I rarely put anything too personal on here, but for once I’m going to be different. I hope you’ll forgive my indulgence. I’m always better at explaining my feelings on paper than anywhere else.
One morning last week I woke to a private message on a friend’s social media account. It came from her daughter, to say that her mother was very ill and not expected to last the night. It was the first thing I saw when I woke up.
It shook me, and that shaking became a shattering when I learned that she’d died in the night. It sent me tumbling into the past.
We started out a pen pals when we were still at school, both 17. She in America, me in Leeds. You don’t need the whole tale. It’s probably enough to say that she ended up here, and we married a few weeks before we turned 20. Young, I know, but it didn’t seem that way to us. It seemed…right.
She loved music; the ad she’d placed for a pen pal was in the British music paper Melody Maker, one squarely aimed at fans of more progressive music. We bonded over Genesis’ Foxtrot. It was the first gift I gave her, carefully wrapped and sent to the US for her 18th birthday.
She loved books, too. She went to college to study library science, but dropped out. In Leeds she worked in a library (Headingley with some stints at Woodhouse, in case you’re curious).
Headingley library, back in 1931
In much of our 10 years together, especially living in England, we were just kids. Looking back, we were a pair of sort-of hippies. We had love. We didn’t have much money, but always enough. We never felt poor. There was ample for our needs, which weren’t large back then. Rent, food, books, LPs, the occasional gig. It probably helped that she was good at squirreling away money.
We moved to America, each of us with different reasons to propel us across the Atlantic. That was at the beginning of 1976.
The last time I saw her was in 1984. She stayed in the city where she’d grown up, and a year or so later, I moved to Seattle. A long time after that, I came back to England, ending in Leeds, the place where I’d begun. A nice symmetry there, a mirror to her.
Just a few years ago we became Facebook friends. We started to semi-regularly exchange messages. We talked a little about music, not too much about books. I have no idea if she’d read anything I’d published. She’d been there in the very early days, long before publication. When we were together I was writing each night, sending off completed books and stories and getting nowhere.
It didn’t matter if she read anything of mine or not, really. A few days before her death she’d messaged to say she needed to read a particular book on politics. She still listened to the folk music we’d enjoyed way back when. It was all still a part of her. She still had her passion for things. She remained an Anglophile, she missed the place.
Since her death, I’ve thought more about those old days than ever before. What it was like to be 19 and take off to visit a pen pal in a foreign country. No big preparation, no itinerary, nothing more a airmail letter to say she’d be there the following week. The younger me never appreciated what it took, that’s for damned sure.
I do now.
Until I learned she’d died, I hadn’t realised how intertwined our pasts were; after all, the marriage finished long ago and we went our separate ways. But it never fully ends, does it? And while there are plenty of things in my head, I’m not sure I have the right to feel all these things. The ones really grieving are her husband and daughter and the rest of her family, and my heart goes out to them. A part of me feels I’m impinging on their sorrow. I hope I’m not.
If we knew then what we do now…perhaps it’s as well that we don’t.
We were just kids then, back in the days when it was easy to be hopeful and joyous. Just kids.
I won’t say her name. There’s no need. But…everything we’ve been, all the people who’ve shared our lives have helped to shape us. They’re a part of who we are. We never shake off those bonds, even if we believe we have.