The Secret Life of Friends

What happens to a friendship as the years and decades go by? Two women revisit a favorite vacation spot in search of the answer

by Holly Robinson
hands sand image
Photograph: Jim Mangan

Our first day on the island was perfect: breezy and cool enough for sweatshirts, the tide already out, the stones glistening like gems in the pink sand.

It was only when Emily and I spent 10 minutes admiring a jellyfish—deep purple and shaped like a delicate glass saucer with fluted edges—that I realized how different this day was and how much our friendship had been shaped by our vacations on Prince Edward Island.

Emily and I first made this trip 15 years ago. We were both newly single mothers in Massachusetts, raw from divorce and looking for an affordable seaside vacation. Each of us had a son and a daughter on that first trip, all ages five through nine. Neither of us owned a van, so we opted for a cheap Rent-a-Wreck—the sort of carpetless, shockless van my brother used to airbrush with flames when he was in high school. Minutes into our adventure, the van full of yammering kids was louder than a rock concert and smelled like one, too; the floor was strewn with empty fast food cartons and sticky with juice boxes we kept tossing into the back to quiet the din.

We knew nothing about our destination. We had chosen a house to rent by pointing a finger at a newspaper ad that said, “Come to Anne’s Land,” meaning the home of Anne of Green Gables, my childhood heroine. Then we simply piled into the van and drove.

And drove and drove and drove. Eleven hours straight, leaving the congestion of Massachusetts behind for the thick pine forests of Maine and the broad rocky vistas of the Bay of Fundy. In those days, the only way to reach Prince Edward Island was by ferry; the boat crossed the Northumberland Strait from New Brunswick and provided us with a respite from the van—and with seasick kids. It was pitch-black by the time we reached the island, but we followed our lousy directions along tiny country roads until we found the cottage and fell into bed.

We woke to fiddle music. Our cottage was at the edge of Rustico Bay, where great blue herons stood as still as statues along the marshy edges of the water. Across the bay, at a church with white steeples striped red like candy canes, there was a fiddle festival, the music luring us as surely as if fairies were playing it.

At the festival, we ate locally harvested mussels and new potatoes, danced and had the children’s faces painted. The vacation rolled on like that—one serendipitous event after another, punctuated by dips in the warm ocean and castle building in the red sand beneath burgundy cliffs where pine trees rose like cathedral spires above us.

I have been coming back every year since then, at first in the summers, then at other times of year as well. I can’t get enough of the red clay roads lined with lupines in Disney pinks and purples, the rolling landscape with its yellow hay bales like giant loaves of bread and those long empty beaches. Last year my second husband and I were barreling along a road near the easternmost tip and spotted a century-old farmhouse for sale. We were leaving the island, and no real estate agent was available to show it to us, so we bought the house by phone and have been fixing it up, a clapboard at a time, ever since.

My husband loves it here, but Emily is the friend I always associate with this beloved place. Every friendship has its landscapes, the places that inhabit the people we love and help form our lives. For Emily and me, that place is here. The island has shaped us as mothers, as women and as companions and confidantes.

We first met while we were working for the public relations office of a big medical center. We couldn’t have been more different. She is tall and slim, I am short and round; she is somewhat reserved, I am noisily social; she has always had impressive career titles, while I have drifted through part-time gigs doing whatever. My first day on the job, Emily took me to lunch in the hospital cafeteria and blurted, “You have a field hockey player’s personality.”

Taken aback, I laughed, then realized it was meant as a compliment. We became friends that instant, somehow managing to get together on weekends, our young children in tow, even though we lived an hour apart. Since that first summer on the island, those children have grown, and Emily, too, has remarried; we’ve both had cancer and survived it. Emily lost a son to a congenital heart defect, and I had a son with my second husband. (Our child is 15 now, and the island is part of his inner landscape, too.) Our careers have evolved, changed focus, flourished. I lost my father and grandmother. Both of us talk about how we will miss our mothers when they’re gone.

This trip is the first long one that Emily and I have ever made here with just each other. It was difficult to tear ourselves away from our work and home lives, but we did it with the determination women don’t usually have until we are confidently -middle-aged. Admittedly, it was strange to be alone on the beach that first day, contemplative rather than exhausted by children who, instead of peacefully admiring a jellyfish, as we were doing now, would most likely be poking sticks at it, throwing seaweed or burying one another in sand and then weeping because somehow, strangely, the sand had gotten into their eyes.

After examining the jellyfish, Emily and I stopped farther down the beach to watch the ferry slowly make its way from Souris, the island’s easternmost port, to the Iles de la Madeleine and talked about the logistics of taking the boat ourselves, even if we turned around and came right back.

“We could do that,” she said, clearly savoring the thought. “We could just go if we felt like it.”

We didn’t, but we were intoxicated by the knowledge of that hidden power, our new freedom.

During our first two days on the island, Emily and I caught up on past events. We talked about work and spouses, children and gardening and house projects. Then we moved on to the future, imagining what we might do once we didn’t have to work quite so many hours, and the trips we might take next year or in the next decade with our spouses, other friends or each other.

Finally, though, we settled into a rhythm. We ate biscuits and yogurt for breakfast, did a little reading or writing, then walked on the beach. Later we’d drive to dinner somewhere nearby, usually a fish shack or a favorite restaurant that served mussels on a long screened-in porch overlooking a bay. We spotted more blue herons and goldfinches, a pheasant and a black fox cub poised at the side of the road.

Within a couple of days it seemed as though there were no longer any past or future. We were just here, on the island, surrounded by ocean and content to be in the present. It was as if we were children again. We searched for beach glass and shells, pondered a dead whale on a sandbar, examined a seal skeleton, tried to identify birds in the marshes. We met up with other friends from time to time but spent most of our hours alone together. We walked the beaches until our legs and hips and even our toes were aching with this unaccustomed exercise. Sometimes we talked, sometimes not, happy to listen to the surf. There is space for silence in this friendship because we understand the need to retreat from the world, even from each other.

“What do you think was the best thing about this trip?” Emily asked on the last day. We had returned from the beach, had rinsed our feet and were munching avocados and tuna on the deck, admiring the flowers on the chestnut tree that rose like candles, glowing pale cream against the deep green leaves.

I stared at the blossoms and considered. I’d loved the island on this trip as much as I ever had, but what I’d treasured most was being here with Emily and feeling how this place always helps us reconnect and embrace whatever has happened since we were last here. We have been happy and grief stricken, angry and optimistic. We have been alive here. Our friendship, like this island, is rich with secret coves and open beaches, with sharp pines and music.

Years ago, when my younger son was just out of kindergarten, I brought him to my favorite island beach and watched him run away from me to jump into the surf. His footprints disappeared on the damp pink sand nearly as fast as he made them. I thought then about how transient childhood is and about how soon this boy would be not six but 16, and then 26. I tried to imagine what might happen between now and then, to him and to all of us. I couldn’t.

As Emily and I were walking on that same beach earlier on this last precious day, we had turned to look at our footprints, remarking on how they wouldn’t be there tomorrow or even, perhaps, an hour after we left the beach. The world would have no evidence that we had ever been on this island. Only we would know.

“Well?” Emily said. “What has been the highlight of the trip?”

“You,” I said. “This.”

She laughed, knowing exactly what I meant.

HOLLY ROBINSON is the author of the recently published novel The Wishing Hill and of The Gerbil Farmer’s Daughter: A Memoir.

Next: How to Make Friends at Any Age

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First Published Thu, 2013-06-06 11:56

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