When I first moved to London, I was shocked at the state of student accommodation (at least for my college). However, I was very lucky to find a spacious room with a bay window in the beautiful neighbourhood of Golders Green. I lived in the house with my landlady Betty, who was then in her 70s, but whose love of life, humour and vivacity placed her somewhere in her 20s, very close to my age.
Betty told me so much about her life, her family, about being Jewish, about war-time in Britain. We shared a deep love for films and music, for literature and for laughter. She gave me so much companionship that I never felt lonely in a big city and foreign country for a minute, even though I was going through some personal turmoil at the time. She gave me so much and all she asked in return was that I keep my non-kosher food on a separate shelf in the fridge from hers.
I only lived in her house for 8 months or so, before I set off to do my fieldwork abroad, but we remained friends. I introduced her to my future husband, then to my children. I kept moving around and kept inviting her to my new homes, but she was getting more and more reluctant to travel. We kept in touch sporadically via phone and birthday cards or Christmas and Hannukah. She was not on email, of course, and I gradually lost the habit of letter-writing. Fortunately, I did go to visit her in 2011, just before relocating to France.
This weekend I received a small card in response to the Christmas/Hannukah card that I had sent to Betty in December. It was from her sister, Sybil, to say that Betty had died peacefully in her house in Golders Green in the summer.
I find myself writing through tears. Tears of sorrow for the loss of one of life’s great originals. But also tears of guilt that I have been so bad at keeping in touch, that it took me so many months to find out about the death of a friend. Ah, yes, the usual excuses apply – the distance, the busy-ness, the cost of international phone calls – all those easy little white lies that slither off our tongue like maggots.
But when it comes down to it, there is nothing more important than your friends, than the people you love. Make time for them. Because some day it might be too late.
Bless you, Betty, and thank you. It has been such a privilege to know you. RIP.