She sits at the table in her bright, modern kitchen, the phone that has delivered the sad news still gripped in her hand. She is oblivious to the morning sun flooding through the uncurtained windows, the light etching the lines of grief deeper into her face. Her husband finds her like this minutes later, and he knows, instantly, that something is wrong.
“Evelyn, are you okay? Who was on the phone?”
She looks up at him, surprised by his presence. “It was the retirement home. Bob. It’s Dot, she’s gone.”
“But you only saw her last week and you said she was well. What happened?” Bob’s voice betrays his shock. He puts his arm around Evelyn’s shoulders and pulls her against him, giving her a gentle squeeze.
“I know, she was well. They think she died in her sleep. They couldn’t wake her this morning.” Evelyn shakes her head, still trying to absorb the news. She looks up at Bob with a small smile. “They want us to come over and make arrangements.”
“Righto!” Bob is all business now. This is something he can deal with, something practical he can do. “Give me five minutes to get changed, and we’ll be on our way.”
In the car, as the suburban streets slip by the windows, Evelyn thinks about the last time she and Dot were together. She usually took Dot to the shops once a fortnight so she could stock up on bits and pieces, like the Pascalls Eclairs that she loved so much, and her favourite lavender scented soap. Last week, Dot had had an appointment at the pathologist as well, her doctor concerned about her liver function because of the arthritis medication she was taking. She’d come out smiling and joking with the nurse about needing a coffee after the experience.
They’d headed off to their favourite cafe, their pace slow as Dot pushed her walker ahead of her. Her grip firm despite the knobby joints caused by her arthritis. As they’d drunk their coffee and shared a friand, Dot had reminisced about the mischief that she and Evelyn’s mother had got up to as children. Dot was her mother’s younger sister, and the pair had been forever in trouble. Evelyn loved these stories. Her mother had never really talked about her childhood, and Evelyn enjoyed the insight into a side of her mother she’d never known. Her mother had always seemed so reserved and proper, but Dot told her so many stories of the dances they’d gone to, and the boys they’d flirted with, it was like meeting a new friend.
Dot had led a remarkable life. She’d been a nurse, one of the few professions that was considered suitable for a woman at the time. She’d served in both the Korean and Vietnam wars in field hospitals, and was proud of being a veteran. Unfortunately, she’d also lost the love of her life in the Korean war, and had never really gotten over him. Instead, she had travelled the world, working in the emergency departments of hospitals in England, Canada and South Africa. She’d also worked for the UNHCR in Ethiopia, during the famine in the 80s. Dot had told her one day, much to Evelyn’s surprise, about the lovers she’d had over the years, and, how sometimes, that was the only way she’d been able to get through the horrors that she’d seen.
Evelyn sighed as the reality of Dot’s death started to sink in. So many stories lost now. She regretted not asking Dot more about her life, not paying as much attention as she should have when she started talking about the past, of sometimes feeling annoyed at the time she spent with Dot when she could have been doing something else. But, there’d been no one else. Evelyn’s sister lived three hours away, and there was no way her brother would have had the time, he was having his own problems dealing with Sue, his wife, who was in the early stages of Alzheimers. So, it had fallen to her, and now Dot was gone and the past with her.
Evelyn is brought out of her thoughts by their arrival at the retirement home. The director takes them to her office, a rather cramped and over heated brick box, with just enough room for a desk and two visitor chairs. Bob is all efficiency as he discusses arrangements with the director, and Evelyn is happy for him to take control. The director asks them if they’d like to go to Dot’s room to collect some of her personal things, and reminds them that they need the room to be vacated by the end of the next week. As they head to Dot’s room Bob assures her that it will be no problem. Even contemplating the idea of dealing with Dot’s things is overwhelming to Evelyn. She clings to Bob as they head through the lounge area, not even aware of some of the residents who say hello to her.
The director unlocks the door for them and they walk past her into Dot’s room. Bob and Evelyn don’t even notice when she leaves them. Evelyn takes it all in; a bed, bedside table, chest of drawers, lounge chair and bookcase, which holds not only Dot’s beloved books, but a TV and DVD player. It’s hard to believe that for her expansive life, all she has left in the world is contained in this small area. Evelyn sits on the hospital style bed, takes a deep breath, and lets it out. She opens the top drawer of the bedside table and starts to go through it. It holds Dot’s hand cream, glasses, a couple of magazines, her bags of Eclairs, and other assorted bits and bobs. The next drawer has packets of photos, some of them obviously quite old. Evelyn pulls them out and puts them on the bed next to her.
She takes the top packet, which is falling apart, and removes the photos. The first one is of Dot in her army uniform, in the arms of a handsome man, also in uniform. She is smiling at the camera, but the man only has eyes for her. Evelyn flips through the next few photos. They are all of Dot and her man. She knows this must be the man that Dot had loved her whole life, but she has no idea who he was. She checks the back of the first photo, it has the date, May 1951 and yes, names – Dot and Jack.
Bob is going through a large chest of drawers that mainly holds Dot’s clothes, however, in the bottom drawer, he finds folders of Dot’s papers. He sits on the floor and starts sorting through them quickly. Bob is anxious to see if he can find a Will amongst them. In the penultimate folder he finds an envelope, with the name of a firm of solicitors in the top right-hand corner.
“Huh!” he says triumphantly, holding it up. He turns around with a smile on his face to show Evelyn, but it falls as he sees the tears rolling down her cheeks.
“Oh, darling.” He scrambles off the floor and, moving the packets of photos, sits beside Evelyn, pulling her into his arms. He strokes her hair as he makes gentle “shooshing” noises.
After a few minutes Evelyn’s tears subside and she takes a shaky breath. Grabbing a tissue from the box on the bedside table, she wipes her eyes and blows her nose quickly. She smiles sadly at Bob and picks up a pile of photos.
“ I wish I’d looked through these with her. There’s photos of her and Mum here with all sorts of people I know nothing about, and now I never will. It’s part of my family history that’s gone forever.”
Bob grabs Evelyn’s hand and gives it a squeeze. He knows there are going to be some rough weeks ahead as she deals with her grief. His thoughts drift for a moment, to a conversation he remembers having with his brother-in-law. Roger had told him how Evelyn’s sister had a new hobby.
“Didn’t Jillian start doing some sort of genealogy course? Why don’t you ask her to bring what she has when she comes for the funeral. Maybe she’s found some information that will help put names to faces.”
Evelyn smiles and hugs him close to her.
“That’s a great idea. I’ll ask her when I ring to tell her about Dot.”
“Has it occurred to you, sweetheart, that now with Dot gone, we’re the older generation?”
She nods slowly.
“It had, in a round about way. I was thinking on the drive over, as well as when I was looking at those photos, of all the stories that are lost with Dot’s death. I don’t want us to let that happen. And I don’t just mean the important things either, like who’s related to who, the sort of thing that Jillian’s doing, but the funny stories and the sad ones, the stories that make a life. We have a responsibility, Bob, to not let the past die.”
“Yes, we do, darling, and we’ll do it together.”