Memory is the diary we all carry about with us,wrote Oscar Wilde.
But for me, diary is memory. Years of memories.
Family, home, garden, daily life.
Diaries played a small role in my overall life, but became a huge part of my post-accident experience. With little sense of time, and often no memory of events just minutes after they happened, I started writing in my journal again.
Little things. Big things. Write it down quickly.
A doctor played a key role. She told me to record events as they happened, figuring I could share these entries with the medical professionals I visited. My memory and speech problems were so bad, she noted, that “No other specialist will take two hours to try to figure out what you are saying. Write.”
Of course, that’s not word-for-word. But I scribbled down her order.
I returned to keeping journals. Some of the entries were so painful, I vowed to never re-read them.
The best? Entries about time with family.
Next best: time in the garden.
I used to keep a journal to track my gardens’ progress. The major triumphs and minor tragedies, the plans carried out and those forgotten.
Now, no longer able to garden, I was reduced to observing. But observing led to writing and writing led to “remembering”.
The first spring bulbs to bloom.
The first night-bloomer of the season.
The first time the fern-leaf peonies – presents from friends Les and Sandra – bloomed.
The hollyhock that bloomed in two colours.
The mysterious flower that showed up one summer.
Red currants, seeds planted by birds or breeze.
When your brain doesn’t work efficiently, you misplace things. When you’re in too much pain to move, you can’t go looking for things somewhere else. So I learned to keep the garden journal on the verandah, and other journals in every room of the house.
An onlooker, seeing me writing on that lovely verandah, might have thought: “What a charmed life.”
But as my mother always said : “Never envy others. No-one knows what troubles they have.” I was – quite literally — writing to save my life.
Looking back, I’m astonished at some of the lovely things that happened. Things to be grateful for. People to be grateful to.
I’m shocked at the development of this garden, as captured in my journals.
Grateful to my husband, for building arbours, dividing plants, maintaining the garden — in addition to everything else that landed on his plate.
Some of what I read evokes real memories. They bring tears, laughter, delight, wonder.
Some of it is not at all familiar. It’s like reading about someone else’s life, but knowing it’s yours.
“Dah-ling?” she said in that lovely lilt that always reminds me of the women in that generation of our family. It’s as if they adopted an accent and made it their own.
“Hello, my dear Aunt Rose,” I replied.
“How are you?” she asked.
“I’m fine, Aunt Rose. Especially now that I’m talking to you. How are you?”
“I’m fine too, Dah-ling.”
Her voice took on a slightly aggrieved tone. “But why don’t you call? I can’t hear from you at all.”
Before I could defend myself, she continued: “At my age, I shouldn’t have to be the one calling all you young people all the time. You should be calling me.” Aunt Rose lives with her daughter and son-in-law in the U.S., but her relatives are all over the place: England, Jamaica, the US, Canada, and so on. We were obviously not keeping up with the person, who – by dint of both personality and seniority – has become the family matriarch.
“That’s so true, Aunt Rose”, I said. “You’re absolutely right.”
“If I’m so right, why don’t you call more often?”
“Aunt Rose, I do call. I left a message on your phone just last week. Did you not get it?’
She was not backing down. “No,” she said firmly. “I didn’t get any message.”
I tried a different tack.
“So how are you, my darling Aunt?”
Her voice softened. She recited a short litany of ailments. Followed, as usual, by: “But I’m still here, giving God thanks.”
Gratitude. It’s one of the many things I like about her. To Aunt Rose, every day is a gift.
Aunt Rose, centre, with nieces
She asked about my siblings, uncles, cousins. And my children. And, of course, her favorite person who lives in this house.
“How’s my boyfriend?” she asked, suddenly giggling like a schoolgirl.
“He’s fine,” I replied. “Always sends his love for you.”
“Well, you tell him I send my love for him too!”
My great-aunt has a crush on my husband, and she never lets me forget it.
She called one day while my husband, the real chef in our family, was cooking dinner. Aunt Rose had insisted that I relay her love to him while she was right there on the phone.
“Your favorite girlfriend sends you her love,” I yelled across the kitchen.
“Tell her I wish she were here,” he called back, laughing affectionately, a twinkle in his eyes.
Aunt Rose giggled happily. “You tell my boyfriend that if I was just a little bit younger, I’d give you a run for your money!”
I pretended to be completely shocked.
“Oh yeah?” my husband replied when I relayed this remark. “Ask her what’s ‘a little bit younger’ ”.
