Halfway through the fifth grade, my family moved to a huge mobile home park at the edge of Riverside, California. I was unaccustomed to so much concrete, having lived most of my life in a tiny mountain ski community, Big Bear, where everybody knew everybody and the forest was your back yard.
I was ten years old, small and shy, and was sure that I’d never make any friends in this big city.
Because our move had been during the Christmas break, I was entering a new school mid year. All the kids at school except me would already have their friends and know what was going on. I was assigned to share a double desk with a small girl with neatly combed brown hair and expensive-looking clothes. I felt very shabby next to her, but she was immediately friendly and put me at ease.
Throughout the day, my new deskmate, Bronwyn, showed me the ropes at my new school. She shared her colored pencils with me, showed me where the coldest drinking fountain was, and even sat with me at lunch. After school, she offered to help me find my bus. It was then that we learned that we lived in the same mobile home park.
Bronwyn lived with her father in a single-wide about twelve trailers down from me. Though she was just ten years old, her father let her have the master bedroom of their little trailer: the most luxurious bedroom I’d ever seen. She was an only child, and her father seemed to give her whatever she wanted. Her father was an American, her mother was British, and Bronwyn was born in Wales. She was the first person I’d ever met who had been to a different country. A lot of the toys and dolls in her room were imported: she had a toy koala, and a set of tiny animals made with real fur. They were like nothing I’d ever seen.
What quickly elevated our friendship from mere classmates to best friends was that we both had read and loved the Chronicles of Narnia. Narnia is a magical land created by C.S. Lewis in a seven-book story where the animals talked, there was such a thing as unicorns, and children could be kings and queens. Bronwyn and I had been reading the stories to ourselves since we were seven years old, and we each told the other that we’d never met anyone else who’d read them. We both had named our pets, toys, and even houseplants after characters from Narnia: Wimbleweather, Rumblebuffin, and Trumpkin.
[Sadly, I have no photos of Bronwyn, so I have instead used illustrations from the Chronicles of Narnia in this post. Many of these illustrations are by Pauline Baynes and are from this site.]
Many afternoons would find us hiking around in the not-yet-developed hills behind the mobile home park. We would climb the rocks and collect flowers and catch lizards and climb trees. And as we hiked and climbed and crawled and played, we pretended that we were adventuring in Narnia. We would be subjects of the High King and his Royal Consorts, or we would be weary travelers from Archenland, bearing gifts from King Lune. We would sing the Abba song, Fernando—“Can you hear the drums, Fernando?”—imagining together that it told the tale of a great Narnian battle. We made forts in the bushes and memorized every blade of grass until all the hills were our own.
On school days, I’d walk to Bronwyn’s place and she’d help me put makeup on, then we’d head down to the bus stop. She sat beside me on the bus, we always played together at recess, and we did our homework together after school—stopping at her place first to make sure all my make-up was off before my mom could see me. We spent the night at each other’s houses on many weekends—usually at her place, as her father just left us alone to do whatever we wanted.
Bronwyn was exactly two days older than me. On our birthdays when we were in the sixth grade, my mother gave us each a necklace that had a little golden cube threaded by a fine chain. We pretended that the cubes were magical and aided us in our trips to Narnia. Bronwyn and I used to tell everyone that we were cousins. We didn’t really believe it, but we used to pretend, even between ourselves, that we were Narnian cousins.
Late in the sixth grade, Bronwyn moved to another part of town to live with her mother in an apartment. We still saw each other at school, but I missed her terribly at the mobile home park. I took other friends from the park into the hills that we’d called Narnia, but it was never the same adventure that it had been with Bronwyn. With other friends, Narnia was just playing. With Bronwyn it was still just playing, but it had been something more.
Sometimes I’d take Bronwyn’s bus on Friday afternoons, or she’d take mine, and we’d spend the whole weekend together. But when Summer came and we were more dependent on our mothers for transportation, we saw each other less often and turned to other, more easily accessible friends.
