Hello Meryl. This is my best 60th birthday present. Long time no see. xx Cathrin
I tapped my note to Meryl the same night she sent me a birthday text. It was our first communication, I should mention, in 20 years. We’d met as schoolgirls when we were six and were each other’s first friend. It wasn’t that we’d meant to drift apart—it was just life, really—but after so many years the silence between us had become too deep to breach. This birthday text was momentous, in other words. Let’s call it Stage One of the reunification.
The temperature outside my Toronto house had nosedived to -18 C. It was the kind of night when Meryl and I, at 12 or 13, might have gone out for an epic winter adventure, leaping over the ice hills that rimmed the shore of Lake Ontario. Newly 60, that sounded like at least one broken hip. Meryl wrote back within minutes, and we were off.
I thought about the first time I saw Meryl across a paved schoolyard in Grimsby, Ont., our hometown. (I’ve changed Meryl’s name, at her request, for this story.) She was dark-eyed and watchful, like me, and it was like recognizing something important in myself. Meryl, in her first text back, suggested we meet in the real world, but that felt a bit hasty. Sometimes I didn’t think about Meryl at all, sometimes I thought about her a lot, but the one constant was that she was safely situated in the past. This one text-away Meryl was very present, and I proceeded with caution.
As we texted back and forth over the next few days, Meryl was the first to relax into randomness, describing a bird or tree outside the window of her home, or remembering some old boyfriend or other. We lingered on the soft pillow of nostalgia but didn’t smother ourselves with it.
The memory-syncing part was cool and mysterious. When Meryl mentioned the Tea Room on top of the Grimsby escarpment, a rickety stick building suddenly appeared in my mind. It was made of logs, wrote Meryl, and the Tea Room stopped wobbling. Giving it shape together made our memories, if not free of falsehood—we both tilted toward the positive—then at least real. The magnificent magnolia tree at Livingston and Main needed no prompting: Big! Bold! Pink! But more satisfying than putting Grimsby back together again was that Meryl’s memories made my version of things less dubious. It had been a long time, if ever, since I’d felt that I was a reliable keeper of the past.
We caught up on our adult lives, too, as we texted back and forth. She still worked as a florist, as she had when we’d last spoken. And she’d stayed in the same Ontario town she’d moved to when she married, and raised her three daughters there. Still in the same house, it is now yellow.
Our moms were a steady topic. They were both 91 and both living. Or, to put it another way, they were both 91 and both dying. My mom had just lost the part of her mind that would have remembered our childhood, while Vivian was in her right mind but couldn’t talk properly after a recent stroke affected her speech. Our mothers’ connection to each other, separate from Meryl and me, was mostly invisible to us growing up, but it was a subterranean current in our lives. Meryl was the first person I texted when my mom collapsed, and after she died, I remembered that I hadn’t asked about Meryl’s father, Clayton, a handsome, broad-shouldered man with a head of thick black hair. Clay died 12 years ago, wrote Meryl.
On March 15 at 7 p.m., 11 days after Mom’s funeral, Meryl and I had the Phone Call. Our first phone call, I’ll mention again, in 20 years. I was nervous enough to think of texting that I was sick, or tired, or sad—at least two of which were true. I called Meryl from under my covers, and she answered from under her covers, and we picked up where we’d left off. Neither of us finished our sentences, instead letting our thoughts dangle dementedly. “I just think … Here’s what I’d say about that … My strong feeling there is…” Our conversation would have been mind-numbingly inane to anyone else, but we understood each other. We’d grown up in the same place, we saw things the same way, we didn’t need to explain ourselves.
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