Exactly a year ago today I held my beloved Norman as he told me he was dying. Two weeks later I kissed him goodbye for the last time. I will always be grateful for that two weeks I had with him; for the love we shared. About a year before that I wrote the post below in Purity’s blog and shared it with him. Though we had been incredibly close my whole life, being Scots we rarely talked very openly of what we felt for each other. We did after I posted this. And we did those two weeks. And I am thankful to this day we did, for no one should die without knowing how very very much they were loved.
One of the nicest things about getting older is reconnecting with things from one’s younger days: memories swirling as the trigger (a song, a smell, the feel of some material) rushes you backwards and forwards through time; remembering who you were, who you imagined you would be; contemplating who you are and who you hope to be.
I had an aunt and uncle, my windows on the world. They were glamorous and well travelled: both worked in TV. We would stay with them for a few days every year, their house a treasure trove of ideas, music, imagery. They were everything I wished to be. Where my parents filled us with strong tea laced with vast quantities of sugar, they offered coffee, no sugar. Not instant coffee. Real coffee. From beans ground in front of us kids, who until then had been wildly oblivious to the idea that coffee ‘came’ from anywhere apart from a jar. They had cheeses that bore no relationship to the disgusting bright orange sweaty chunks of stuff that passed for cheese in our house. They served bread that came in large chunks torn from loaves that came whole, not pre-sliced, and that had (shock!) both texture and taste – so unlike our own dear ‘pan loaf’ in its plastic wrapper, as wilted and pale and badly nourished as a Scots kid in winter in the 70s. Their shelves were filled with books, with authors whose names clearly signified otherness. Well worn Penguin paperbacks sat side by side with exotic looking books about art, music, books not even written in English. I was a kid shyly ecstatic in a sweet shop of ideas, of possibilities.
I slept on a camp bed in my uncle’s study, surrounded by things and ideas that kept me up night after night, quietly uncovering a world I could never have imagined. My uncle made documentary films, work that took him from Soviet Russia to apartheid South Africa to Chile. If downstairs was the world of beauty, of pleasure, of delight, his study upstairs was the world of of life’s cruelty and pain and suffering. In scraps of scripts for his films, in piles of newspaper clippings and photographs, letters written in unfamiliar forms, the realities of so many of the world’s population came alive to me for the first time. At first as I secretly explored this world I was horrified; suddenly my gray world of sweaty cheese and wilted white ‘bread’ was a haven when contrasted the townships of Soweto, the Samizdat cellars of Moscow, the football stadiums of Chile. But as I explored further, another story emerged. A story of resistance, of the power of beauty to help us face those horrors, of the incredible strengths that lurk within all of us.I don’t know if my aunt and uncle knew what was happening to their naive provincial niece. They did however help me navigate this strange and scary journey with their willingness to answer questions, to talk. For the first time I learnt that asking questions was alright. For the first time I learnt that thinking, having ideas, defending them, was not just an irritating habit but a requirement for life, for passing into adulthood, and in some instances, for survival itself.
I also learnt in those early years that whilst a beautiful mind and spirit may not always triumph (the stories of Victor Jara and Steve Biko come to mind), knowing that they do exist makes it possible to at least look into the face of pain and see the possibility of hope. And nothing and no-one represented that to the young me more than the voice discovered downstairs in the haven that was my aunt and uncle’s record collection. Miriam Makeba. Mama Africa.
I wasn’t much older than my eldest son is now when this happened. And today I look at him, and wonder when and how he will make his journey. He knows full well that coffee comes from beans, he’s ground them often enough for me. He smells fresh baked bread every morning, lives surrounded by books and ideas and music. And yet, like me, he still has to take this other journey, to Conrad’s ‘heart of darkness’ yes but hopefully beyond too.
My aunt died some years ago, but my uncle lives still in that house. I think it’s time my son spent a few nights in his great uncle’s study.