The next school year, seventh grade, we started going to junior high. We didn’t have any classes together, but we always met before and after school and for lunch. For the first part of seventh grade, we were just as close as we’d been in grade school. But then, halfway through the year, it changed.
On a warm night by the pool at the mobile home park, I started to smoke pot with some of my brother’s friends. Within a short time, I was acquiring new kinds of friends and spending more time with them. Bronwyn was puzzled by my changes as we began to spend less time together. As it became clear to her that I was getting into drugs and was running around with a different crowd, she refused to join me. I don’t remember what transpired, except that I rarely saw her any more after that.
Less than a year later, my family moved to Arizona. Once I got there, my wildness exploded and I was bar-hopping by the time I was fourteen. At Christmas, Bronwyn sent a “To My Cousin…” Christmas card, squeezing the word “Narnian” in front of “Cousin.” But I never sent anything to her. I was too busy partying and getting into trouble to remember what a wonderful person she was or to realize what a beautiful friendship I was throwing away.
The years passed, and I grew out of my rebellious stage. When I was in my early twenties I found an old card from Bronwyn at the bottom of a box in my closet. I wrote a long letter, full of apologies, catching her up on all the things I’d been through, and begging for both her forgiveness and her friendship. I got the letter back about a month later. It was unopened and stamped with a “moved: forwarding order expired” message.
In the next few years, I wrote or called every person I knew who had also known Bronwyn, but nobody knew where she was. I heard that the Social Security Department would forward mail to “lost persons” in some cases (a service they eventually discontinued). I wrote a brief letter to Bronwyn and sent it over to be forwarded. But after about a month, the Social Security Department returned it to me, saying that they couldn’t locate her. They said that this meant that she had either changed her name before getting a social security number, she’d moved out of the country, or she was dead.
Now, nearly 30 years since I’ve seen her, I frequently daydream about taking out a huge ad somewhere, offering a reward to anyone who would put me in touch with Bronwyn. I know that she could have grown and changed into any kind of person imaginable. I know that if we ever meet again, we might have nothing in common. Except for Narnia.
I sometimes try to google her, mostly unsuccessfully. A decade or so ago I found a brief early-1980s newspaper article about her, a promising young gymnast with Olympic dreams. But she dropped off the edge of the world somehow. And now, every year when it is two days before my own birthday, I send my yearning hope into the world that Bronwyn is somehow celebrating her own. But I can’t help feeling that she stopped counting birthdays long, long ago.
Joni Mitchell has a song (called Big Yellow Taxi) in which the chorus is: “Don’t it always seem to go/ that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.” That’s how it is with Bronwyn. When we were kids, we knew that our friendship was something special, but I had no idea just how special it was when I was letting it go.
And now, nearly 50 years after we first met in fifth grade, I am haunted.
I first wrote the above post in my journal in the late 1990s or early 2000s. I recently updated it and posted it to this blog, where a close friend with an obsessive streak for research saw it. She started doing some digging, then enlisted another friend with uncanny skills for research, whose specialty is genealogy research.
And after only a day or so, they found Bronwyn. And yes, she is alive.
I had spent about 30 years hauntedly missing Bronwyn, relentlessly (but apparently, as it turns out, quite poorly) searching for her online, and frankly being utterly sure that she was dead. I won’t say I was obsessed… okay, I was obsessed. But only in a quiet beg-my-son-to-name-my-granddaughter-Bronwyn way.
So, imagine my surprise, my shock, when I received an email from my friend last night with a phone number and the message “This is Bronwyn!”
Last night, Bronwyn and I texted for a while (I really am not a phone person), did a little catching up, and exchanged info. I’m still a bit in shock. Very, very happily in shock.
So, what is the moral of this story?
I guess one is that if there is something that is important to you, instead of giving up or assuming the worst, ask for help. There are probably others, but I’ll have to add those here another day. I’m still too busy enjoying the end of this story.