Aunt Rose’s laugh was louder now. “Well, maybe just 20 years or so. Not much.”
This time, I was speechless.
Aunt Rose, you see, is 107 years of age, and that conversation took place about a year ago. She was still feminine, still funny, still eloquent. Still vivacious. You should have seen her at her birthday party just a few years before. She danced all the younger women off the floor.
“I’m glad you’re twice my husband’s age and living in another country,” I always tease her. “I couldn’t stand the competition!”
I love Aunt Rose. Both my mother and grandmother have passed, and Aunt Rose has tried to fill a small part of the gap by telephoning me often from her home in the U.S. Over these years, we’ve talked about many different things, almost all of them related to our family’s history.
She remembers minute details. From decades, even a hundred years before.
Sometimes the memories come complete with dialogue, or tiny details such as the style of a dress or shoes that someone wore. Or the time her older sister (my grandmother) became famous as a small girl, for spotting a mistake in the textbook used to teach the subject in Britain and its colonies.
“Did I ever tell you about the time when…”
The moment I hear this, I grab pen and paper or whatever’s handy – journals, notebooks, the backs of envelopes, the sides of calendars, and, just once, a paper towel.
Aunt Rose nonchalantly admits that the past is easy to remember – it’s the present she has trouble with.
Some recent events, however, remain in her mind, even as her health has diminished and her voice weakened.
“I’m so proud of you,” she told me one day recently. “I just finished reading your book.”
Aunt Rose is mentioned twice in the book. Among other things, she helped perform the role of fact-checker for some of the family stories in it. But I know that her daughter True and other relatives had to read it to her once published. Aunt Rose was now weak and bedridden.
But something else was on her mind that day, as her life edged closer to its end. She was focused on the future of a great-niece whom she’d helped enlighten, comfort, and encourage in countless telephone calls over the last several years.
“It’s a very good book, you know, Dah-ling. But I want you to promise me something.”
“Yes, Aunt Rose?”
“Promise me you’ll write another one. You have to write a second book.”
I hesitated. Her voice was weak again, but I could hear her waiting on the other end of the line. The trouble is that I’ve never lied to Aunt Rose and I didn’t plan to start now. What if I never write another book? I’d have broken what’s likely my last promise to Aunt Rose.
“I’ll try, Aunt Rose.”
“No! That’s not good enough, Dah-ling.” Her voice suddenly got stronger. “You have a God-given talent. Trying is not good enough.” There it was, that firmness in her voice that I know so well.
“Okay, Aunt Rose,” I said. “I’ll do my best.” This sounded like a promise without technically being a promise.
Aunt Rose wasn’t fooled. But she laughed gently and said, “I know you will. My Dah-ling.”
Today Aunt Rose lies in bed, no longer eating, no longer speaking. We’ve been told she’s in her final days. We will miss her greatly , but we also know it’s time to say goodbye to this beloved woman.
Bon voyage, my Dah-ling Aunt Rose. Fare thee well. Thank you for so much. For your faith, grace and astonishingly clear memories that kept us connected to ‘home’. And — above all — for your remarkable love and patience with us younger ones. You occupy a special place in our hearts.
There was a time – a quite recent time – when I simply didn’t think there was much to be thankful for. Then, in one of my darkest hours, I started counting my blessings and giving thanks for each one. And then – a strange thing happened. The more I gave thanks, the more gifts I discovered. These gifts were always there, but I’d lost sight of them.
I now give thanks several times a day. To people whose cheerful or wise spirits uplift mine; to someone who reads my book or even opens a door for me; to family and friends; and to God.
Today I salute writers who have taken the time to read and review A Good Home. There are several, and I thank them all.
One is Anne Day, of the fast-growing Canadian organization Company of Women. Anne, by the way, lives on a farm in the Guelph area and also writes for a rural newspaper called The Puslinch Pioneer. Her review reflects both those perspectives:
Another writer is Anglican Bishop Linda Nicholls. Writing in the September issue of The Anglican Newspaper, Bishop Nicholls zeroes in on my struggle to believe – a very difficult thing to do after injuries left me housebound and in pain – and the people whose own faith helped keep me going.
I’m no expert on faith. But faith, I think, is tied in with hope. And gratitude. It’s not just that faith makes me more grateful and hopeful. It’s also this: when I’m exercising thankfulness and hope, my faith almost always feels stronger.
Thank you, Anne Day. Thank you, Bishop Linda Nicholls.
Thank you all. (You’ll need to click on the column below to read it.)