These days I’m single, live alone in a comfortable bungalow in central Virginia. Despite moving house thirteen times in four different countries, I keep in touch with those I want to by letter, internet, telephone, Christmas cards and recollection. Many friends held dear I’ve not seen in years, but the ones I love, I cleave to; special souls are hard to find. With some it’s almost telepathic. Most of my loved ones are alive and kicking, although distant. The world’s not as small as I’d like it to be since they are scattered on three continents. The folk I live with are here because they impacted my life and I still enjoy their company. Many are dead, more familiars than ghosts. The house sleeps six but there are more like 56.
I’ve no psychic faculty, so there’s nothing creepy or mysterious about the people who share my house. My parents who would be 115 and 105 today are my good companions, still very much alive in my heart. They and I are different ages when I think about them. My father in his 40’s waltzed me, aged three, around the garden, my feet on his, holding me steady by the hands. I was five, six and seven when we planted lettuces together and put the chickens to bed at night, seventeen when he taught me to drive.
Yesterday I discovered a voice recording facility on my iPad and recited the first thing that came to mind, which he taught me at four: “The boy stood on the burning deck, shelling peas a penny a peck. Did he wash his dirty neck? Did he heck,” adding “Oh Fred,” in my Mother’s reproachful voice, as she always remonstrated when I recited to his prompting. He chuckled, but she was trying to raise a lady. (Thus I learned that I could be irreverent and serious without dissonance.) I emailed this recording to my son in Australia, marveling at the technology that permitted it and the fact that he responded within a minute. HOW big is the world?
Moments later I was 27 and my Father had died. It was a sudden, brain hemorrhage, while he was at home in London and I lived with my husband and baby four hours’ drive away in the Midlands. At midnight the dog, sleeping in an armchair downstairs, started barking furiously. His barking was unprecedented. I went to the top of the stairs to quiet him before he woke the baby. He was looking up with an expression of alarm on his face. “Go to sleep, Rufus,” I said, a tad crossly, going back to bed. At seven the next morning my brother rang from home to tell me our Father had died at midnight. I’m convinced my Dad was checking on me on his way out. I was always at the forefront of his concerns.
My Mother was and still is a sunny soul. . Sometimes she is 38, waiting for me at the school gate in her emerald green dress. She didn’t worry about much (that was my Father’s role) and she laughed a lot. She was funny. Her quips frequently delighted me. She thought most things I did were OK, with the odd exception, like having an Indian boyfriend when I was 21, alarmed at the prospect of my marrying him. I can understand she didn’t want me to move to Kenya. I’m not best pleased that all twelve of my grandchildren emigrated, but I totally understand why.
In the thirty years she was a widow my Mother moved and kept moving to live near me. She loved my kids the way she loved me, cleaning my house (which I loathed but she enjoyed) while I cooked and made her clothes. She cheered me when I was down, joked often and never failed to support me with all her energies and heart. I was a stay-at-home mom with a brood, and every day she came to help, lifting my heart as she arrived. She took over when I was sick. She appreciated every outing I ever took her on. She listened and was the best company. She still is. I lost sight of her for a while when she died after years of dementia, but as time passed, I found her again. She died in 1995, weeks before her first great grandchild was born, oblivious to the prospect, but at 87 she was ready. Although fondly remembered by her grandchildren, she doesn’t see mine. I don’t see them much either except on Skype, but I know they are there. My Father only saw my first born (now aged 50) before he died aged 67.
I only knew my maternal grandmother. Nana, forever old in my eyes, was only 59 when I was born. She wore her grey hair in a bun, old fashioned cotton dresses and no makeup. I once slept with her when I was about ten. She snored all night. In the morning she said “I didn’t sleep a wink,” and I laughed. But now I sometimes think I haven’t slept, my dreams are so lucid, until I wake myself up snoring. Nana doesn’t come here often, but she’s always welcome. Sometimes I catch her likeness as I look in the mirror.
Boyfriends too numerous to count but fondly remembered and even a couple of sets of their parents (English and Spanish) drop in occasionally. I still hear the throaty chuckle of my Spanish boyfriend’s good natured father in the 50’s and watch his mother’s expression: serious, measured, kindly. They were good to me. Their son is dead now too.
