“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.