I don’t have one single picture of my best friend. All the ones from our childhood together along with the ones from her wedding were lost in a house fire 30 years ago. She has been gone for almost 20. I miss her so. I wish I had paid more attention to her needs and not always believed that beautiful, reserved smile that said “I’m fine.”
Raye Ellen, or Raye Raye (my name for her from the time I could talk) grew up across the way from me. Her Mom, Verna, babysat me from the time I was two until I started school while my Mom went back to teaching.
Raye was two years and four months older than I and she always reminded me of that when she was being wise. She was not at all like me. She was shy and demure. I was rambunctious and rowdy. I liked to play with dolls but she did not. We did both love building leaf houses in the fall, snow houses in the winter and sand castles in the summer.
We were inseparable. I would land at her house first thing in the morning on Saturdays and wait for her to be finished her chores. I’d pitch in to help her if she had lots to do. She had more chores because she was so much older than I.
On warm afternoons in the spring and fall Verna would pack us a little lunch of peanut butter and banana sandwiches and off we would treck to Port Ryerse along the beach. We imagined all sorts of fabulous rescues and events as we slipped on clay banks and hurdled bolders and fallen trees. In the summer we rented “woopie floats” and played hairdresser in the waves until our mothers forced us out of the water because our lips were purple.
The worst thing we ever did wasn’t even trouble and we never got caught. Our determination to not be yelled at by parents was perhaps the feature we both shared. Nasty little girls that we were, one Halloween, we wrote with soap on the driveway of one of the summer neighbours. We were sure were going to go to reform school but no one ever even mentioned it.
We always went to church together and Christmas Eve was the best of all the year. We worked together at the local bake shop for several years. She got to high school much sooner than I did but did manage to sneak in a few proms together. The three years we were together we walked to school together every morning. She was the Events Coordinator her final year and also the prom Queen. I was so proud of her I almost burst. I thought she was the most beautiful woman on the planet.
Off she went to university and we got to see each other less often though I would head to Hamilton once in a while to stay with her in her dorm or later apartment. She was home on holidays and in the summer. She still worked at the bakeshop with me in the summer when she came home from school.
When she went to teacher’s college she needed a room mate so I volunteered but before we left we went on a great adventure together to work at Fern Resort in Orillia for the summer. That was where she met the man she loved (not my favourite but her choice so I supported it).
Our year living together in Ottawa was wonderful. We had a little top floor apartment near the corner of Bank and Gilmour which was also the corner of the Alexander Hotel and Pandorah’s Box. We had no idea what a bad spot we were in and were too naive to be scared so we just had fun.
We shared a bath with our rather neurotic landlady. Our stove was one of those amazing things where you could turn on two burners at medium, or one on high or have the oven on. Never all three at once. I taught her how to cook and she taught me how to keep a clean house. We laughed a lot. We went to LeHibou, a little coffee house on Sussex Drive to see some people like Bruce Cockburn and Murray McLauchlan before anyone knew who they were. We walked everywhere because we didn’t have much money. We skated on the canal and saved money for outings by eating Kraft Dinner (19 cents a box) and sardine sandwiches (17 cents a tin). We went to the circus together. We voted for the first time together. I do believe Trudeau won that election.
I worked in a little dress shop close to The Hill and she went to class. We trudged off to the laundromat on Sunday mornings. Our Christmas tree was two pieces of green Bristol board cut in the shape of a pine tree, with a slit in one from the bottom and the other from the top so we could slip them together for a three dimensional stand up. Glass balls from the cheap store down the street were placed carefully on the tree with pins from the sewing basket.
I cut my finger once and it bled like crazy. We didn’t know what to do but she had a friend in Stitsville who’s Mom was a nurse so she took the half hour drive and came to my rescue.
We had a few other incidents. One was the gas leak in the building. Our landlady wouldn’t do anything about it so in typical Peg fashion, I called the fire department. From that day on, every time the landlady saw us she would scream in her broken English, “I spit on you.” I noticed she kept taking our rent money though.
Perhaps the best night of our lives was a trip to Sussex Drive. On the way home, Raye, her friend from school Dave and I made snow angels in the fresh snow on the front lawn of the National Defense Building. We laughed till our sides ached and the -30 temperature didn’t seem to bother us a bit.
She got married the next summer and from then our lives didn’t intersect as often. Her husband had as much disdain for me as I did for him and he wouldn’t let her see me too often. We kept in touch though with letters and phone calls. She was in London. I was in Ottawa and then back in Port Dover.
She started her family a little ahead of me but our girls loved to play together. A trip we all took to Storybook Garden is still a fond memory for my daughters.
Life was not a story book for either of us but she kept the fact hidden better than I did. Raye’s torment was internal. Mine was on my sleeve.
One warm fall day she went away and never returned. She took her own life and while we speculate still, we will never understand the torture that must have been taking place in her heart. Some childhood sexual abuse I had never known about had driven her to desperate thoughts and unbearable pain. The woman who cared and loved so deeply. The woman who was my idol and my dearest friend in life chose to end her life and I cry for her still.
Thank you Raye, for showing me what a true friend is. Thank you for being the best friend a person could have. I know you have forgiven me for being less than you needed me to be.
I love you always.