Mabel sat expectantly, in the same chair as the last time I had seen her, next to the window and the table with the vase of fading silk flowers.
Approaching the large glass bay window of Orchard View Residential Care Home, I could see many tired faces peering out, each telling its final chapter of a life now disguised by old age. Mabel looked well apart from the thick lenses of her glasses needing a good clean. She looked tidy and comfortable, and was in good spirits.
Mabel was pleased to see me and sat upright and leaned towards me for our mutual peck on the cheek. Many of the residents slept whilst others stared blankly into other times. With Mabel in her wheelchair, we made our way to the dining room where there were fewer distractions and where voice levels could be raised enough without them becoming too intrusive. I was a man on a mission and couldn’t wait to chat to Mabel about an intriguing hidden note from her past.
As always, Mabel asked how I was and what I had been up to. She wanted news of the family and even the smallest of accounts brightened her eyes. She talked about her family, her nephew, and his family, what they were doing, how her nephew had visited and brought photographs to show her. It still felt strange to hear Mabel exude accounts of her family’s life events.
I had known Mabel since I was a small child but was the type of person you never really got to know much about. She was a loner, independent, proud, loyal, honest and private. It was only for these past few years that her family had reconnected with her: and it was really good to see her face as she talked about her family.
Mabel was very much a part of our family and had always been there since I can remember however, I must point out at this juncture that Mabel was not a blood relative; but was always considered family.
A good friend of Great Grandma Lund’s, Mabel came to family gatherings and was always included when remembering birthdays and family celebrations. Never married, she lived alone in a small back-to-back terrace house similar to the one two streets away where Grandma Lund lived.
Now well into her nineties and unable to walk very well, Mabel had decided to leave her home and to be cared for in a residential home. She had delegated the task of clearing out her house to my Aunt and Mother. It is a strange experience sifting through a person’s life by sorting out their possessions. What to bin, what to keep, what to try to sell for them, and what to give away? There were so many decisions and judgements to make on endless items and on twice as many memories.
Whilst helping out one day, I came across an old toffee tin filled with postcards, lapel badges, old receipts and a rain-hood. Folded up and beginning to deteriorate at the bottom, tucked away in a corner, was a folded piece of paper with some drawn lines evident and in a fragile state. I carefully unfolded the note to reveal a spectacular but torn, hand-drawn copy of a 1920’s One Pound Note. Intrigue overcame me and I was determined to find out its place in Mabel’s life.
The catering staff were still around from lunchtime and kindly brought us a tray of tea and a few biscuits, accompanied by their usual light-hearted script of how much of a trouble maker Mabel was. A dialogue that felt patronising to the outsider but to Mabel, one that brought a smile and expression to her mostly still face and stimulus to her day.
I took out the note from an envelope and showed it to Mabel. “Do you remember anything about this hand-drawn note that was in your old toffee tin?” I enquired.
Mabel peered at both sides, raising it nearer to her eyes and back again. “I haven’t seen this for lots of years” replied Mabel, “I remember who gave it me though… He was sweet on me and used to come into the pub where I worked… He told me that he wasn’t a rich man, but he had drawn this for me and said that whilst ever I kept it, I’d never be a poor woman.”
Mabel spent a few moments deep in thought, remembering and reflecting on a time gone by, 70 years earlier. She went on to tell me all about the time, where she was working, more about her young beau and how his prophecy was true, she had never been rich but she had never been poor.
It was in that briefest of times that my perception of Mabel changed forever. Her short account of the note and its creator had made me realise that Mabel had lived a life filled with stories we never knew. To us Mabel had always been just…Mabel, an elderly lady. The years between our generations had meant that Mabel had always been an elderly lady however, of course there was so much more to Mabel than just her years.
It is only at times like this that you wake-up to the stark realisation that young or old alike, we share much more than we often care to recognise: that the young will become old and that the old were once young. Stories are our common bond; there are stories to be told and stories to be heard. Without them, our lives have little meaning however, without a willing ear those stories are seldom shared, rarely remembered and probably lost forever.