A Valentine’s Day story

The author's favourite photo of Brenda, taken outside her Uncle Jim's new home on Haist Street, 1955. In colour, the way things look today on Google's Streetview. VOICE PHOTO ILLUSTRATION

Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, but memory never fades

Special to the VOICE

For years I would often drive out of my way and head down Highway 20 through Fonthill on regular visits to my parents’ home, if only to relive a brief summer’s romance from years past.

For me, it was a departure from routine on those trips from London, Ont., where I was living, just to remember a girl I met way back in 1955.

Heading east along the highway, past the once-plentiful orchards and fruit stands that I fondly recalled as a teenager, fed my appetite for nostalgia. It made me yearn for my lost youth, and for my first true love, a girl I should have worked harder to win over.

Her name was Brenda and she lived nearby, down Haist Street and along Pancake Lane. I had laughed at what I assumed was a such a pretentious name for a local road—that is, until she told me why it had been called so. (Cowpats.)

Life was sweet and golden that summer. I hitchhiked from my home in Port Colborne with a group of friends. Jobs were scarce. I was 16, she was nearly 14. Just a pair of teenaged kids with stars in their eyes.

I noticed Brenda with her short, pixie-cut blonde hair almost immediately. She was with a group of local girls, all cheerful and friendly. My buddies and I playfully teased them throughout the afternoon as we filled basket after basket with luscious dark cherries. At one point, I caught Brenda around the waist and we fell to the ground under a tree. A soft kiss was exchanged, then youthful awkwardness. I walked her home late that afternoon, the sunshine glistening in her hair. I was hopelessly in love.

Our romance grew over the next two weeks as we moved from farm to farm. I would often walk her home as my pals tagged along, on one occasion crossing part of the Lookout Point golf course. We took off our shoes and caressed our aching feet by walking across exquisitely soft greens. Then, wearily, I and my friends would try to catch rides back home.

Those warm, blissful summer days slowly slipped into autumn. I had managed to get a job back home as a theatre usher. Then it was back to school. I saw Brenda only a few times, whenever I could borrow my dad’s car but not often enough to suit either one of us. She and her friend Vera came to visit me once at the Strand Theatre, taking the trolley from Stop 17. But it was never quite the same again.

There had been Christmas cards from her, and a letter.

“I’m having a wonderful time. We’re just outside of Washington, D.C. tonight,” she wrote on one postcard to me while on a family vacation. “Tomorrow we’re starting for Boston . . . .”

In a letter, she took note of the absences in our relationship, such as it was.

“I don’t really know what to say; it’s been such a long time,” she wrote me in June 1958. “It certainly doesn’t seem like two years [since we last saw one another].”

Still, she acknowledged: “There were a lot of good times then. I wish we could do it again.”

If only, I thought to myself.

Brenda and her family moved near Montebello Park in St. Catharines in the fall of 1956. I saw her for the last time two years later, parking my dad’s car near her house and trying to work up the courage to knock on her front door. As I waited, a car drove up. I caught a quick glimpse of Brenda in the front passenger seat and quietly assumed the driver to be a new boyfriend. Despondent, I drove home.

In my second year at Western University, a classmate who had known Brenda told me one day that she had married and had a child. I took the news dispassionately. Within a year, I myself was married. A career in newspapers, the birth of children and the usual responsibilities that tag along followed.

Years passed, but I never forgot Brenda, often wondering where time and life had taken her. She was someone I just couldn’t seem to forget, despite the decades, miles and circumstances between us.

Little did I know that she had also thought about me.

One day in 1987 a greeting card came to me at the newspaper. It bore the greeting, “I’ve Been Thinking of You,” and inside carried the written notation, “Thanks for the Christmas card many years ago. Still think of you from time to time.” It was signed simply, “Brenda.” There was no return address.

I kept the card at my desk, surprised and flattered that she had remembered me. I thought about placing a classified ad in several local newspapers seeking her out but had dismissed the notion as intrusive. Still, I briefly toyed with the idea of hiring a private investigator.

About the same time I had nearly persuaded a colleague assigned to cover a major murder trial in St. Catharines to flush out her address, offering $100 as a finder’s fee, but to no avail.

I brought the card home when I retired, storing it in a desk drawer, where it sat until one day in 2012, when I was attempting to reduce the amount of material building up in my home office. It was at this point that I resolved to find Brenda, if only to return the card to her.

In the meantime, I had discovered an online condolence in a newspaper obituary notice for one of Brenda’s cousins. It carried both Brenda’s maiden and married names. Finding where she lived came easily.

I learned she was still living in the region, married for nearly 10 years to a man I knew nothing about. Intruding into this relationship wasn’t something that appealed to me. I also was married, and had been for nearly 54 years, to a woman who was now deep into the throes of Alzheimer’s disease. I had been caring for my wife for nearly a decade.

What to do? I wasn’t at all certain.

But I decided to mail back Brenda’s 1987 card along with a short note.

“Found this card while sorting through several cardboard boxes in my study,” I wrote. “It gave me a pleasant surprise when I received it so many years ago…. Those were good times. I hope you are well.”

Then I waited. And waited. It took more than a year before I received a response -— and the return of the card. Since I had held onto it for so long, she had determined in a note, “You should keep it.”

But that measure simply opened up a line of communication between us —and her eventual acceptance of my request to meet for coffee. (It took a few tries.) One coffee led to another, and another. We shared each other’s joys and unhappinesses.

Each of our lives, we agreed, carried complications that we knew would take time to resolve. But one thing was certain: We now knew that we truly loved one another.

It had taken all these years to find Brenda, who was almost 14 when I first met her, and nearly 74 when I found her again. And when I did, it only confirmed to me that this was the woman with whom I wanted to spend the rest of my life.

It was really that simple.

Bill Eluchok is a retired London Free Press editor and reporter now living in Welland.

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