A Time to Remember | Pushing the Wave

A Time to Remember

Opinion, 23 December 2023
by L.A. Davenport
A Time to Remember
Christmas, a time remember those who are no longer with us.
Christmas time is a time for reflection as much as it is a time for giving, and not just on our own lives but also of others, near and far.

We think of those who will be among us when we sit down to celebrate, and those who will not, and it is often the departures just before the festive season that remind us most of the true meaning of all that we are honouring at this time of year.

This week, a woman who, from a technical perspective, was on the periphery of my family left us and, as they say, hopefully went on to a better place.

I say she was on the periphery of my life because she was the mother of an in-law, and I met her only once. However, she left a great impression on me in the few hours we spent together and today, as we waited outside the church to say our goodbyes, I ruminated deeply on her and her life.

She spent the last thirty years confined to her flat in Nice, France, and for most of that time she was, to all intents and purposes, bedridden. She was tended on by her family and a nurse every day of the week, who together not only fed and clothed her but took care of her needs, and entertained her in the long hours, days, weeks, months, years and decades that she spent within her four walls.

Anyone in that circumstance, rendered utterly reliant on others, largely immobile and unable to do even the smallest task for themselves, could become bitter, depressed or angry, perhaps all three. But as everyone at the funeral attested, she remained until her final hours a smiling, gracious, thoughtful, charming and kind lesson to us all on how to conduct oneself in difficult circumstances. She retained her sense of humour and, above all, her sense of wonder about life and everyone who came into her orbit.

I met her a few years ago, on a gloriously sunny afternoon, when spring was in the air and the world, at least outside, seemed joyful. I had been warned about her condition, her lack of independence, and her difficult existence in her gilded prison. I was told not to expect too much. So I expected nothing but that which I would find.

What I did find was a charming flat that reminded me of the space my paternal grandparents had occupied in the last years of their life together, not least in the fact that this French woman, Anne-Marie, clearly had a similar taste in 1970s Scandinavian furniture. The smell of the wood, the clean lines, the texture of the furnishings reminded me so much of my childhood holidays with grandma and grandad that I was instantly at ease.

After a few minutes, Anne-Marie was wheeled out of her bedroom by her son, the connection between my family and hers. She smiled warmly, welcomed us into her home, and immediately launched into series of enquiries that gave us the impression she hardly ever thought of herself, only of those around her. Perhaps it was, for her, a form of escape from the limitations of her daily life.

Once we had exchanged formalities, she asked me, given I have lived most of my life in England, whether I knew a town called Bideford.

To say it was a long shot is an understatement. Bideford is in south western England, on the north coast of Devon, and is not a well-known tourist destination, even for English people. Visitors to the area tend to head on to Cornwall, or south to the English Riviera towns of Torquay, Paignton and Brixham, among others. Bideford had a heyday, but it is, sad to say, rather long gone.

But I do know happen to know Bideford. One of my dearest and oldest friends comes from there, and I went to her wedding in the back garden of her parent’s house in 2006, the year when Casino Royale, starring Daniel Craig, was released, Fernando Alonso won the British Grand Prix, and Lordi won the Eurovision Song Contest, among other things of perhaps far greater import.

Happy to meet someone familiar with that estuary harbour town, Anne-Marie regaled me tales of her life in the 1950s, when she was sent to England as a teenager to work as an au pair for a family who had previously had someone French to look after their children and wanted the same again. She freely confessed that she knew almost nothing of the world at the time, and her father had volunteered her so as to broaden her horizons and show her something of the world.

Anne-Marie’s time with her English family was, as she described it, a delight and she grew from a shy youth into a confident woman, one who clearly learned, in the words of Kipling, to treat those two imposters, triumph and disaster, the same. It was charming to wander down memory lane with her, and to give her an opportunity to share a treasured experience with someone new.

I have thought often of that afternoon in the intervening years, and I returned to it this week when I heard of her passing, at 90 years of age, after a very short illness. For many around her, and for her, it was a relief to see her shuffle off this mortal coil and finally be free of the body that entombed her for these past thirty years.

Today in the church, I saw through the recollections of her son, grandson and the woman who looked after her for most of her confinement, that my impressions of her were far from unique. She had retained her bright and engaging manner throughout her life, and never given up on being positive and hopeful, if not for herself then for others.

Although I barely had a right to join the congregation for her funeral, I was honoured to say goodbye today, and I shall be thinking Anne-Marie over this Christmastime, and doubtless many more to come.
© L.A. Davenport 2017-2024.

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