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.”

First published in the July/August 2013 issue

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