An attempt at something a bit different from me - a story of love and loss...
Although the sign outside the entrance read ‘Sunningvale Retirement Home’, there was, in my opinion, nothing homely about the place. Home, to me, is a place where you feel comfortable and welcome; where you lay down roots, where history is written. Sunningvale on the other hand seemed not so much a home as a waiting room for those awaiting a vacancy in that eternal abode in the sky. The residents seemed happy enough, content with the sub-school dinner meals and seemingly oblivious to the pervasive smell – an unpalatable combination of over-cooked vegetables, industrial cleaning products and decay. Fellow visitors on the other hand seemed to share my agitation. Although I feel bad for admitting as much, every second I was there was usually spent thinking about how much I wanted to leave.
Some days she would just lie in bed, not even acknowledging I was there. On this day however she was sat upright, chatting animatedly with one of the carers. Although the carer turned and greeted me, she did not stop talking – probably recounting some random story to the poor girl for the thousandth time. If I had a pound for each time I had heard the one about the time she met the Duke of Edinburgh then I’d be able to take early retirement. Not that I’d want to if, as the tagline says, Sunningvale is the best that retirement living has to offer.
I took a seat and started to mentally prepare a shopping list for my weekly shop. Beef, pasta...
"I remember it as if it were yesterday, although these wrinkled hands tell me that it must have been long ago as I was just a girl then.”
....eggs, milk, bread. My train of thought broke as I realised that this wasn’t one of the usual yarns.
“The boy in the graveyard - oh, he was the most perfect thing I had ever seen in my seventeen years! I had noticed boys before, of course, but I'd never experienced such a sensation. When he nodded to me it was as if I was frozen to the spot; I wanted so much to speak to him but I had been struck dumb. I wanted to give myself to him; I had never felt more certain of anything, but before we had the chance to meet again the war came and that boy and the rest of his generation went away. All the time he was gone I thought about him and wondered if he had a girl back home. I wrote dozen of letters that were never mailed; I didn't even know his name, just that he had the most wonderful blue eyes and dark hair, and had been placing lilies on the grave of Mrs Lucille Portman, devoted wife and mother, 1887-1938.
The war ended and the village threw a huge celebration for the lads returning, all bunting, singing and tears. There were tears of joy for the men who had returned, though I dare say that on the inside many of them were very different to the boys they had been when they left. Tears of sorrow too, for those who had not come back and never would. I however didn’t cry at all - how could I possibly explain mourning someone to whom I had never spoken?
Months passed and life continued as usual. Although I was not a regular churchgoer, at Christmas my mother begged me to accompany her to mass. Afterwards, whilst mother was milling around with friends in the congregation, I slipped outside for some air. It was then that I noticed a new marble headstone next to Mrs Lucille Portman, devoted wife and mother, 1887-1938. I moved closer until I could trace with my fingertips the engraved text that read ‘Samuel Portman, beloved son of Edward and Lucille Portman, 1922-1944’. In that instant the dreams that had occupied my every thought for the past five years died. I was a woman now, and had to put my girlish fantasies behind me and get on with my life in much the same way as the thousands of grieving war widows. In a way it was even worse for me though - at least they had known the love of their men; I was left with nothing except the memory of him here, in my heart.”
She leaned closer towards the carer, as if to impart a secret.
“But do you know what? I carry him with me to this day.”
Choked, I rose from the chair. She looked at me with confusion.
“Who are you?”
She hadn’t recognised me for months but the clarity with which she had recounted the story she had kept locked inside for over sixty years had made me hope that today would somehow be different. As tears flooded from me the carer gently took my shaking hand and steered me back to the seat. The old memories, so I’m told, last the longest; it was time to accept that the fifty years that we had shared was probably irretrievably erased from her mind.
“Now, Emily, this is Lucy. Your daughter.”
Her face showed nothing, not a flicker of recognition. I continued regardless.
“Mum, its me. Lucy. I was just thinking, would you like to come home with me tonight? The bed is made up ready.”
She shook her head.
“But it must be lonely, here by yourself;" I persisted. "If you come with me I’ll be there to keep you company, and your grandchildren might even pop by?”
“I’m not by myself, love.” She paused and touched her chest. “Did you not hear me? I’ve got Samuel here. “
At the time I had no inkling that that would be the final time that I would see my mother alive, yet in retrospect its seems as if, having spent her entire life teaching and guiding me, the story she shared that day was actually meant as a final lesson. Before then I’d always dismissed the expression ‘Home is where the heart is’ as nothing more than a mawkish sentiment reserved for tea towels or cushion covers. But home, I now understand, is not four walls, a garden, a picket fence, but the destination towards which my mother’s whole life was headed, when her heart would finally be fulfilled. Under the sycamore tree barely one hundred yards from where Samuel Portman has waited for her for all these years, my mother now sleeps in peace, and I myself find peace knowing that she is home at last.