Words Barb Barry
Illustration Sierra Lundy
“There is a side of friendship that develops better and stronger by correspondence than contact…the absence of the flesh in writing perhaps brings souls nearer.”Emily Carr
I will never forget the day I first met her in the hallway of my Montreal apartment building. She was surrounded by the detritus of her current life and assuring her distressed companion sitting on the floor that everything would be fine. She was tall, imposing, with the most penetrating blue eyes and a great mane of blonde, disheveled hair. She made a humorous remark about their predicament. It made me laugh and I suspected that this person was someone I wanted to know. Her name was Cathy.
It was the end of the 1960s and I was a typical Baby Boomer. A “follower of the rules,” I had a university degree and a job as a computer programmer. In contrast, Cathy, slightly younger, was on a pleasure trip from Australia, aiming to see and experience as much of the world and its people as possible. Work was not her priority.
I was trudging along day by day, living in a fog, trying to overcome what I thought was a devastating relationship break-up. I had lost my self-confidence and my focus on the future. Cathy knew none of this, but maybe sensed my need, and immediately began to include me in her world.
And what a captivating world it was! She knew people from all over, some with interesting or sketchy backgrounds, and all ages, sexes and relationship statuses. Their common mantra was enjoying life, planning the next party and seeing the world. As the weeks passed, I was happily caught in their web. No one cared about my past. They were non-judgmental and there was a noticeable lack of rules! I basked in Cathy’s irreverent Australian humour, her self-assurance and lack of care in what others might think.
Eventually, Cathy and her friend decided it was time to head to London and perhaps tour Europe.
“What? No! Wait! Stay here!”
I was catapulted into action; I checked my finances and my lease, and decided to quit my job. My parents were incensed, and my father predicted that I—shy and quiet—would be home in three weeks. But with my new-found friend, Cathy, I would prove him wrong. I had no idea of the adjustments and adversities I would face in the year ahead, as Cathy and I explored the world.
The first stop was London, England in the spring of 1969. I joined Cathy in her flat, sleeping in one room with three others—a first blow to my comfort level. On my own, while Cathy worked, I travelled to Wales and to Oxford, staying in B&Bs, and slowly started emerging from my shell.
Eventually, with much naiveté and meagre finances, Cathy and I spurred each other on to try hitchhiking through Europe. There were many others on the road that summer. The youth hostels offered little privacy, with dorm rooms and communal showers. Cathy enjoyed the camaraderie, while I usually looked for a quiet corner to unwind and read. It was an early indication of our differences.
Along with the good times came some bad times, like hitching in the pouring rain or finding ourselves in a car with someone with whom we were uncomfortable. How careless we were—fearless and undaunted.
We visited the Scandinavian countries, Germany, walked through the Berlin Wall at Checkpoint Charlie, showered in streams and slept by a lake in Switzerland. As my funds waned, along with the novelty of this adventure, I decided to return to England by train and reassess my plans. Cathy continued travelling with some new friends.
Now more confident, bolder and adventurous, I booked a six-week passage on a ship from London to Sydney, not really knowing what was to come when I arrived. I visited Italy, the Canary Islands, crossed the equator, touched down in Cape Town, South Africa, crossed the Indian Ocean and finally landed in Australia. Luckily, Cathy was there to meet me as I had just 10 British pounds in my pocket. She whisked me off to a flat she had rented.
At that time in Australia there were more jobs than people. I worked at a stockbroker’s office, while Cathy took a job serving in a bar. We went to parties, bars, the beach, the theatre. For a time, I took a job as a nanny on a sheep station, wanting to see more of the country. Through it all, Cathy and I began to learn much more about each other and discover how different we were. Cathy loved being with people and made new friends easily. I was still coming out of my shell. Our backgrounds were also different. Australia at the time was still very misogynistic, and she was not encouraged at all to pursue university. She grew up with an absent father and went to a Catholic girls’ school. Hence, I believe she considered me intelligent, with my university degree and IT job. Plus, I had a more natural rapport with men.
A year later, I was feeling homesick and looked forward to returning to Canada. My confidence had grown, and I was thinking about the future. But it was difficult to say goodbye to Cathy. We didn’t know when we would meet again, but I promised, with tears in my eyes, I would return when I was 80 to walk a pristine Australian beach with her.
Now comfortable travelling alone, I booked passage on a ship once again, stopping in Hong Kong, the 1970 Japan World Exposition, Hawaii and California, eventually landing back in Montreal with a more confident outlook on life. Cathy had helped me get out of my comfort zone, and I had gone “around the world” physically and emotionally.
Twelve years passed before we were reunited. I was living in the suburbs of Ottawa, married, with a six-year-old son and a four-year-old daughter. Cathy was travelling again with stops in Canada and Europe. We had moved on in our lives and yet both still hoped for our friendship to endure. So, our communication continues. Our emails are long and newsy, and we share our thoughts and emotions about our life choices and the worlds in which we each live.
She began working in the film industry, while I became a busy working mother, moving with my husband’s career to the other side of Canada. We accepted, without judgment, our differences, each realizing that, to some, our friendship of over 50 years does not make sense. Still, we share an intimacy which is not based on the amount of time we spend together, but on the point our lives collided on that fateful day so many years ago.
Our understanding of friendship changes as we mature and then grow old. What makes a good friend and oh-so-rarely a “soulmate?” There are no easy answers, except that it takes some fearless decisions, trust, understanding and commitment. I do know that Emily Carr’s profound and wise quotation about friendship has unquestionably proved true for us.
Cathy and I have not reached 80 years yet, but we are getting closer. I am a grandmother, who just celebrated 50 years of marriage. Cathy is a successful film producer, still working. She has never married or had children. But she has many friends and still enjoys and continues to travel. We are still drawn to each other and respect our life choices. She took me around the world and back, and changed my very being, bringing me to become the person I am today. She is one of the most important people in my life, even though we are rarely together. I am forever grateful and amazed that she chose me to be her friend and she is with me in spirit always. I hope we are going to walk together on that pristine beach in the future.