Today was my work day … normally sacrosanct, I lock myself away and stay glued to the keyboard, generally going without lunch. I get so little time to focus completely without the joy of a small person demanding to be picked up or wanting to play, that when I do have any I become a monosyllabic workaholic.
We have a family friend, a remarkable vibrant, incredible woman. She was 80 today. One of my mother’s oldest friends.
She’s known me all my life, at my 18th birthday party, she and her husband were the only grown ups, other than my parents that were invited. She overwhelmed me with love, her presence filled every corner of any room she entered and she never put any kind of caveat on warmth and affection, her welcome was always absolute. I haven’t seen so much of her in the last 10 years, but she’s often in my mind, and I listen to the CD of the Lark Ascending which she gave us for our wedding and think of her breaking down taboos, encouraging mischief and independence and supporting my mother in her beliefs that childhood should be for fun, for joy and for adventure.
She has 3 grown up children, they were always grown up to me … probably only a few years older but as a little girl they seemed so mature and worldly. By the time I was a teenager they’d gone all round the world and started their own families and lives away from the family home, but one of my first overseas adventures, to Greece as an au pair one summer was down to one of these intrepid worldly beings. She (through our parents) helped me find a job one summer, teaching and speaking English to two little Greek girls. I’m not sure really how much I helped them, but I had a wonderful summer and fell head overheels for one of their family friends, a glamorous architect called Spiros. He taught me how to play tennis and how to windsurf and we drank retsina together. Shirley Valentine’s crush was nothing compared to my adoration of Spiros.
Crushes, like buses, come and go, they burn bright and leave sparkly memories … friendship endures. Mother’s friend was at our wedding, and we were there with her encouraging and loving her after she was diagnosed (as her sister had been before her) with MS. She nursed her sister until she died, she knew what lay ahead of her.
In her mid 80s, my mother has lost many old friends in recent years, of the 40 or so we gathered together for her own 80th there aren’t many left, when her dear friend, someone she met when she was at university, not another student, a student nurse studying nearby, became so ill she had to be cared for in a nursing home, Mummy found it hard to see her. She’s not cold hearted, far from it, she’s the most loving, welcoming person I have ever known, but I think after loosing my father, and then so many of her own friends it became almost intolerable to see another person she loved so stricken. She saw less and less of her and wouldn’t talk about it.
Then, the invitation to the birthday party arrived. I wasn’t even sure then that Mummy would accept, the guilt she felt at not having seen her old friend, the sadness and fear she felt at seeing her again both of them now elderly, engulfed her. I agreed to take her, just to say hello and drop her off so I could come back and do some work. All the guests were asked to provide their fondest memories of their friend. Mummy and I sat down and came up with some stories, some very meaningful and vivid memories and sent them through to the family.
I was flustered this morning. Hope had a bit of a restless night, Mother had shrunk my only smart outfit in a hot wash and I’ve been feeling swamped under paperwork. I really didn’t feel like going but somehow I couldn’t not. Mummy needed me there and I wanted to see our friend and her family too.
I dropped her off and parked the car and followed her up the stairs to the room where the family were all gathered. I felt very shaky as I went in. The first thing I saw was Mummy sitting, eyes red but not crying, holding her friend’s hand. Two old friends, two heads together, two hands clasped. Then I saw the wheel chair, noticed the difficulty with which her friend was sipping from a straw held to her mouth by her daughter and I shrank back a little, unsure what to say. Her daughter, one of my childhood muses rushed over and embraced me in the same way her mother did all those years ago.
I went and gave her a kiss. Jean held my hand, kissed it and said, “I’ve known you since you were three”. I was born overseas so it wasn’t til my parents came back to England that she met her friend’s daughter. “I’ve known you and I’ve loved you”, I didn’t know what to say, looking into those familiar, beautiful eyes I felt flooded with emotion, with calm, with joy and with sadness. I copped out rather and showed her a picture of Hope and promised to bring her round to the nursing home for a visit. It matters to me that she meets her.
I couldn’t leave after that, so I shared lunch and then sat and listened as one of her daughters ran through photos from the wonderful life, that of a friend, a hitch hiker, a dancer, an actress, a bride, a mother, a camper, a teacher, a nurse, a resolute campaigner for women and for fairness, the founder of a drama school for people of all abilities and disabilities, someone who put the person first, and not the wheelchair. It was very humbling. It was also very moving hearing people who have known one another for up to 80 years sharing their stories and their love.
When it came to Mummy’s time to talk, she didn’t feel up to it, so I picked up the typed out notes. Disaster nearly struck as I wasn’t wearing my glasses and everything was a blur, but I found Mummy’s old specs and read through her memories and a few of my own, of her friend. It was a hard thing to do, I could feel the tears pricking at the back of my eyes.
I left Mummy there, sitting with her dear friend, I said goodbye to her children, and drove home. I sit here now swamped (as you can tell) by the emotion and the importance of friendship. All the more so as I have a little Hope in my world now.
I don’t want to burden her with memories that aren’t hers, but I do want, and I’m delighted to be able to give her so many friendships and experiences with a history. I have a friend whose mother was my mother’s friend and whose grandmother was great friends with my grandparents, Hope now plays with her daughters. I have other new friends, and I have loved getting to know their families and value the time they have spent getting to know mine.
Friendship isn’t about having fun, holding each other up, falling down together, laughter, tears, shared experience, it’s about the way you interpret those things together and how that forms a strong bond and intertwined memories.
Friendship changes lives.
I remember sitting on the roof of a combi van in the outback of Australia once watching a storm in the distance and hoping we were high enough to be away from the huge spiders pottering around on the ground below. I was with one of my best friends, we’d had a few Aussie beers and were trying to work out what single event had got us to that point in our lives. It wasn’t anything significant really. She came into a pasta restaurant I was working in looking for a job. She got it and we worked together on and off for a few months, sneaking chunks of parmesan cheese or illicit scoops of ice cream, then we went separate ways without even swapping numbers. A few years later I was bunking off work and dashing out of French Connection and nearly knocked someone over that was coming in. It was my ice cream smuggling friend. She’d been in Ghana working and was looking for a job. I suggested she contact the publishing house I was working with but knew they’d filled a job recently. It turned out that the new person didn’t last and my friend got the job … the rest is history. She met her husband through an old university friend of mine and now her boys play with my girl. Not an earth shattering first meeting, but a long and loving friendship which would never have started if it hadn’t been for a chance meeting in a shop … or maybe it was down to the parmesan pilfering. Lives changed and lives created because of it.
There are other friendships that have come and gone, someone I never imagined at 30 that I wouldn’t know all my life hasn’t even met Hope yet, and other people drift in and out, you never really know at the start who will be the life long buddies… but having ‘history’ gives the friendship a head start.
I probably feel more emotional today due to age, seeing Mummy and her friend together, as two ladies in their 80s when in my minds eye they are two non conforming mothers with carfulls of unkempt children made me painfully aware of all of our mortality. It also made me even more aware of the importance of friendship.
Next time you see someone in a wheel chair, or feel impatient with a slow older person look beyond that to the person that they are, they’re likely to have some amazing stories to tell that will put you to shame and help you look outside of yourself a little more.
Now to get ready for a long night of work to make up for the time I missed today and also to get ready to go and pick small person up and decide what to give her for her supper, and to hear her stories about her day.
Mother has just got home, happy, sparkly eyed from a little too much wine and alot of emotion, she’s decided we’re taking Hope to the nursing home for a visit very soon and promised all Jean’s children that I’ll stay in touch with them… I will try.