduced to a quick post or a few emojis as we plodded through our grown-up lives in our respective countries.
In the end, it was Facebook through which I reconnected with Bernie. In our Facebook posts, Janine and I could see each other’s “friends” and the ranks of our mutual connections grew through our continued friendship. “Is that THE Joe Smith?” (insert any number of names) became a common question between us and usually it was a “Joe” in common. Hence, when Bernie’s name popped up on a comment, I sought clarification – “Is that THE Bernie?” – and it was. Despite the fact that Bernie lived only a few miles away, we had not spoken since 1978. Once our friendship was reestablished, Bernie and I conspired to find a plan for our spouses to meet, hoping that we could cultivate friendships between us all. Over the past few years, Bernie and Deb, and Tim and I, successfully have become frequent ‘double daters’, sharing history and filling in the spaces between teenage and old age.
However, the connection between Bernie and Janine was deeper than just a Facebook “friend”-ship. Janine had been Bernie’s neighbor during her time in the U.S., enhancing their familiarity. In addition, Prince Edward Island was a family vacation destination both in Bernie’s childhood and as the scene of Deb and Bernie’s honeymoon. When he proposed the joint vacation for our foursome, he thought that using his faint memory as our map and tour guide would be sufficient to show us all a good time. Always up for a road trip and an adventure, and in Tim’s case, the additional attraction of having a built-in vacation golf buddy, we accepted the challenge and the planning began in earnest.
As an additional contribution to the plan, Bernie endeavored to find a time that would coordinate with Janine’s annual trek back home to PEI from Ontario. The prospect of seeing Janine almost fifty years we after we first met was amazing to me. For Tim, he felt like he already knew Janine since I always shared her letters and Christmas cards; in turn, he had also been added to the ranks of Janine’s Facebook “friends”. Tim was intrigued by the prospect of meeting this “mystery woman” almost as much as the prospect of a round of golf or two on a storied PEI golf course.
A little over a week ago, Tim and I embarked on our first visit to Canada in almost forty years with our travel companions, Bernie and Debbie. Once on PEI, we applied ourselves to the task of hammering out the details of our reunion. When the moment finally arrived that Janine and I shared an embrace long overdue, it was hard to believe that a friendship, cultivated and nurtured via the mail and internet, had endured for so many years. During lunch, the conversation flowed, with very few lulls and ebbs. We shared a common history in writing and in life that made friends out of strangers. The reunion was more than any of us expected: a gathering of old friends in a new and very beautiful setting.
During the week, Janine and I, and our companions, met a few more times for dinners out, for ice cream, and at our cottage on the strait. Stories filled in the holes found in the history shared only in truncated letter and electronic form. Our spouses and significant others sat back and listened, and perhaps dozed, as we recounted tall tales and exploits of our youth and young adulthood. When names from our grammar school were mentioned, Janine remembered the who’s and what’s while Bernie, who attended our school for a few more years than one, didn’t. I feigned outrage at Bernie’s memory gaps, which in turn became a source of entertainment. It was a new kind of fun that I never imagined; without this opportunity, I would have missed something that I didn’t know I needed or wanted, and I am complete in a new way with another box ticked on my ever growing (and depleting) bucket list.
A lifetime ago, I met a spirited, little, blond-haired girl from a far away island. Never did I think back then that we would still be friends as “almost old” people. Now home, my visit to another country, just a short distance and a world away, is a mental souvenir enhanced by a reunion that restored memories and created new ones. I am grateful for the years of dedicated communication between Janine and me that provided the foundation for this gathering. It required commitment on both sides and, if one of us had not maintained our resolve to stay connected, Janine would be just a memory from long ago instead of a part of my today, as well.