In my lifetime, there have been three older women who have been very important to me. One was my mother, of course. The second was a family friend, Billie, who was almost exactly the same age as my mother, and the third was a neighbour, Maureen, who was younger than Mum, but still much older than me.
Mum, pictured at the top on her ninety-first birthday, was always there for us. She smothered me a bit at times, since I was the youngest and the only girl, and there were an awful lot of things I wasn’t allowed to do, and many restrictions placed on me that were not placed on my brothers. As I grew older, and jeans, rock music and boys came into my life, we clashed quite often, but she was a good mother and she was always there, baking, sewing, and knitting for us, patching us up when we were hurt and caring for us when we were ill. She had the kindest heart imaginable, even if she wasn’t always able to empathise with me terribly well. I never fell out with her – she was hard to fall out with – but equally, I never actually told her how much she meant to me,.
Billie was a very dear person with a cracking sense of humour, an infectious giggle and a very individual outlook on life – that’s her with my mother on the beach at Hove, laughing at the camera and wearing very short shorts. We didn’t see her all that often because we lived in London and she lived on the south coast, but when she did visit she would light up the room with her huge personality. She would do anything for those she loved, and I can remember my brother and I staying with her for a seaside holiday when we were very young. When her husband Ambrose developed dementia 1, she cared for him devotedly and nearly went out of her mind doing so, because he wouldn’t let her out of his sight, let alone out of the house. When he died, she coped magnificently right up until the time his cat died, upon which she fell to pieces.
This is Maureen, the slender lady on the left in the lilac jacket.
When I was about twelve years old, we moved into a rural bungalow and acquired new neighbours; Maureen, her husband, their toddler, and a lovely cream coloured labrador called Cleo. I loved dogs and had never had one of my own, so very soon I was chatting over the fence and offering to take Cleo for walks. She was a very easy dog, because she had been trained to walk at heel without collar or lead and if she was told to wait, wait she jolly well would until she was released 2. I was just thirteen years old when I got to know Maureen, and she really was a second mother to me through my difficult teenage years. I would go and sit with her when I felt misunderstood, lonely, bad tempered, stifled, emotional, or at a loose end, and she would get on with her chores and chat and listen, and make me cups of coffee, and I always felt better when I left. I’d play with her young daughter, too, making paper dolls, drawing, colouring and so on. Sometimes I’d take both daughter and dog for walks, and sometimes I’d babysit. And then I grew up, got married, moved away, and saw them only briefly when visiting my parents, and gradually we lost that closeness and saw each other only occasionally.
I write in the past tense because all of those wonderful ladies are now gone. In fact, for the past couple of years, friends, contemporaries and relatives have been dropping like flies in a room full of DEET, and this kind of thing makes you think 3.
I was thinking a lot this morning, as one of our elderly neighbours lies in bed in a care home having suffered a stroke. This gentleman has been suffering from dementia for a number of years, during which time I’ve become quite close to his wife, the lovely G. We started by offering to take G into town with us when we were going to have time to wander around because we know she loves to window shop, and because anyone who cares for a family member with dementia is going to need some time out now and again. I’ve also spent time with them in their home, just chatting and laughing together, and G and I have become quite close which is really rather wonderful. She is, perhaps, a tiny little bit of a mother figure for me, since I have lost my own, but more than that, I value her as a friend. G keeps thanking me, and telling me how grateful she is to me for visiting and for taking her out, and another thing I was thinking this morning is that perhaps I should be thanking her.
Why am I telling you all this? Well, because now G is the fourth woman in my life who has become quite important to me. Recently, she thought I’d fallen over on my way home from her house 4 and she came hurrying out, quite pale with fear. She hugged me tightly and told me that she thought she was going to lose me. And so this thought stayed with me and fermented and became today’s post for International Women’s Day.
You see, I now know that I am important to my new friend, but how often to we actually tell people that they are important to us? Did I tell my mother? I don’t remember ever doing so, and now it’s too late. Oh, I knew my mother well enough to know that she would just say ‘Oh, don’t be silly – you’re my daughter! I know without you having to tell me!’ I remember hinting at it in a letter to Billie, which I sent her after Ambrose’s cat died, and she responded by telling me I was a dear girl, and we never spoke of it again. I do remember telling Maureen. On one of our rare visits, we sat and drank tea, and I apologised for all the times I’d gone round as a teenager and left her with the mess to clear up after playing with her daughter (and later, her son). She laughed and said yes, I’d done that quite often, but that she’d enjoyed having me occupy the children for her while she got on with things. It was then that I told her that she’d been my second mother and I think it pleased her. I’m particularly glad that I did so, because it wasn’t long after that that I heard that she’d died.
As we get older and we start to lose people – family, friends and neighbours – we often end up with regrets. We may feel that we neglected someone, that we had unfinished business with another, that there was perhaps a rift with someone which we wished we’d healed … or simply that we never told a person dear to us how special they were to us. I ask you now to think about those in your own lives, and consider whether there is anything you’d like to say to anyone, now, before they are beyond your reach. It’s easy to say ‘Oh, maybe I’ll go and see Great-Aunt Sally next month. I’m too busy right now’, and you think you have time … and then one day, you just don’t.
1 He was a true gentleman, and did so in a very gentlemanly way. I can remember him wandering into the kitchen where B and I were talking, and he’d say ‘B, have I had my tea yet?’, and she’d say ‘Yes, go and sit down and read your paper’, and he’d say ‘Oh, have I? Alright … ‘ and wander gently away. She would then say to me ‘I’ll get it for him in a minute’ and finish her cigarette before doing so.
2 I had first-hand evidence of this when I took her out one day, told her to sit and stay while I went into the butcher’s shop … then forgot she was with me and walked nearly all the way home without her. When I realised what I’d done, I ran all the way back to the butcher and there she was, still sitting outside the shop, having watched me walk away without her and disappear.
3 And the first thing it makes me think is that I don’t want DEET anywhere near me, thank you very much.
4 They have an alarm system in their very long driveway which alerts them to approaching – and leaving – visitors. I’d left her, walked home, met OH with a fence guy who wanted to inspect some fence damage we had, and all three of us walked down G’s driveway, but only part of the way. Enough to trigger the alarm though, and make them think that a small army was on it’s way … or that I’d fallen over and was being helped up, possibly by a team of paramedics.