My husband, Jim, and I load up his Jeep Wrangler on Brookline Street in Cambridge for our anniversary trip. The summer light, oozy. The briny smell of the ocean, fresh off the Charles. Excited, like the kids we were in 1981 when we met by accident in Harvard Square. His college gang. My college gang. Bang.
Passports packed, we drive out of Boston, over the Tobin Bridge, due north. We cross at the border, no problem. The summer sparkles, like we’re on top of the world.
Six hours later, Jim navigates the Jeep through Québec City, into the old town, walled, the streets cobbled and narrow, like we’ve been transported into a tale from the Brothers Grimm. We arrive at One rue des Carrières, roll through an arched stone entryway into the courtyard of the Château Frontenac, an enchanted hotel on the verge of Old Québec on a cliff overlooking the St. Lawrence River. I marvel at the architecture, at the storied setting, thinking about all the fun stuff we’re going to do. We’d splurged, picked an expensive room, one tucked into the highest floor of the chateau’s tower, wrapped in a copper roof, crowned with turrets, dotted with peep-hole windows.
Eager to explore the town, have dinner, we ditch the luggage, head out into the let’s-get-it-on evening, about to be lit up with thousands of yellow street lamps. The restaurants and cafes are open to the street. Folks eat inside and out in a panorama, a painting, of what life should be like. We wander, explore, look for a spot to eat.
A hostess, like the witch in Hansel and Gretel, lures us into a cottage-like restaurant, hung with window boxes filled with flowers. We oblige, mouths open, thinking of the treats inside. Ah, life. We toast a good time, sit content: watch the scene, talk about how far we’ve come, the obstacles, the routes we’ve taken. Bad about telling Jim what to do, I ask him not to eat so fast — not good for him. He checks me, not happy with bossy me, telling him what to do. His way, my way. A spar. What we do. Tired, annoyance forgotten, full: We head back to our chateau, to the huge canopied bed in the top of the tower.
The next morning, we ride the funicular down the cliff, down to the oldest part of the city, Lower Town, which hugs the river. We visit the Museum of Civilization, a stone monument to all that came before — the people, the settlements, the cultures. Astounded at the breadth of it all, minds blown after a couple of hours, we stumble into the museum’s gift shop. I want a souvenir of this place. Superstitious, I settle on a medicine pouch, a relic of the first culture. (I, part Cherokee.)
We stop to eat lunch outside on a pedestrian-only lane in the Lower Town at Bistrot Le Pape-Georges, where we devour a tasty feast of creamy local cheeses, fruits, hams in a scene straight out of a French village à la Beauty and the Beast. Perfection. Like a divine being cooked up the atmosphere, the weather, the sunshine for us.
I empty the medicine pouch on the café table. It contains six charms. A wolf promises me loyalty, success. A polished agate: strength, confidence. Crumbled sage: purification and balance. Corn: growth. Crystal: energy. A turquoise polar bear fetish: change, healing. LUCK: the pouches’ theme. The tag says, “Luck comes from within. We make our own luck. It’s a result of hard work and positive attitude.” Ah, yes, we hope we have the strength sometimes.
We hop on the funicular back to Upper Town, head to the walled fortress, loaded with the history of the making of a nation. We walk around the grounds, read about the battles, the struggles of a nation to stake a claim, build a place, a life for people.
I think about our troubles, our torments of the past decade that threatened to rob us of life. About my illness that landed me in the hospital for a month, that took me so much time to heal. Same with Jim — illness that landed him in the hospital many times. The last stay, a month. The hand of Fate? The wrath of the Furies? I don’t know. We build a fortress. We’re merely players. We forged onward, cared for our daughter, plunged into an uncharted future that led Jim, like Odysseus away from Ithaca, to other jobs, to Boston.
We climb the path around the edge of the fortress to the highest point, sit on a bench above the river, look out. I clutch my medicine pouch. There’s nothing we need to say, man.
We walk back to the hotel, have a drink in its grand bar that overlooks the promenade by the river, where pavilions topped with stripped awnings shelter ice cream stands, bandstands. Our waiter asks the bartender to concoct a special raspberry martini for me. Yum. Cool Canadians aim to please.
Jim reserved a table that night at Le Continental (depuis 1956) for our twenty-eighth wedding anniversary. We: dressy, formal. Professor and Mrs. Shanahan, seated in the center of the restaurant, talismans of happy patrons, who want to devour a fine meal, be part of food theater, raise a glass or two. We order Bananas Foster, old school, to finish. The waiter wheels in a cart, prepares the desert — flambéed at our table. Our entire life toasted with an indoor bonfire. Cheers.
Do I have to tell you what happened back at the hotel, after dinner? I guess I don’t.
Next morning we eat breakfast at a round table tucked into a corner turret on the concierge floor. I gaze at Jim, my companion for thirty-two years. I look out the window over the St. Lawrence, see all of Canada, all of America spread out, a startling vista, a kingdom, in my imagination. I see all the years unfold, flipping from one to the other, like iTunes album covers. 1981, 1982, 1983 … 2012, 2013. Each year themed with music, with guest appearances, with happenings. I feel hot tears drip down my cheek. I turn my head, look at Jim again. I smile, a soldier in life, feeling like a queen.
The next day we return to Boston via lobster rolls in Portland, Maine. The day after that Jim remains in Cambridge, our outpost. I return to our family home in Ithaca to wait like Penelope for Odysseus. To spin, to spin yarn, to spin stories. Ready for what comes next, for the next journey around the block.