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Who knows where the time goes?

January 1, 2018

Back in February 2012, in a blog called “Being Bill”, I reflected on the death of the father of one of  my oldest friends. He had been a complex man, and, understandably, rather peripheral to my adolescence, but, on the occasions he had been there at my friend’s house, or given us a lift home from a concert or other outing, his kindness and sociability had left a big impression on me.

Now, Joyce, his wife, has died, and I am left to consider the loss of both these  adults who were an important part of my childhood, and in the establishment of my lifelong friendship with their son, his siblings, and the succeeding generations of a family.

Joyce had not been in the best of health in the last few years, dementia encroaching on her relationships and the feasibility of independent living, so there are comforting words available to describe her passing – a release, a relief, a long journey completed. They are all true, and do carry an element of comfort, but fail to assuage the knowledge that a life has ended  and the love she gave and engendered has moved into a different reality.

Whereas businessman Bill was frequently absent from my pal’s house when I called round, Joyce was always there. She was younger than my own mother and I saw her as a highly glamorous figure – in looks and style and demeanour. As a teenager I was very shy and often going to friend’s houses was an ordeal for me – I never knew how to address their parents or family, and was always unsure if my behaviour was appropriate for a guest.

However, alongside her attractive poise, Joyce possessed the skills of hospitality to put me at my ease, and steered a careful balance between providing our group with tea and biscuits, and leaving us to our own 60s devices – with loud music emanating from a darkened living room. We aways looked forward to going to Steve’s, never really pausing to recognise that the presence of five or six music listening teenagers in the front room rather sidelined the normal routines of the house. She was always welcoming – and knew us by our bizarre nicknames. I got off quite lightly with “Jock” in a company which included “Rat”, “Worm”, and “Cube”.   However, one of our teachers had mistakenly identified Steve as a lad called “Sid”, which naturally we had adopted with delight,  and Joyce would always correct us if we referred to him thus in her company. She was no less pleased when we went through a phase of calling him “Fred” after  discovering that was his middle name. Oh the wit of youth! To Joyce, he was always “Stephen” or “Ste”.

However, Joyce was remarkable.

Not in terms of fame or highly rated public success, nor even in terms of being different to others of her generation.

Though my mother and her were very different in many ways, they shared a similar background. They grew up  in a Liverpool Irish Catholic community which was dealing with the emotional and physical ravages of the second world war. Their Faith gave them the positives of love of neighbour, compassion and acceptance of hard times – but it also produced a generation which was repressed, and in possession of a sense of duty and responsibility – particularly in family life – which at times must have bordered on the  overwhelming.

Joyce brought up four very different children, giving each of them her love, attention, and support. For her generation, the sixties must have been a bewildering time. After growing up with the phrases “after the War” and “if we are spared”, they were to find that their post war relief at survival, and the better world available to their children, was tempered by the apparent “youth revolution” – which seemed at the time to seek a different way forward, rejecting the stolidity and calm  that their parents had fought for, looking to “change the world”. With perspective, we can see that the “revolution” was a chimera – a mere pause while the Establishment worked out how to best regain control and resist change – but it must not have felt like that to our parents’ generation. They must have wondered if their efforts  had all been in vain.

When we look back on the journey towards equality – limited though it still is – which women have followed since the sixties, we are often in danger of promoting an unintended corollary: the idea that those women who did not pursue careers outwith the home, or who chose to be homemakers rather than follow their own careers, faced fewer, less formidable challenges.

I don’t believe this is true. Their middle age was caught between the achievements of radical women and their own need to fulfil what many saw as their duty within the family – for, while many women had changed in attitudes, far fewer men had taken a progressive route, and homemaking was seen by most as a women’s task.. I have no idea if Joyce was satisfied with the route she took through life – I’m sure there were moments when, like everyone,  she wondered if there could have been another way. What I do know is that she never wavered in commitment to family. Apart from raising her children and supporting her husband – and as I wrote before, Bill was not always the easiest of partners –she also took care of her own  mother, bringing her to live with the family in her final years. One can just imagine the tensions brought by caring for an elderly parent in a house full of school aged children.

She was a remarkable woman, then, in the way so many of her generation were remarkable – maintaining a sense of what was right in a world which changed and evolved in many different directions. Like so many of her peers, especially the women, she was a rock to those around her, often to her own detriment. The women of her generation are still not properly recognised for what they achieved and for the families they helped to flourish. In a sense that is the story of their lives.

Joyce was blessed to enjoy the love of her own grandchildren, and helped them through the joys and disappointments of adolescence and young adulthood. They in turn loved their nana.

When Joyce died, Steve and his partner  and his three daughters were in New Zealand, the homeland of his partner, and where the two older girls now live. They had been at the glacier at Mount Cook – a place of universal and timeless beauty. Knowing that their nana  had not long, the girls had  brought from their garden a sprig of lavender, which they placed on the moving ice of the glacier to ease Joyce on her final journey. When they were young, Joyce had placed lavender on their pillows to help them into sleep. It was a powerful symbol of all that this remarkable woman had achieved  – that her granddaughters would acknowledge her in this beautiful, thoughtful, personal,  and sensitive manner.

In one of those quirks of this time of year, Joyce died in the final hours of the old year in England, while Steve was already in the new year in New Zealand – a suitably timeless  start  and end to her journey.

Later tonight, I’ll scan through my now digitalised album collection and select a track. I’ll crank up the volume on the headphones and switch off the lights. For a moment, as Sandy Denny’s haunting voice echoes through the years, with that understated but perfect Fairport backing,  I will be seventeen again, and in Steve’s front room, enjoying the unobtrusive hospitality of the woman of a thousand welcomes.

I’ll remember her for her attractiveness and her style, but most of all I will honour her for her strength.


And I am not alone while my love is near me

I know it will be so, until it’s time to go.

So come the storms of winter and then the birds in spring again

I do not fear the time.

For who knows how my love grows

And who knows where the time goes?

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