Let me introduce you to the most interesting person I have met all year, already in her 90s, she is still going strong. At first glance, she is an upright, proud, elderly lady with steely white short hair; her complexion and body marred by sun spots, freckles and unexplained sores; her skin fragile and paper-thin. Her false teeth only slightly less disturbing than her otherwise wide, gap toothed grin. Lines crinkle her body, wearing deep grooves across her skin. Her back naturally humped by age and the cares of years, visibly straightened as if to attention. Her voice, sometimes strong and strident, sometimes weak and quavery, alternates between conviction and doubt; joy and deep sadness. Sometimes querulous, sometimes importunate, at other times she is barely willing to express herself for fear of being a “bother”. Her faded blue eyes, milky with age, still shine with fierce intelligence and a deep knowing, undaunted by changing times or loss of loved ones.
Echoes of the beginning of a different century punctuate her speech, her mannerisms, her expectations. “Well I didn’t ought to,” often followed by a girlish, excited question, “Do you think I could?” “I really shouldn’t you know…” Another statement betrays her post Edwardian parentage, “Must cover up every inch of skin” from neck to wrist. Mantras from war-time Britain make their way into her every day vocabulary including, “Mustn’t be greedy,” “Can’t complain,” “Can do”.
I wonder how someone will describe me when I reach a ripe old age. Yet for all I befriended her for her sake, to rescue her from loveless hospitals and institutions; to give her that bright spot in her day; to have someone to call ‘friend’; to make her feel loved now she’s outlived most of those she once held dear… I too have benefited from glimpses into a different era; from tales of sharing and giving at a time when those “down on their luck” were often dressed in rags and had cardboard or cloths for shoes.
As a Historian by degree, I have enjoyed talking to her about living history; about how her mother would go and help the young girls in trouble or those who could not afford a doctor and perform the services of a midwife – with her only training, learned on the job. Her mother, despite her own difficulties, was always quick to lend a hand in times of need and even laid out the dead ready for the undertaker. I have gleaned stories from a bygone era of what school was like and how they were taught housekeeping and cookery, even window cleaning and the scrapes they would get into as part of that. I have heard tales of community and of the poor giving to others at times of need with no thought of return; I am humbled by the thought of oranges and apples treasured as precious.
I have heard the pain in her voice as she described her father’s long absences due to war or trips away with the Navy. So many stories locked up inside including of war-time atrocities that have scarred her mind, like a tale of a Messerschmitt’ pilot gunning down innocent school children on the street in front of her during the Second World War. “I shall never forget it”, she says, “You wouldn’t believe what I’ve seen!” She’s right, living in Britain in the 21st Century, I barely understand how to wait and go without. I can’t even begin to imagine what it was like living through air raids and bombings; wearing gas masks; living on rations; these are all alien concepts in our consumerist and debt-ridden society. “Make do and mend,” a slogan from an almost forgotten era needs to be revived if we are going to become a more sustainable and inclusive society.
Today’s society can be so individualistic and selfish that even minor acts of compassion are heralded as extraordinary. Most of us would claim to help others; people in our friendship circle, poor children in other lands or when we are guilt-tripped into it by sponsorship forms and collection boxes. My question is how often do we see the need that is right in front of our noses; the unspoken need; the one without a formal charity attached to it? How many of us stop to help when we see someone fall or the bottom drops out of their world? We complain of a “nanny state” and of children being wrapped in “cotton wool” but what are we doing to fix our broken society? I agree with the philosophy about changing the world “one act of random kindness at a time” however I also think there is a place for providing consistent support and help for those we know who are in need. So what about you, what will you do? How will someone describe you when your time is almost gone?
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