I just want to sing the praises of Deborah, who has just spent a week staying with me. Why should one wait till someone is dead before publicly appreciating them?
We have led very different, almost separate lives. When I returned, aged eight, from my long sojourn first in hospital and then in a TB sanatorium, my poor younger sister and brother – Deb and Dan – had to put up with their lives being disrupted by a cosseted big sister they did not know. They continued to play together, while I either ignored them or bossed them around.
Deborah followed me first to grammar school and then to Oxford, in both cases with better academic results, but less confident socially. Sixty years on I remember with little pride my unwillingness to take her along to my youth group and when she turned up at Oxford (taking a year less to get there than me) I made little effort to involve her in my social life.
Deborah was always kind and I remember her sitting up the night before Chris and I got married, painstakingly making my wedding dress.
She is also clever: she followed Oxford by several years as a social researcher, first for a professor at the LSE and then in the DHSS (Department of Health and Social Services). And she has always read widely and retains a phenomenal range of information. (I was the only non-reader in the family)
Then she dropped out – without telling the family – and became a gardener, something she still does when not looking after my grandchildren. I don’t really know why and nor have I ever asked her, for Deborah is a very private person. I do remember her describing clashing with her boss over how to quantify sickness, refusing to accept his notion that there could be objective statistics.
So, clever, kind, private, very principled and, it has to be said, increasingly eccentric! There is a dignified determination in her complete indifference to what the world thinks of how she looks (invariably wearing large gardening shoes and crumpled raincoats – often at the same time wearing a lovely necklace which once belonged to our mother). I won’t get started on the subject of her large Edwardian house. The sitting room is best described as a furniture store, the kitchen uncomfy, the electricity not working in the loo, and no central heating. In fact a giant building project waiting to happen. Partly the result of limited resources, partly principles, partly indecision and as usual, partly generosity. (She provided a home for my brother for a few years before he died and her attic is/was full of my family’s possessions).
My grandchildren have experienced all these qualities, as for the past eight years she has looked after them, one day a week in each house. She may lose keys (me too!), take them on the wrong underground or leave ballet things behind. But they know how much she loves them and have benefited from her wide knowledge. During a FaceTime session on Christmas Day, Maddie aged four, ignored me and cried out in pleasure “Deborah!”
It was Deborah who nursed my mother in her last two very painful years, gave a home when he needed it to my brother, and came to Montpellier when I had cancer to let the girls get back to work, and to be with me during the most unpleasant weeks.
Here she was again this year coming to spend Christmas with me. Given my postponed release we in fact had only a few hours together each day. In one week she cooked two big Christmas meals, tidied my garage, cleaned windows and absolutely thrashed me, day after day, at both Boggle and Scrabble!
Postscript. Deborah, on reading this, reminds me that obituaries invariably tell you more about the writer than the subject.