Marking passages: Christine

“They DO live more in earnest, more in themselves, and less in surface, change, and frivolous external things. I could fancy a love for life here almost possible; and I was a fixed unbeliever in any love of a year’s standing.”
– Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights, Ch. 8.

Haworth, England. July, 1970. Wind over the moors. The Bronte house. A parrot squawks over an alleyway. A lonely, emotionally overwrought twenty-five-year-old American divorcee sits sobbing in the lounge of a small hotel. A Yorkshire girl barely twenty, spending the summer making beds and cleaning the hotel, finds the stranger, puts down her cleaning things, sits on the floor and says, “What is it?”

“I’ve never felt so lonely in my life,” the American sobs. “I love all the Bronte books, but especially Wuthering Heights, and I saved up all my money for the past two years and got here and–” she howls and sobs, “I’M THE ONLY PERSON ALONE HERE! All the people on the moors are in couples and families, and I’m alone, and the wind is blowing, and….”

“That’s it,” the Yorkshire girl says. “You’re going home with me. Go pack your bag. Tell the desk clerk you’ve had an emergency. I’m off work in fifteen minutes, and I’m taking you home to my family.”

This is how Kathy McQueen, American secretary as she was then, met Christine Kendall; how an American girl with a lurid, dysfunctional past became adjunct “family” to a thoroughly stable Yorkshire working-class family in a little mill town called Saltaire, and how Kathy and Christine began an odyssey that would include a life-long stream of letters (before email) hand-written or typewritten, folded into envelopes, stamped (the price of international air mail often a challenge to both of them), and a scatter of visits–two women, both with hardly a pot to piss in, saving up, stretching their budgets, striving to mark the passages in each other’s lives, to stay in touch, and to see each other every decade or two. Christine stayed in Yorkshire, married her first sweetheart, had three children, and became, when the kids were grown, an IT specialist in a nearby hospital, slipping off for occasional vacations in Mallorca. Kathy, who became Kendall, lived all over the planet, hurled herself into a multitude of attempts to do the right thing and to make art, accumulated four children and a dozen surrogate children, broke her heart over and over, and always yearned for Christine’s roots, solidity, and stability.

The Kendalls (the name–also Kathy’s great-grandmother’s name–was a coincidence) in Saltaire in 1970 consisted of Da and Mum, who had met while working at the mill and had fallen in love and were still in love; Granny (a bit eccentric, fiercely opinionated), Christine (the eldest), Shirley (Christine’s younger sister, with a passion for the French language even then), and Richard (a red-haired naughty boy); and they lived together in a row of tiny houses built by old Titus Salt, and they went to the pub together, and they took their American visitor in and made her welcome. And the great thing for me–I am what became of that Kathy McQueen–is that they were the most functional family I had ever met. They genuinely loved each other, they treated each other with respect, they all really wanted whatever was best for each other, they had a laughing appreciation for life’s ironies, and as Emily Bronte says, they were “more in earnest, more in themselves, less in surface, change, and frivolous external things.”

Christine and I visited York Minster in 1970, and she took this picture of me with my little instamatic camera. I took pictures of her, too, and sent them to her, and maybe she still has them. On our first visit together we arrived during a pageant, with children dressing behind wooden statues that were later destroyed in a fire. We listened to Evensong, which moved us both to tears. We found the tapestry that says, “In the work of our hands is our prayer.” The work–of our hands, of our lives–became a theme for us, a fugal theme in letters, and now in emails and on Facebook. Whenever I could get back to Yorkshire (in 1984 with Seth in tow, in 1993 after my first year in Lesotho), Christine and I went back to York Minster. We went with her children, with her Mum, with her sister-in-law.

