What I learned up north about unconditional love

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This is me with my friend Yvonne. She, it must be pointed out, is not dead. I tell you this because often we don’t say these things about people until they are, and then they’re not around to hear them and then we have a big moan about how we should have said them while they were still alive and all that. So I’m saying it now, while Yvonne-the-undead is still very much in the land of the living. Because, it must be said, my friend Yvonne is categorically wonderful.

Let me tell you a story.

Once upon a time, waaaaaay back when I was a teenager, I went to a church Youth camp up in the north of the state. From memory I was sent to get me out of the house while my grandparents were coming over Easter and because of it I a) decided I was quite interested in this Christianity thing and that it wasn’t just for boring old people and b) met a rag-tag bunch of people who I’ve stayed friends with for more than twenty years now.* I met Simon, and through Simon I met his brother Iain, and somewhere at the end of camp we all swapped addresses and started writing letters to each other. They all lived up north. I didn’t.

We didn’t write about much. There wasn’t much to write about. School. Friends. Cars. Boyfriends. What we planned on getting up to at the next camp. They were fun letters to get, and good memories of friends who, back then, back before the days of mobile phones and Facebook–heck, even before the internet–and well before I got a car or a driver’s license, we didn’t get to see.

I don’t remember when it was, but one day Iain invited me and a few others to his house to stay. Probably for a night, probably before or after a camp, the details are lost to me now. I was pretty shy–okay, very shy–but he assured me that his mum wouldn’t mind, that she loves having people over to stay, and there were a few of us, anyway. We’d all camp out on the lounge room floor. It must have been fun. It must have gone okay, because pretty much every holiday after that I spent a few days at Iain’s house. Sometimes there wasn’t even a camp on and I’d be making the two-hour trek north to go spend a couple of nights hanging out with Iain and his family.

Iain’s family was large. He had four brothers, two of which didn’t live at home any more, and a whole crowd of other “brothers” and others, mates who’d come for the night, and then another, and another, and eventually, for one reason or another, moved in for a season. I met them too. I listened to them all talk cars…and more cars. They took me downstairs to the driveway and popped the bonnets (for my non-Aussie readers that means…oh, I don’t know…opened up the bit where the motor is) and tried to explain to me how cars worked, which I vaguely understood. Iain took me driving in his white Gemini, and just laughed when he slammed on the handbrake as I narrowly avoided walls.

And Yvonne, Iain’s mum, as long as she knew who was going to be there in the evening, fed us all. She never once complained about the excessive amount of food that a crowd of teens and twenty-somethings ate, or the ludicrous amounts of black currant cordial she must have had to buy. She must have gone through about seventeen packets of Weetbix a fortnight, but not once, to us at least, did she grumble about me staying again. I loved her for that.

Yvonne taught me to cross-stitch, showed me how to light a gas stove, taught me folk art painting. She told me all the stories about her grandkids, about her boys when they were smaller, taught me word puzzles from her local paper, and clipped out some spares for Iain to send me with his next letter. I loved my time with her, and more than once I wished I lived up north, wished I could have stayed forever.

And then we grew up.

Iain got married. I got married. We didn’t write any more. Iain drove buses, and when he drove down south he’d drop in and we’d catch up. Sometimes we’d make the trip up North again, and we’d drop in and say hi to them, and sometimes to Yvonne. We had babies, and lives, and mobile phones. Sometimes we’d text. Occasionally, when there was news, we’d call. I’d think about Iain every time I saw a white Gemini, and every so often I’d run into one of his “other” brothers who’d say “Have you spoken to Yvonne?” and I’d feel a sharp pang of guilt because I hadn’t, and a fierce regret, because I’d let life close over that  door to the north where magic used to be.

And then we went away.

This is the thing that changed for me: I went to America. And Canada. We drove hours upon hours to visit beautiful friends in a very different shade of north, and each time I had to say goodbye I missed them terribly (and still do), and dreamed of visiting them again (and still do), even when we went back to our little island on the other side of the world. Missing them made me remember how I missed Yvonne.

Here’s the thing: Yvonne is still alive. And she doesn’t live on the other side of the world. Suddenly, when you’ve driven your kids six hours to see someone, driving them for two hour’s north in your own state doesn’t seem like such a big deal after all. I sent her a message, and Iain a message. Last Thursday I bundled the kids into the car and made the journey north again, just as I’d done all those years before.

Moonrise

 

Yvonne’s house hasn’t changed. Well, the floors have, and the TV is new, and the couches. But the magic is still there.

Yvonne

 

It’s not magic, not really. It’s the feeling of familiarity, of home, of this-is-where-I-once-belonged, of where, after all these years, I’m made to feel I still belong. It’s the magic of an unconditional love that never once frowns at me or makes me feel guilty for not being in touch sooner, or more often, but opens its arms and says “welcome!”

When I grow up I want to be just like Yvonne.

*Let this be a lesson to all you parents out there. Be careful about sending your kids to church camps. You never know WHO they’re gonna end up getting involved with. You might find these people at your house STILL, some twenty years later. I don’t think church prepares you for that properly.

This is Iain, drying out after a wade in the pool with his little fella on Friday. Thanks for everything, mate! I owe you one.

This is Iain, drying out after a wade in the pool with his little fella on Friday. Thanks for everything, mate! I owe you one.

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