Over the weekend, I learned that someone very special to me had died. Mrs. C---- was coming up on her 99th birthday, so I shouldn’t have been shocked I suppose … but I was. I am. Perhaps in part because of her age, Mrs. C---- always seemed eternal to me. A distant but constant presence, as steady and immutable as the North Star. It still seems incredible to me that a person with her vivacity and strength, her wit and wisdom, could simply, suddenly, just not be here any more.
I first met Mrs. C---- in the early 1980s, when she came to visit her son, our next-door-neighbour, from her home in Scotland. Funny to think she would have already been in her mid-70s. I was just heading into those oh-so-entertaining teen years. For some reason, we hit it off. I adored her Scottish lilt, her stories, her common sense, and (not least) the way she always treated me with unfailing courtesy and respect. I have no clue what she saw in me.
The first thing you’d notice about Mrs. C---- was how tiny she was – barely five feet tall and rail-thin. She was always elegantly (if not formally) dressed, even when she was doing housework or puttering in the garden. But this apparent fragility was deceptive … to say the least. She was amazingly strong and quick on her feet. (Mrs. C---- always attributed her good health to all the walking she did as part of her job guiding tourists at the local castle.) I remember she used to run – literally run – down the short, but steep, hill between our two houses to ask Mum a question, bring us some tomatoes from the garden, or simply to invite us over for a cup of tea and a chat. She could never be bothered going the long way round – and that was true of pretty much every aspect of her life.
During those summers, at least until I moved away to British Columbia to do my graduate work, Mum and I used to head next door for tea at least a couple of times a week. Her son N---- used to work quite long hours some days, and we didn’t want her to be lonely. On these occasions, Mrs. C---- always used a proper Royal Doulton china tea service. Finger sandwiches (no crusts of course) and a plate of Peak Freans cookies (usually shortbread, or those little round ones with the cream filling and jam on top) rounded out the menu. We typically sat in the formal living room or, if the weather wasn’t too hot, outside on the back patio. It was impossible, under the circumstances, not to mind your manners, and I remember being terribly worried about dropping the delicate little teacup and saucer with its pattern of roses and gold accents, and working out step-by-step how to handle both a teacup (with saucer) and my little plate of “nibbles” without embarrassing myself or my hostess. Despite these challenges, it would take quite a bit to lure me away from the prospect of having tea with Mrs. C----.
I suppose I was partially flattered by her interest in me, and her willingness to treat me with exactly the same respect she showed my mother. But mostly I just loved to hear her talk. I would tell all about school (if it was early enough in the year), what I was reading, how my friends (all two of them!) were, and how my various projects (knitting, quilting, drawing, etc.) were coming along. In turn, she’d regale us with stories about her job as a guide in the local castle, the kindness of the laird and lady, her friends, her travels with N----, her memories of her husband, her experiences during both(!) world wars, and her little house (which had its very own name, not just a street number!) in the village.
It was such a foreign world – removed in both time and space – for this kid from a modern Canadian suburb … and yet, at the same time, it was all very familiar to me. In her stories I heard echoes of books I had read and movies I had seen. The world she spoke about was one I had experienced – vicariously, true, but nonetheless – and one in which I felt at home. More at home, truth be told, than in most places in the “modern” world.
And so, in this way, Mrs. C---- became a kind of refuge for me, as well as an unwitting mentor and model. Over the many years I knew her, Mrs. C---- taught me how to be a real lady: a person who thought of others’ comfort before her own; who was strong and smart without being smug or priggish; who was generous without being naïve; who held her head high no matter what life threw at her; who cared about her appearance but never let appearance stand in the way of a good adventure. She taught me that age has nothing to do with spirit, and that it is truly possible to grow old gracefully. I only wish I’d learned some of these lessons a little more thoroughly.
It’s been four years since I last saw Mrs. C----. The last time she was here – in the summer of 2004 – I wasn’t able to get to see her for reasons I’m not going to go into right now. I’d always regretted that lapse, and hoped to make it up to her this year, when she was scheduled to come back. Now, I guess I will never get the chance.
Oddly, on the day Mrs. C---- died, five days before her 99th birthday, I bought her a birthday card, wrote her a long letter about what I’d been up to for the past few months, and posted it off. At least I was thinking about her, even if she didn’t know it. That fact gives me both a strange kind of comfort and makes me physically ache with sorrow.
Still, by and large, the first wave of grief has passed – there are a few tears still left to shed, but I’ve cried most of them now, I think. Mostly, I am thankful for her life and for having the opportunity to know such a true and special lady. But it still hurts to know there is now one less person in the world to care about me, and one less person in the world for me to love.
So, even though you will never hear me say it … Mrs. C----, thank you for everything. I will remember you always. I will miss you – always.