Our Gal Sal
By Fred A. Reed
Athens, mid-October, 1961. Two young Canadian women just arrived in the Greek capital take a seat in a sidewalk coffee house on Constitution Square. It’s a warm afternoon; pedestrians are strolling by; customers bask in the autumn sunlight.
At the back of the café a Greek-American named Peter Spanos is nursing a thimble-sized cup of Turkish coffee (“Greek coffee!” the waiter would have corrected him) while reading a novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
He looks up from his book and sees this: the two have taken a seat in ‘his’ café. One is tall and blond; the other brown-haired and of medium height. They are a bit tired after a flight from Istanbul, but ready for anything.
Anything—or more accurately everything—is what they get.
My house-mate Peter, whose self-ascribed job at the café is to scout for young ladies and, ideally, pick them up, gradually edges forward, easing from row to row until he is just behind them. They’ve noticed him, of course. “He’s reading a book in English” one whispers to the other.
The tall blond, though she hadn’t realized it at the time, would become my life partner of now near on sixty years. The other—Our Gal Sal (in reality Sally Mills, from the southern Ontario fruit belt)—would be an unfailing and constant presence in our life together.
Later that afternoon Peter bursts through the door of the apartment in Athens we share. Breathless, he blurts out: “I met these two girls, and one of them’s your size.” It was true; I was taller then than I am now, shortened by time and life’s vicissitudes. And her height has kept pace with mine, always a few centimeters less. Quite tall, though.
The moment is transcendental, though little did I realize it. To make a long story very short, the two were at that point attracted less by us than by our motorcycles: twin 250cc NSU’s. So off we went, our new acquaintances riding postilion. Peter and Sally rapidly formed a bond. The same thing took place with her tall blond travelling companion, a Toronto pharmacist enchantingly called Ingeborg, in refreshing contrast to my own monosyllabic name.
It wasn’t long before we had concluded that there was some long-term potential in our fledgling relationship. Meanwhile, Sally and my housemate’s brief idyll drew to a close. She returned to Canada and would later marry a man called Fred, whom she met on a deserted railway platform in Upper Egypt.
I didn’t mention that the two young women were in the midst of a round-the-world journey with no sharply defined end-date. Did the events in Greece speed up or retard its completion?
Unable to marry in arch-Orthodox Greece, Ingeborg returned to Canada. I followed and we were married at Toronto City Hall. Sally was our chief witness and guarantor. Not much later she migrated to Vancouver to found a family, while we moved to Montréal where I began a precarious existence as a draft resister.
But Sally never departed our life. A few years later we crossed Canada in Ingeborg’s VW Karman Ghia, a sporty but very cramped auto, camping all the way. Sally entertained us regally when we finally arrived.
Time passed. Her marriage came to an end and in 2000 she decided to strike out boldly. So boldly as to travel by bicycle across the country on her royal purple Marinoni, just about the finest two-wheeler then made in Canada. She crossed the Rockies without putting a foot down; set up camp and cooked dinner with her small group of dedicated fellow wheelers.
Was Sally accident-prone? Despite a fall from Peter’s motorcycle on a country road in Greece, tumbling into a ravine in the wild country just north of Vancouver from which she had to be rescued by helicopter, and—ultimately—being thrown off a camel in the Moroccan Sahara at the ripe old age of 82, she proved to be an exemplar of stubborn refusal to be bested by accident or sickness, of which she endured much without a complaint. “Don’t ever call me a survivor,” she would bristle.
Like many life veterans inured to solitude, Sally cultivated—with fierce intensity—a dense network of family, friends, distant acquaintances and people who had heard about her. Never at a loss for words and at times perhaps even prolix, she regaled us with accounts of the group she joined on its hikes into the BC interior. You’d look around, she said, and all of a sudden, so-and-so would no longer be there. We understood that the hike was a metaphor for life. Others dropped out; you just kept going.
With her characteristic daring, Sally came to visit us in Morocco just before the epidemic hit. And in the same spirit, she and Ingeborg set out on a second desert expedition, with strict orders not to ride any camels. While they were on the way, news came of border closings. They returned to Agadir, while her granddaughter fought to get her on an emergency repatriation flight.
Ramadan would begin in a few days. If she could not make the flight, she would stay with us, fast and all. But at the last minute a seat came open, and she headed north by taxi to Casablanca, and thence home to virus-free Gabriola Island.
We watched her leave with tears in our eyes.
Our indomitable gal Sal turns eighty-six—alone but never alone—at the end of January.