Her house is always clean, tidy, neat and nice-smelling. Her parents’ house – her adoptive parents’ house – always smelled of old people; they were, after all, old at the time.
She is now their age, as they were then; I am now beyond fifty myself. But she keeps a beautifully ordered house. Welcoming but ordered, all the same.
That is more than can be said of my own sad home.
I am never sad when I visit her. I visited her last some years ago, even though we live close by and I walk past her house quite often. I lament this situation, and find it difficult to understand.
Today, my task – not at all onerous in any way – was to take a bottle of wine and a card. I stood outside the front door and shamefacedly rang her landline on my mobile.
It had been such a long time, and the houses always look very similar, and since there was no car in the drive (there hasn’t been for quite a while), there was little to help me identify her place.
I remembered when I was a kid the grand cars she had. She had a Daf, if you remember; the one with that automatic transmission. Later, her brother bought her a convertible Saab. I think it was a convertible. It was a Saab, anyways. Another wonderful vehicle.
But today, a midday before Christmas with bottle in hand, there was no car to mark the spot.
No car to help out.
So I phoned on my mobile phone; she metres away on the other side of the wall. She confirmed the door number. I rang the bell, a little stupidly. And there she stood; a little older, possibly wiser too – though I think she has always been wise.
A strong woman, never given to compromising her principles. Far too good and true for a world which has never known quite how to accept her.
They say of her – all of them: brothers, friends, acquaintances, nephews, nieces, children – that she’s losing her memory. And yes, she does forget stuff; but I’d be inclined to believe that it’s more when she’s uncomfortable and distressed – that it’s not the moment, certainly not now, to medicalise or diagnose.
She forgets a lot of what life threw at her: the moving up from working- to upper-middle class, and then the falling away her principles made inevitable.
We talked about those times, this midday before Christmas. I saw the vivacious and frankly attractive person the world has rarely cared to acknowledge. And if it has ever acknowledged her presence, it has been to see her – in her disruptive humour and love of life – more as a threat to be denied a place than a woman to be treasured and supported.
So. It’s true she’d start a conversation and need reminding where we were; but on reminding, she’d remember how to continue.
An example. She asked me, when I entered, to take a Christmas card to a neighbour across the road. I left it on the piano and said I’d take it when I left.
When I was about to leave, she reminded me I’d already taken the card, and so I had to remind her I hadn’t but was going to. That was when it struck me: she’d remembered, in her short-term memory, the memory she was supposedly losing, what she needed to remember, only that; and had forgotten what she knew someone else would remember on her behalf.
She was mimicking, quite brilliantly, a computer with a life’s worth of hard drive.
Time to clear out files and bumf.
Time to make space for vivacity’s march.
I read something the other day – don’t know if it’s true. When we remember something, we remember not the event itself but – rather – that last time we remembered it.
Isn’t that a crazy idea?
Can’t you go an amazingly long way with that?
I have, anyhow.
It was lovely today, this midday before Christmas, shooting the gentle breeze with a gentlewoman this century rarely sees any more.
I feel privileged and ashamed at the same time: privileged to have known her; ashamed I have not stood up for her more.
But perhaps, in truth, people like her don’t need to be stood up for – except inasmuch as we do so out of respect.