When our little family—my husband, infant son and his 3 year old brother — began to bulge out of our small apartment, we moved to a more spacious house, in the early 1960s. Billie was our new next door neighbor. She and her husband had a two year old daughter and her belly was big with the new daughter about to pop out any minute.
We became neighbor friends/acquaintances for several years following, and soon enough, the kids were school bound and in the ways that these things happen, our connection strengthened and our innermost guts surfaced, as we shared our souls between laundry, cooking, marketing, childcare and attentiveness to the 1970s needs of our provider-spouses.
We both found time for grad school and highly satisfying incipient careers, while Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Simone De Beauvoir and others, held the banners high for “women’s lib.” And we began to acknowledge the validity of our own personhood as being distinctive from that belonging to the “Mrs-ness” of our lives.
My boys and her girls had no interest in each other and they all pursued life style and career paths illuminating the diversity of four individuals. Before we knew how it happened, after having coped with all of the ups and downs that life and marriage provided, it became 1985.
Billie’s older daughter, Barbara, was a volunteer in the Peace Corps in Nepal and Billie and her husband, George, had planned a trip to visit Barbara there that Christmas. But, alas! instead, George was felled by a sudden fatal heart attack the June prior to their departure.
Despite that there is a caseload of succulent side stories to relate, here is where this part of the story begins. It didn’t take much for me to persuade Billie to retain her original Christmas plan and I offered to accompany her to Nepal, with the not quite enthusiastic, but nonetheless accepting approval of my own spouse.
Thus, Billie and I landed in the New Dehi airport amidst the typical confusion that accompanies international travelers unaccustomed to being in a world outside of our comfort zone. Reminder! It’s 1985.
We hopped the next leg of the flight into the airport at Kathmandu, where Barbara met us and where “foreign-ess” reigned as in no other place I had ever experienced. Cows and yaks wandered the streets with the sauntering ease of pedestrians, as unleashed domestic animals dined on banana peels and orange rinds and the residue of exotic fruits, which were scattered randomly throughout the streets.
Almost two weeks of literally following on the heels of our shoeless sherpas through verdant Himalayan Mountain sides, camping out below sunsets and rising suns as we reached high elevations, exchanging translated messages with local families, including the children, and inhaling the sanctified purity of the surrounding air, was our idea of “Oh god. I think I have died and gone to Heaven.”
And that, including our week in northern India, “did it” for us. Billie and I, into our “what do we do now?” sixties, had tasted what was then called “adventure travel,” and we managed to make it an annual event for the next twenty years and then some.
Even as we had each relocated domiciles distant from each other, and as our health rendered it unwise for us to cross oceans, we found mountains at the end of interstates and made a study of the exceptional, though famously flat terrain within our own state of Florida.
Friends, and people who knew us, acquired the habit of combining “Billie and Emily” into one sentence when referring to us, and inevitably to our oft-told tales of off-the-beaten-track wanderings.
But this isn’t a “travel” story. This is a friendship story, as only people who skinny-dipped together in raging waters, ate piranhas fresh out of the Amazon River, crawled stealthily through Moroccan Kasbahs and so much more, then returning seamlessly to the quotidian life, spending “other” times together, completing the picture of the “average” American family.
This is how we aged – together and separately – jointly glued to each other by virtue of indelibly shared experiences—the two of us laughable in our differences, though solid in shared core values and personal goals. Billie, a minimalist could fit all her travel belongings into an envelope, while I, always excessive, packed for every possible “just in case” scenario. And, in all our years of “us” being “Billie-Emily” we had only one argument — concerning what Billie felt to be an extravagant price for an overnight lodging, and her insistence on traveling further into the dark night in search of a lesser cost. We never found the bargain and wound up back at the initial place – with a near empty gas tank, an apologetic Billie and what became a signature laugh line whenever we — (well, “I”) — dared refer to the incident.
And as the passage of life reflects the inevitable, after stoically “hanging-on” despite serious kidney failure, Billie celebrated her 90th birthday with her growing family towards the end of last year. But then, early into this year, Billie took her last journey, this one without any one us.
My world has surely shrunk without “MyBillie.” But according to all the actuarial tables I’ve consulted, it won’t be long before I will join her – again. Meanwhile, I live with our memories, and a determination to make new ones.