We often measure the value of people in our lives by their kindness, the fickle favour in which we hold them in, or the balance of harms and nourishment they bring to our lives. One of the things I most value in people is generosity. Not in stuff, but in stories. I love people who share themselves, openly and freely. Firstly, because they honour me with the privilege of knowing them deeply. Secondly, because they broaden my world to include their own. Today’s article is dedicated to one such extraordinary woman, my wife’s Nan Marjorie, who died last weekend, at the ripe old age of ninety six.
I came to meet Marjorie on a cloudless day, with a blue sky, which we could just make out through the bay window of her room in the nursing home. She was 94, and looked, ostensibly, like any of the other old ladies. Patterned dress, Thatcher-esque white hair, flat shoes; seated in an armchair, next to a tray table adorned with flowers, a beaker of water and a tin of sweets.
I was in the early weeks of a relationship with her granddaughter, Nancy. I knew already that I would be with her forever. She was without doubt or question, the woman I would spend my life with. One morning, as we lay talking, pillow to pillow in bed, Nancy confessed to me she had never told Marjorie she was gay. She told me, because she had realised it was important that her Nan knew who she really was, and who she really loved. She asked me to come to visit the nursing home next to Netley Abbey, in Southampton and be introduced to Marjorie. I was nervous. I wondered whether it was best to have me there when this conversation took place. I fretted that my presence would suppress Marjorie’s natural reaction to the news and I fretted that it wouldn’t. But I agreed, nonetheless.
Sitting awkwardly at the foot of the bed, I listened as Nancy spoke and awaited the reaction.
“I need to tell you something Nan. It’s important that we have a relationship based on the truth and I want you to know who I am. So you see Nan, Kerry-anne is my partner. I love her. I’m gay.”
Marjorie looked from Nancy to me, and back again with eyes the same shade as the sky of that day – a piercing pale blue.
“Well I’d figured that much out for myself. I’m not a stupid you know.” She said with a straight face, but there was laughter in her eyes. That was the end of it, or the start of it. She simply accepted this news as an almost unnecessary declaration of obvious fact. With a subtext of ‘what’s all the fuss about?’
But that isn’t how I fell in love with Marjorie that day. I fell in love with Marjorie for her generosity. She gifted me her life in stories. As she spoke to me, she held my eye with hers. As she spoke, pictures formed in my mind and I watched her life roll out before me, not as if it were a film, but as if I were there with her. She lifted me out of my creaking chair in the nursing home, and whirled me off on a tour of decades I arrived too late to witness.
She was born into Edwardian England, in 1916, during the First World War. Her earliest memory was of feet on a stair way. She shared these experiences with me, speaking either from chair or bed. I simply sat, listened and asked whatever questions lead from my curiosity. She spoke of many things. The smell of shire horses. Watching the construction of a hay rick on her family’s smallholding.
A green dress she wore as a child but never forgot. Walking along the tracks of the nearby railway. The crushing disappointment of her place in life being defined by a father who refused to honour her intelligence by permitting a University education. Accepting, as one might a bitter pill, this limited existence – the taste never fully leaving her mouth. Life as a governess of a family in Malta during the Second World War. Her marriage to a kind and simple man who would not dominate her. His arrival in Malta, a naval serviceman, and the smile as she remembered it. Her definitive answer, when asked what in her life gave her most pride: ‘My boys’.
So, I fell in love with Marjorie that day, and a little more each time I saw her. I guess in reality, I only spent a number of hours with her, over several visits, in the final two years of her life. But in those hours, she made sure I saw her; that I really saw her, knew who she was, who she had been, how she had lived.
I believe Marjorie saw in Nancy, what might have become of her had she lived in a different time. Nancy studied Biochemistry at Oxford University. I believe this above all else, endeared her. She saw in Nancy, a reflection of herself. Nancy was a woman of letters. We heard one day that during a visit to her room by the care home manager, Marjorie had pointed to a picture of Nancy.
“This is my granddaughter. We’re very proud of her. She’s very smart, with all her BS-wotsits.”
You see, Marjorie was very quotable. On another occasion, she was speaking of her changed funeral plans. She had previously stated her wish to be buried in the grounds of the church in which she was christened and married. She now wished to be cremated, her ashes poured into the Solent to join her late husband, who received a naval burial at sea. “They’ll have to be quick though, I can’t swim.”
Marjorie at approx 20 years old
As her body crumbled around her, the girl in the picture, all red hair and steely eyes, remained stubbornly intact. Then gradually, even she began to slip away. I am glad that the confusion and pain is over for Marjorie, but I am sad that she is gone. I was washing up the other morning, and realised with a fresh pain that brought tears to my eyes, that she was no longer sitting in chair or bed next to the Abbey. I wouldn’t hear any more stories. Luckily, on a visit a few months ago, Nancy asked Marjorie if we could film while we asked her a few questions about her life. Marjorie happily complied and Nancy asked her lots of questions, which she answered fully and with gusto. So, we have a precious hour of Marjorie and her stories preserved for ourselves and our future children to enjoy.
People who knew Marjorie longer than I did assure me wasn’t a saint. She wasn’t always kind, she wasn’t always forgiving. I am sure she was and wasn’t a lot of things. But she was generous. I will never forget her and I am immeasurably grateful for the privilege of having spent those precious hours being guided through the tales of her abundant existence. So thank you Marjorie, for giving me your stories. I promise to carry them forward into the world for others to revel in.
Finally a request to you, reading now. Never be humble enough to assume that others will not be moved by your stories. Never be too urgent to miss out on others attempting to share their stories with you. Your joys, regrets, sunny days and cold dark nights are the bona fide treasure in this world. Fling your memories like notes of currency from the balconies of life into the eager waiting hands of others, desperate to be rich in knowledge of you; who you are, who you have been, how you have lived.