Learning from the (even) older

It was the tea trolley that did it. We’re talking reproduction brass wheels and marble effect Formica; in other words the full Hyacinth Bucket model. Taking it out of my car and dumping it in the charity shop, its demise marked the end of an era.

My dear Aunty Dorothy just passed away and, as she never married, my cousin and I find ourselves clearing her house. Cupboard after cupboard, layer after layer, of old lady paraphernalia. Padded coat hangers, unopened boxes of personalised hankies, tea towels from Prestatyn, 4711 Cologne and packets of ginger nut biscuits by the dozen.

Evidence of thrift is everywhere: drawers and cupboards full of used string, rinsed out margarine pots, recycled gift wrapping and thousands of plastic bags – all badges of her longstanding need to recycle, make do, mend and save unnecessary expense.

She’d experienced real need. She lived through WWII; she saw two brothers including my father go off to war and not return for six years; she saw neighbours’ houses blown away and reduced to rubble overnight, and did her homework by candlelight in the shelter at the bottom of the garden. In short, she’d experienced much more hardship than my generation, and here in her home it was evident everywhere.

She was the youngest daughter of six and so, as was expected of her, she remained at home until her parents died in her careful and loving care. This was her role in life. She was active in the church, her funeral was full to bursting, and she was loved and treasured by many. Far from being surplus to requirements, she will be hugely missed by many. Suddenly her generation are going fast, disappearing for ever and I, for one, lament that hugely.

Dorothy still managed to get joy out of the simplest of things in life – even a stroll up the road to Sainsbury’s with her walking aid would be enough for her to have had what she would describe as a good day.

Of course, it leaves me that much nearer the ultimate cliff edge, no longer second in line but first in line to peg it myself, but it is her generation’s wisdom and love which I will miss the most.

She was so positive about life – again perhaps born of the suffering during the war that she had to endure. Her love of the outdoors, her sheer happiness at some sweet peas or a new outfit I showed her; a meal I had prepared for her would give her visible delight. In later life we would walk heathery moors and deserted beaches and talk.

I realised Dorothy took more pleasure in life than anyone else I had ever met. A run out into the country, a walk in the park, a chat on the phone – all of them evidently gave her joy. And it is this joy in life and sense that she was, as she always put it, so lucky which I admired so much.  What a marvellous lesson to learn; what a fantastically useful attitude to pick up from someone that is.

As we all get older, and indeed as she got older and her horizons and mobility shrank, she still managed to get joy out of the simplest of things in life – even a stroll up the road to Sainsbury’s with her walking aid would be enough for her to have had what she would describe as a good day. She didn’t need outside stimulus: she had inner peace, inner contentment and integrity which shone out to all of us lucky enough to be around her.

As I grow old myself I try to remember how this optimism, this gratitude stood her in so much stead when the going got really rough, as indeed it did during her final illness. I looked to her as my moral compass, but above all else she was a lesson in contentment. An underestimated and underrated quality today and one that she’d love to think she has passed on to us, the people she loved.

As I edge forward myself to proper old-lady-land I hope I can retain my joy in the ordinary things in life. Perhaps it’s called looking on the bright side. Whatever it is, it saw her through the trials of life very well.

Image by Hannah Carmichael.

This article first appeared on Standard Issue.

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