Did she know the way from San Jose?

After all these years … ‘Birth­day Club’ mem­bers BFF

The Hamilton Spectator - - LOCAL - JEFF MAHONEY

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.

She’s “home.”

JOHN RENNISON, THE HAMIL­TON SPEC­TA­TOR

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.

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