They met on a hockey rink in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan in 1947, a quintessentially Canadian puck drop for a love match that would last more than 70 years. Two farm girls from Saskatchewan, Pat Henschel and Terry Donahue had been living most of their lives together as a couple in Chicago when Terry’s great-nephew, director and actor Chris Bolan, started filming them for what would become his quietly moving and intimate documentary A Secret Love (★★★★☆).
When we first meet them in the movie, Terry is a feisty nonagenarian who still resembles the dynamic athlete she was decades ago as a player in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, made famous in A League of Their Own. Three years her junior, Pat’s been doing her best to keep up the couple’s house in leafy, suburban St. Charles, while taking care of Terry, recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s.
We also learn that it was only recently that the longtime companions had come out to Terry’s close-knit family back in Canada. Her nieces’ and nephew’s apparent shock to find out that Auntie Terry and Aunt Pat have been more than friends all these years comes off as sweet rather than insensitive.
Terry’s niece, Diana, also the filmmaker’s mother, plays a pivotal role in the present-day drama the ladies face. Terry and Pat have reached an age where they’re forced to consider giving up their multi-story home and moving into a senior living facility, or into the home of a relative. Diana, like most of the nieces and nephews up North, doesn’t have much to say about the ladies coming out, but does register strong opinions about where they should move now that they can no longer live on their own. While she’d like them to move to Canada, at least one of them all but refuses to go.
A Secret Love strikes an excellent balance between encapsulating Pat and Terry’s remarkable past and involving us in the dramatic familial conflict over their future. And it honors their legacy as courageous queer women, without ignoring the fact they hid their lives from many of their nearest and dearest. Tangible details — like a box full of treasured love letters, all with the signatures ripped off to conceal who had penned them in case they were ever found — add weight to the bouncy home movies and eye-opening archival footage. “They wanted us to look like ladies and play like men,” Terry says of her days playing for the Peoria Redwings.
Bolan has said in interviews that he doesn’t believe his great-aunt inspired any specific A League of Their Own character, but it’s easy to see in A Secret Love how this spitfire inspires her family. Not everyone in the audience can reach inside their pocket or purse and pull out their own official baseball card, but nearly everyone will have felt at some point the fear Terry felt about finally revealing her truth to the niece she cherishes like a daughter: “I didn’t want to lose her love.”
A Secret Love is currently streaming on Netflix. Visit www.netflix.com.
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