Did she know the way from San Jose?
After all these years … ‘Birthday Club’ members BFF
The unhappy little girl from San Jose, a woman now, is laughing up a spleen in her kitchen with four of the five friends who rescued her; lasagna in the oven, canapés on the kitchen bar, afternoon sunlight flaming through the wine in their glasses.
When Kathy Santarelli (nee Truesdale) was seven years old, she tells me: “I thought my world was ending.”
Her parents were returning home to Hamilton, from San Jose, Calif., with Kathy and her brother and sister.
Home? San Jose was her home. Where Kathy was born. So this Hamilton place loomed like an evil forest in a fairy tale on the horizon of her early youth. Soon after she arrived, though, the city’s features softened for her: you see, at school Kathy met these girls.
Back to the laughter. The friends, over wine, are talking cemeteries (What could be funnier?), specifically the one just beyond Tapleytown Public School on Stoney Creek Mountain. That’s where they met. Tapleytown school. They’d go to each other’s birthday parties. They still do. Every year. The six of them. The Birthday Club.
On a whim, in their early 20s, they strode into Royal Studios on Barton (long gone now) and had their picture professionally taken. On a recent Mother’s Day, Kathy’s sons Gregory and David, 29 and 27, surprised her with a certificate for a photo-shoot — she and her five lifelong friends, together in a group picture again.
“It’s something we always talked about,” says Kathy. “In our 30s and 40s, doing the picture again, but we never did.”
The women, minus Cheryl Chrystian, who had to work, are together at Kathy’s and we talk about the picture — pictures actually — which turned out wonderfully. They were taken against the wall of Tapleytown School and in the leafy quietude of the cemetery. (Done by Zekar Photography, they’re beautiful.)
“We should get plots together there,” it suddenly occurs to Sandra (Campbell) Veselisin. Another crescendo of laughter. They’re that close: the six of them — Kathy, Sandra, Brenda Shaw-Duncan, Denise (Dorr) Wood, Joyce McKay (Baxter) and Cheryl.
They were at each other’s weddings. Travelled together — NYC, Cuba. Learned to drive together, in the fields in an Epic Envoy Denise’s dad got for them. Brenda and Denise were first introduced at age two; they lived across a field from each other in rural Highland.
“We wore a path through the field,” says Denise. Even though they were officially “next door” neighbours, it was a long way between. “We got binoculars so we could see each other from our windows,” says Brenda.
The conversation here is like a Bach fugue — five parts weaving nimbly in and out of each other — but with the bounce of a sea shanty.
Drinking stories, prank call stories, school “daze” yarns, each one building the feeling in the room, as happens every time they’re together, compounding over the years the strength of their deep, fast, lasting bond, and Denise keeps saying, “You can’t print that.”
And the memories, so microscopic. Sandra recalls Cheryl, as a new student, using every colour to underline her school work, only to have the page ripped out and get told to use “one colour!” Flesh tone. The things you hold on to.
At Tapleytown, they were called The Brats, says Joyce, and when they left, their new school at Winona got warned they were coming.
Part of the thing with The Birthday Club is, no one left. They all live in Hamilton, most on south east Mountain. But Cheryl did live in Victoria for a time. In 2005, they surprised her by flying out west for her birthday. Cheryl’s back now.
Their next challenge is to figure out what they’ll do to celebrate turning 60. “Maybe Vegas,” says Joyce.
“We just kinda never stopped,” says Denise. “We ended up good, and our kids even better,” says Kathy.
It turns out she knew the way “from” San Jose.
Thanks to good friends, she hasn’t thought about it since.
Friends forever: Brenda Shaw-Duncan, left, Sandra Veselisin, Kathy Santarelli, Denise Wood and Joyce McKay. Missing, Cheryl Chrystian.
“The Brats.” When they moved schools, their new school was warned about them.