They were six childhood friends, two of them since kindergarten in Montreal. Three now lived in Toronto. When they turned 70, they decided to mark the milestone by taking a road trip. I was friends with one of the members of their group and had known them all for years, so I offered to plan the six-day trip. In a heartbeat, they accepted.
Sociologically, our group was probably not unusual: three widows, two divorcees, one single and one still married to her original guy.
As I started to plan, I wondered what I had gotten myself into: six full days on the road, one vehicle, seven bladders. And so I nicknamed them the Bladder Babes. From there our motto flowed: We stop so you can go.
We chose the Charlevoix region of Quebec as our first trip. Since we were limited for space in our rented Toyota Sienna van, I sent e-mails advising everyone to pack light. Immediately, Judy took it upon herself to visit a Toyota dealership, tape measure in hand. She took all the cubic dimensions of the cargo space, went home and measured several pieces of luggage to see which ones would fit the space, then e-mailed her official report to everyone. Obviously, anyone who would go to such lengths (and widths) was qualified to become the Babes' accountant, carefully tallying up our expenses and dividing by seven.
What made the Babes work as a travelling group was that everyone brought something different to the table. Sandra had co-authored and published a cookbook and knew all about wines. She became our sommelier. Janice was knowledgeable about the culture and politics of Quebec. She was our historian. Because there was rarely a lull in the conversation, someone in the van had to be a good listener. That fell to Betty, quiet, thoughtful and an excellent driver. She became the chauffeur.
Francie's role didn't become obvious until our last night together. After dinner, she announced that she had written a poem about our trip and proceeded to read three pages describing every detail of what we had seen and done - in perfect rhyming couplets. She did the same for our subsequent yearly trips, earning herself the designation of poet laureate.
Although friendship was the unifying factor and travel the means, it was food that was the glue for this group. No one understood this better than Marlene.
Picnicking alfresco became our standard first day's lunch on all our trips. On the banks of the St. Lawrence we dined on Marlene's homemade pickled salmon, universally loved even by those who initially said they would never eat anything pickled. We finished with her fresh-baked chocolate and nut squares, washing it all down with a crisp white Ontario wine.
Our nights were pretty much the same. After dinner we would return to our bed and breakfast, kick off our shoes, sit in the parlour and chat. It always amazed me that after so many days on the road, we still had things to talk about. It was on these evenings that Marlene would whip off her wig to reveal her bald head, the only external evidence of a cancer treated with various chemo cocktails over a 12-year period. Nothing stopped her.
Road tripping with the Babes was like being married to them. I knew their likes, dislikes, habits and what made them happy. They were intellectually curious about everything: Frank Lloyd Wright architecture in Buffalo, the breathtaking beauty and craftsmanship of the Tiffany and Steuben glass collections in Corning, N.Y., the majestic gorge in Parc National des Hautes-Gorges-de-la-Rivière Malbaie in the Charlevoix as seen on a misty morning boat cruise. And who would have thought that the Jell-O museum, tucked away in western New York, would tickle their collective curiosity?
As for what made the Babes truly happy? Shopping. Usually in small towns and villages. The picture-perfect village of Hammondsport, N.Y., was the ideal place for purchases and the Babes did not disappoint. Marlene, a conservative dresser, emerged the winner with the most out-of-character purchase - a denim jean jacket festooned with dazzling silver sequins on collar and cuffs.
We determined that such a jacket should be accompanied by hurtin' music, so we sang what lyrics we could remember of Patsy Cline's Crazy. That night in a restaurant, I asked the singer who was performing if she knew any hurtin' music. She rifled through her sheet music and said she had only one - Crazy. When Marlene heard it, she beamed. It was a small moment but one that loomed large on the friendship scale.
We later learned that Marlene, an accomplished pianist, had downloaded the song's lyrics and was going to surprise us by performing it before our next trip. We would have hooted and applauded.
Last October, Marlene checked herself into the hospital. When I spoke to her there, she said her legs had given way and her arms were weak. "But the food isn't bad." Ten days later she died at the age of 72.
If I could have told her one last thing, I would have said that our trips were heightened by her presence. Every minute counted for her, and she added a dimension of meaning and purpose that travel for its own sake could not convey.
On our next trip, the mood in the van will be different - not morbid because Marlene is not there but thankful because she was. And one other thing I know: Judy, our accountant, will now be dividing by six. But in our hearts we'll be seven.
Sherry Kelner lives in Toronto.