Old husbands visit sometimes, metaphorically speaking. I remind myself of the positive aspects of our marriages (there are many) and the aggravation fades as I mellow. I have a lot to thank them both for.
Live friends abound in my house too, especially Dorothy who’s been my constant friend and correspondent since 1976. She lives in Wales; we rarely meet. She wrote to me in Cambridge, London and France after I left. When I emigrated to America in 2005 she wrote, ”Oh dear, another person I love is going to live in America,” (as one of her sons has). I said “It makes no difference where I live – we never see each other anyway. We’re at both ends of a letter.” Sometimes we don’t write for a month, sometimes it’s three times in a week. The important factor is that we are there for each other, always. I’m sure I live in her house too.
Others jostling here are my lively, geographically extended family, Sons and daughters-in-law frequently make contact by telephone, email and Skype. I publish a monthly family newsletter by email, typically 25 pages of family news, photos, articles, poems, recipes and jokes. They report their hobbies: metal detecting and archeology, fencing (the children now entering competitions too), gardening, long distance running (one completed the Paris Marathon), soccer, basketball, swimming, kayaking, camping, guitar and piano playing, creative writing and art. The youngest grandson in Australia has just done a remarkable self-portrait for a five year old. We are all familiar with each other’s unseen houses. The Dight Times keeps us all literally on the same page.
My favorite living visitors bounce through the door all smiles and hugs, call “Hallo, Granny!” They are my 7 and 10 year old grandsons, the reason I came to Virginia and a constant source of joy. I shared their triumph when they learned to read and we spend hours playing imaginary games. I just sewed all the badges on their Scout uniforms. At meals with the family we air our news. “What was the best and the worst thing that happened to you today?” invariably ignites touching and illuminating conversation.
At dinner this week my son told them a joke about a man whose duck died, accidentally shot by hunters. Being fond of his pet he needed to be sure the duck was beyond resuscitation. He consulted a vet who confirmed the duck was dead, but the man insisted on a second opinion, which the vet sought from a Labrador dog and then a cat. Both sniffed the duck and shook their heads. The man was dismayed by the bill, to which the vet replied, “If you had accepted my diagnosis it would only be $20, but the lab test and the cat-scan came to $120.” As we laughed, the 7 year old asked, “Is that true, Daddy?” No wonder they are my favorite visitors. Although there are long intervals between overnights, they have their own bedroom here with twin beds, books, puzzles, toys, spare clothes, a nightlight and a dinosaur mobile. They belong.
I read this week that a politician in England proposes the issue of iPads to old people living alone, because a million of them live in isolation. What a good idea! iPad is my window on the world for research, email, newspaper, videos and Skype to bridge the miles. It goes to bed with me. Insomniac at 3 a.m., I check my messages from Australia, where it’s always tomorrow. Recently I watched as my son and his three children walked to the park in Sydney, showing me gardens and flowers on the way, via his iPhone. His nine year old daughter showed me somersaults (she’s an accomplished cheer leader), and the five year old artist showed Granny on the other side of the world, how fast he could run.
In my youth my friend aged 17 died of leukemia. Judy was the daughter of a Russian émigré in London. They once invited me to dinner, persuaded me to add a knob of butter to tomato soup, a recurring jog to memory. Sometimes I think sadly of Judy’s promising young life cut short. Two young mothers (Irish and Spanish) whom I’d known since our teens, died in their thirties, both of liver cancer, leaving behind seven young children between them: so much sorrow. I’m thankful for my own long life. It was my constant prayer: May I live long enough to raise my children.
In Virginia I’ve found new friends in a variety of interest groups. The Writers meet here on occasion. Book clubs, Lifelong Learning classes, church, mutual friends and volunteering have brought new connections. Sometimes friends come for lunch. On days I don’t see anyone, emails break the silence. I feel connected to the world.
Neighbors probably see me as a lonely old lady, taking out the trash can, lighting only one bedroom at night, coming and going alone in my car. They have no idea.