We went back to Haworth in 1993, and her Mum shot this picture of the two of us, twenty-three years after our first meeting. In 2001, I went to London with Manko, my baby girl, fulfilling Manko’s wish, and Christine got a bus down to London and spent a day with Manko and me, despite asthma and bronchitis. She was that determined to see us. And now, on my way to Lesotho, I will have an eight-hour layover in London. Christine is coming down on a train for the day. She has had upheavals in her life over the last year, losses as devastating as anyone alive ever has to know, which it is not mine to talk about. But on September 30, 2010, we will meet in Covent Garden at a Brazilian cafe called Canela, and we will spend the day and laugh and cry again, marking the passages in each other’s lives.

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About Kendall

Aging drama queen (former professor of theatre) writes, takes pictures, and messes about.
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12 Responses to Marking passages: Christine

  1. Darlene Olivo says:

    The pics came through here!

  2. Ann says:

    Oh, that’s a very beautiful story of precious friendship which still goes on, and may it continues ad 120.
    May you travel safely and may you find Christine well and in good spirits. You two are about to have a sunny, wonderful day in London, no matter the weathers.
    I love your writing, Kendall. You put your heart in it. Thank you.

  3. Elli says:

    that’s a lovely story – my family, on my father’s side are Yorkshire working class too, it’s nice to read a tribute to ‘people like us’.
    What an amazing relationship to have over so many years – I’m sure your meeting will be wonderful 🙂

  4. Christine Johnson says:

    My dearest Kathy, I am already in tears and Mum is proud that we Kendall’s made such an impression on you. I cannot wait for Thursday, but won’t want it to end because then I will wonder if we can ever meet again before ????? My life has prompted me to take opportunities as soon as they arise so when you told me you were travelling through our capital I just had to meet you, grasping at what may be our last meet to laugh, hug and cry the hours and memories of 40 years gone. I am and always have been proud of everything you have achieved because you have always done what you wanted to do and yes, you did make a difference all over the world, but most especially in this little corner of Yorkshire. Be safe my friend, I will be there, come hell or high water! xx

  5. Pat Hathaway says:

    This story of friendship for life brought me to tears. I’m so glad you are meeting again, continuing to weave more strands into this epic friendship.

  6. Kim Sharp says:

    Just one word- sweet!
    Make it so and Blessed Be!

  7. leiflife says:

    What a moving and delightful telling! Thank you for sharing Christina with us, and also for resurrecting the youthful and tender hearted Kathy for us to love and care about. How familiar and dear she is!

  8. Uomi Brog says:

    What a great beginning of a relationship that would last for so many decades. Wishing you both a very happy reunion. It is so special to maintain a relationship for so long, you must truly cherish each other. Thanks for sharing, you do it with such simple elegance and so much heart. And who needs a pot to piss in anyway.

  9. Annie says:

    Another interwoven thread emerges – I wondered why I felt so drawn to you. I grew up in Yorkshire and knew the York and Bradford/Saltaire of the 60s and 70s when you visited. I knew families and homes just as you describe. I left to go to university in Liverpool a lifetime ago, and did not return as by then my parents had died and other family were also gone, so making a new life and family for myself but always nostalgic for my roots and that rural setting. Until recently I have not returned at all – as you may have seen in my Blip journal I tracked down the castle near Tadcaster where I was born – a very emotional experience and now a treasured memory. Enjoy your reunion with your dear friend. As you fly to Africa I will probably be flying back from Spain.

    • Kendall says:

      Fly safely, Annie. I’m so glad we’re connected now…and we might have been then. I’m searching for Tadcaster in your journal, haven’t found it yet. How recently was it?

  10. Fidelity, loyalty, durability and all those ‘principles’, so you do see what I was getting at a couple of days ago in a very different setting. I don’t want it myself, as probably you don’t except on the sidelines, but it’s not to be dismissed if it’s genuine ……

  11. Keith says:

    Yes, a moving story of friendship and what strikes me too is how easily it might never have happened. That our lives turn on such precarious coincidences is always a wonder to me. I’m very glad that the coincidence of you and Christine turned out the way it did; and that you had the generosity to share it with us.

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