I present a transcript to an 88-year-old, her story, word-for-word. She is a cross: ‘I don’t speak like that’, she says, before stressing: ‘I didn’t say that’. With a near-blunt pencil, she crosses out chunks of a carefully meandering story, stopping here and there, gathering speed and momentum. She mutters as she scrawls across the white sheets, ‘this can go, and this!’
When she is finished, a few thin paragraphs linger. Where before it was full, fleshy, alive, she reduces it – her life – to bare bones. She seems barely satisfied.
‘Who’s interested?’ ‘Who’s going to read it?’
We have tea and fruit cake. ‘While I can stand, I will still make my fruit cake’. So it is, every Monday morning, she leans on the counter with one hand, while mixing with the other.
At the table we sit quietly, her morsel of a slice, stands in sharp contrast to the generous slice for the guest who gets ‘her words wrong’. Behind us is her bed. It is hardly noticed. Upstairs could be another world away. She has migrated to the lower floors and this is where she will now stay.
On the wall is a black and white photograph. A tall man and a woman gaze at the camera, smiling, happy. ‘My wedding day.’ The dress is unusual: it’s short, crocheted, and she doesn’t wear a veil. Leaning forward she whispers, ‘my second wedding.’ She looks around the empty kitchen, checking, and lowers her voice even more: ‘my first husband killed himself. Never knew why.’
She is still looking at the photo when she breaks the silence. ‘I’ve still got that dress.’ I am sent on a mission to another far off space upstairs with clear instructions: I am to collect photo albums and a cardboard box in the ‘middle wardrobe on the top left’.
Tea cups and plates are removed. A dead moth sits on top of the albums. Inside, chapters of her life are revealed, page after page: sitting on her father’s knee, the school photo, working on the farm, holidays. One image fades into another, eliciting more stories, more colour, description.
And now the box. ‘I haven’t looked at this in a while. I suppose the moths haven’t got to it?’ She stands, brushing away any offer of help. ‘I’ve got to do this myself’. The lid comes off easily, and for a moment she is still, looking at the tissue bundle. She reaches forward, takes out the bundle and starts to unwrap. THE crocheted dress is revealed. It is pink. ‘I couldn’t wear white again, could I?’ It is surprisingly heavy. She holds it against her body, swaying. ‘I wore it often after the wedding. Wish I could put it on now’.
It’s time for more tea and I am ushered upstairs to once more pack her memories away in a place she wants them to stay – for now.