Yesterday, I took the three minute walk from my house to the Skerton Methodist church for the burial of Olive Newby, 91, who had died a week earlier. Those who are famous have full churches for their funeral; in Olive’s case, those who were present were mainly family … and me. Most were well past 50, except for the grandchildren. No great grandchild was present.
And it was a great honour to have been invited. I first met Olive in September 2003. She has been the only person I’ve regularly visited as a volunteer for our local social services. Actually, Olive never knew that she provided some rare routine in my life. I used to visit her every Thursday for two hours, then for an hour, then it became every fortnight.
By my second visit, I knew that I wouldn’t ever want to stop visiting. I learned so much from her. When second son Colin read her eulogy yesterday, nothing was new to me. She told me of being born in Barrow in Furness, of living with her family in Park Avenue, then moving to Lancaster after she’d become an upholsteress, to work in the then famous Wearing and Gillows furniture factory, of getting married to her first husband who died in the 70s, of living 14 years alone, before remarrying. She told me of her old house in Morley street, (not too far from where I’m now writing) of her dog, of how her first husband had died just after coming out of an OAP meeting, of the fact that he was chair, she was secretary and first son Steve was treasurer, (I’m sure he was the youngest treasurer of any OAP meeting). But she told me more; her dad had worked on the Titanic, wow! He’d even traveled on it from Belfast to Liverpool, finishing the stairs, before the ship moved to Southampton for commissionning and maiden voyage. The rest, as they say, is history. . So, next time you watch the film, look carefully at his handiwork. She told me of living through the second world war, of air raids over Barrow, of how much she’d wanted to work in Gillows, of starting work and stopping when she got married.
How do you measure greatness. Olive didn’t star on television, but she was such a good upholsteress that her boss asked her if she could get others from Barrow. She invited her good friend Eleanor over, so their friendship could continue. How do you measure popularity? Because she was married to a much older man, (they met when he was a widower with a teenage daughter) she was in the OAP group even before she could officially be called a pensioner. Yet, she was secretary of the group until she could no longer perform the tasks.
Olive liked to tell me of how many twos she had in her life. She had two brothers and two sisters, two sons, two step daughters, even two husbands. She recorded events in a series os short poems. You might think they ere insignificant, a christening, or perhaps a pastor’s comment, but she proudly read her poems to me from her scrapbook. When I first met her, she was nearly 88, but she still did the crosswords, loved her children’s singing and went out every week with other older ladies and gentlemen.
But even then, it was already getting difficult. The first change I noticed was when in January 2004, Steven came to live with her. She didn’t like it at all, she felt that her family was taking her independence away. Who would have blamed her? She’d lived such an active independent life before, and after the death of her second husband, she’d lived a whole decade on her own. But the family had seen she wasn’t coping, and I soon began to see it too. Soon, she said she couldn’t see enough to read the crosswords. Then, she felt less confident about going out on her weeklhy trips. I pleaded and persuaded, telling her she couldn’t shut herself at home, but it didn’t work. By then, she’d stopped telling me those stories; she’d get frustrated when the right words didn’t come to her on time, and I started to notice that they came to her less and less. Then, I wasn’t sure she could recognize me; she actually told me once that she wasn’t at home and that one young man (Steve) was about to take her home. That’s when, on advise from Steve, I started to cut my visits. It must have been very difficult for him; sometimes, he didn’t even feel he could leave her at home alone.
I learned many things from Olive. Perhaps one important thing I learned was about the transformation of growing old. From parent, you gradually become helpless, relying on family, the state and your medication to stay alive. I couldn[t help thinking that if Olive had died at 75, she’d have had a whole crowd at her funeral. She seemed so active, even among the older people. But towards the end, she hardly went out, couldn’t have made many friends, and so she became isolated. I wanted her to live to be 100, so I could boast about knowing someone who’d received the queen’s telegram.
One day, Steve rang to say he was taking advantage of a social services offer, taking his mum to a respite place and taking a holiday. He’d looked after his mum 24 hours of the day for over 2 years, and I felt he deserved the break. But his next call was to say he was back, and that his mum had fallen and broken our hip or something. She’d be in hospital, she’d have an operation, she’d probably be there for several weeks, but she’d be back. She never came out of the hospital.
Three and a half years is nothing in the life of a 91 year old, so I was surprised when I met all these family members who said she always talked about me. The thing is, I knew all their names, because she’d always told me about them. I could tell them stories too, her perspective on the things that had happened, but it wasn’t the time.
Thanks Olive for teaching me so much. I don’t know what I’ll do for routine now, but I’ll always remember your stories of everyday life, and how you impacted the everyday people you met, … even me.