I have wanted to write about this part of my life for a very long time. Here is a condensed version of the story. I hope you enjoy it.
“It takes a long time to grow an old friend.”John Leonard
“Someday, I’d like to go to the Shakespeare Festival,” I said.
“Well, set a date,” she replied.
Those words changed my life when they were spoken nearly forty-five years ago, and they continue to guide my choices and agenda. “If you really want to do it, just set a date,” she continued. “Once it’s on the calendar, you’ll move in that direction and make it happen. Set a date.”
So we set a date. The birth of The Stratford Gang began just as simple as that. What started as a one-time weekend adventure became our decades-long autumnal commitment to The Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario. Every ensuing year, on a weekend in September or early October, we would cram our suitcases into a van, and as soon as school was out on Friday afternoon, we’d head for the Canadian border.
Our earlier trips across the Blue Water Bridge and through customs and immigration included questions regarding tobacco and alcohol. One year, when the officer asked if we were bringing any alcohol into the country, I responded, “I don’t think so.”
“What do you mean you don’t think so? Aren’t you the driver? Don’t you know what’s in your vehicle?”
“Well,” I continued. “Not anymore. They finished it on the bridge.” Green Frosties…limeade and vodka…drunk through a red licorice straw, was just the beginning of the fun that year. Together, we laughed often, long and loud. The same jokes and stories of past years were recounted over and over. The punch line or a quick “remember when” would have us laughing until our sides hurt.
As wrinkles appeared and our hair became laced with threads of silver, the questions at the border morphed into whether we had mace or pepper spray and whether we were coming to Canada to get our flu shots and drugs cheaper.
The group configuration was in flux in the earliest years, but within a few seasons, we had solidified into a steadfast band of six…sometimes seven…women…teachers, nurses, and one retiree: Lois, our designated drinker, and chocolate advisor. Lois introduced us to Dark Chocolate-Covered Ginger, the eating of which became a required yearly sacrament. We were all in complete agreement that a visit to Rheo Thompson’s candy store was a requirement. We might miss a play, we said, but we’d never miss the chocolate shop. We said we’d miss a play, but we never did.
Oh, the plays! Sitting together in the dark, we saw hours and hours of fantastic theatre. Dramas, comedies, a few of the Shakespearean histories, and later we added every musical we could…Gilbert and Sullivan, Broadway revivals, and some productions that went on to Broadway.
In 1980, we saw Maggie Smith in Much Ado About Nothing. She had joined the festival to earn her chops as a stage actress. My friend and I met her by happenstance outside the theater after the performance. What a thrill. I have her autograph…and amazingly…I know where it is.
We witnessed the Canadian actress Seana McKenna in one of her first roles in a production of “All’s Well That Ends Well” set in the 1920s, where she sang most memorably…With a Hey Nonny, Nonny and a Ha Cha Cha.”
Over the years, we watched the career of the amazing Colm Feore, who my granddaughter now knows from The Umbrella Academy, a television show based on the comic book series of the same name. I was sitting in the front row of the Festival Theatre in 1988 as they filmed the production of Taming of the Shrew, in which Colm played Petruchio, and I almost became part of the show. During the dressmaker scene, a yardstick was slammed down on the table. It splintered and flew into the audience, impaling itself into my foot. They used footage…pun intended…from the second night of filming. Other than backstage tours, that’s as close as any of us came to being on stage.
Stratford has four theatres, but our favorite, The Festival Theatre, built to resemble the original tent used in 1953, became the holy shrine towards which we made our annual pilgrimage. Our call to worship was the fanfare played on heraldry trumpets and drums. The sound of the canon was the prelude reminding us to get settled, for the magic was about to begin.
Theatre is such a uniquely symbiotic experience. The cast and crew have the power to bring a room of 1,800 strangers to tears or cause them to laugh out loud in unison. The audience then offers the gift of their response in the form of applause. Sharing this exchange with friends heightens the experience making it almost spiritual in nature. Our original bond was the plays, but gradually, almost imperceptibly, our relationship and our connection became stronger and deeper and went far beyond the activity on the stage.
Over decades, we watched each other age, mature, and mellow. We listened and prayed with those who went through illness and divorce. We cried with our friends who suffered the death of a spouse. We bragged about the accomplishments of our children, shared the delight of grandchildren, and rejoiced at the discovery of new love and second marriages. We didn’t always agree on matters of religion and were never able to sway each other from one political party to another, but that did not stop us from having rousing discussions. We always knew that we could safely discuss our beliefs and feelings openly without risk or judgment. Well…maybe a little judgment…but we also allowed, encouraged, and recognized growth and change.
“Everyone has a friend during each stage of life. But only lucky ones have the same friend in all stages of life.”unknown
Lois was with us the fall she was eighty-nine, but that Christmas Eve, she entered the hospital. She died on Epiphany…the 12th Day of Christmas…January 6th, 2002. We were heartbroken. Although she was much older than the rest of us, she was never a mother figure. She was our contemporary, and we adored her. She was who we all wanted to be when we grew up. We gathered after her funeral to discuss what we would do going forward. We each thought she had been the glue that held us together. What would happen to The Gang without her? What we discovered in that short meeting was that though we loved Lois immensely, we loved each other just as much. None of us wanted to let go of this wonderful thing that we had created. None of us wanted to spend an autumn without our time in Canada.
That was twenty years ago.
We continued to make the yearly trip…until we couldn’t. Cancer, Parkinsons, bad knees and hips, and life changes eventually meant that we were no longer able to continue as The Stratford Gang. Our love for each other and the place that brought us together remained, but after more than thirty-five seasons, our trips together eventually came to an end. A couple of us continued to make solo trips. My husband joined me once, and my friend Bettie joined me on another occasion too. Then one fall…I went alone. It’s funny, I expected to feel a great sense of loneliness, loss, and grief, but it was quite the opposite. My friends were everywhere. I could see them hurrying through the park, shuffling leaves with their feet, hoping to arrive in time for the trumpets; I could hear them laughing in the washroom during the short intermission, and I felt them beside me as I got comfortable in my seat. Life goes on, and so does love.
“A strong friendship doesn’t need daily conversation or being together. As long as the relationship lives in the heart, true friends never part.”Unknown
In the summer of 2019, a new Stratford group was created when my two dear sisters and my darling granddaughter agreed to join me for a weekend of theatre. Just as the leaves change every autumn, my Stratford group changed as well. I will always miss that time with The Gang and those young green lives that once were, but the beautiful autumn foliage reminds me that change can be wonderfully glorious.
I’ll buy our ticket for next year in November, just as soon as we set a date.