The best-made plans, as they say, are invariably subject to change. I had lots of projects in mind for the weekend ahead. Since I am working on a new book, I like to squeeze in some “me hours” in my free time, stolen minutes spent digging around in dusty boxes, seeking treasure in the form of old letters or emails, snippets I might be able to piece into the patchwork quilt of a “memoir” I’m endeavoring to put together about my sister Rosie. I had a whole master plan of digging in mind for the coming days.
Then I get a call from one of my very oldest friends in England. Her mother had died. Time stopped. “If I could save time in a bottle…” (Jim Croce). When you are my age and your parents are their age, it should never be surprising when one of the old gang go off to pastures unchartered. But, regardless, it always is a shock. We had grown up together on the East Coast of England. Rumor has it that my mother rescued my friend Lizzie from drowning in the boating pond; but I’m not entirely sure.
Our families quickly became friends, plus, in time, we became next-door neighbors. Both families had three kids. We spent every weekend and every vacation in this blissful place, mostly with each another.
Lizzie and I were hard-fast friends from the start. If we were not walking our doggies (Julie and Josh) over the beaches or marshes of our “Hometown” (Adele), we were drawing, writing, making up games, playing tennis or musical instruments. We were always busy going and doing. From early to late, we were in and outside each other’s houses — never a locked door nor curfew in sight. We ate in whichever house we happened to find ourselves. The days had no discipline or rhythm, especially in the summer when we spent hours in the sea or on the beach, just a skip from our houses. It was a charmed life.
Lizzie’s mother Jean and her father Geoff were good friends with my parents, also the other neighbors across the street. How much more of a perfect dynamic I cannot imagine. There were dinner parties in the backyard, picnics on the beach and boats. Christmases and New Years were spent together. Jean was always there and around, just like my mother. Even when our family sold our cottage by the sea, I would still return “Home” (Blake Shelton) to my hometown, since I never lost my love for the place and always felt that my roots were much deeper than bricks and mortar.
Then my mother died, and I remember Lizzie coming for her funeral. My sister died and Lizzie was there on the beach where we grew up for Rosie’s Celebration of Life. She was there for me when my friend died and when I went through a divorce. She was always there.
Pulling out dusty old photo albums in lieu of the dusty letters and emails I had planned to be working on this weekend, I found a whole lifetime of love and friendship in those snapshots, occasions we had showed up to each other’s lives. Visits to Disney with our young kids, parties in London, California and Utah, many trips down Memory Lane to the coastal town where we grew up. I wondered where all the photos of her mother Jean were. Then I realized that — duh — my parents would be the ones to possess the photos of her parents in their dusty old albums.
Though people were not as manic compulsive about photographing everything in those days as they are now, thank god we did have some photographers in our family and there were many precious moments captured and printed at the chemists on good old Kodak paper. “Photographs and Memories” (Jim Croce, again) hand in hand. My dad certainly has the vintage family albums of those days in his possession, and I shall look forward to going through those pages again now another one of the old gang has gone.
And thank god for that. In seeking out the old photos and memories, I came across many moments of our shared pasts that reminded me of how important old friendships are to the seam of your lives, how a shared past is something where you can simply leave off and catch up without skipping a beat. Lizzie and I can laugh until we cry and then cry and laugh again, when we are catching up — just as we did this weekend.
We were reminded of the fleeting whimsy of life and how each day is a treasure, as life canters by. Though she had a tricky relationship with her mother, (“I always wondered why she chose to live closest to the child she liked least”) she took care of her every need right up to the very end and even had a moment of special closeness with her Mum before she left. I told her that she was the Best Daughter Ever and we would be celebrating her and her Mum the next time we met. She would never regret doing her best by her, no matter what.
I will not be able to make it to Jean’s services in two weeks, as can happen when you live nearly on the other side of the world during Covid, but I do hope to be able to show up for the Celebration of Life later in the summer when we have all had our vaccinations and can properly celebrate a long life well-lived more than just all masked-up and cautious. Funerals are truly for the living and those left behind need to enjoy them and the shared solace they bring.
Jean had completed her “Life Book,” telling her children the details of her wishes, right up to the music she wanted at her services, the type of casket and where they should sprinkle her ashes. Her Mum naturally wanted some of her remains scattered on the beach at Aldeburgh, our hometown, where various beloveds have been scattered before her — even my darling old horse Winston and likely more to come, including me when the time comes.
Going through the old photos and listening to old records makes me glad I am something of a kleptomaniac. I’m also grateful that I enjoy taking photos myself and my house is liberally decorated with frozen moments of happiness that I hope my children won’t just throw in the dumpster right after they sprinkle me on the beach.
Photographs and memories are often all we have left of a person once their spirit heads off into the universe. I have been reminded this weekend of the beauty of shared image and recollection. I shall continue to dig deep in dusty boxes for Lizzie, the Best Daughter Ever, in search of some of those time- preserved gifts.