I met Josephine just over three months ago. We’re friends now, and I drop in on her weekly for a bit of chat and gossip. I enjoy our visits tremendously — so much that a thoughtful sadness overcomes me each time I walk away from her front door. I find her seemingly “normal” life (whatever that means) to be captivating but distant in a way that makes me want to know more about her.
The thing about Josephine is that she is much older than me. Born in 1918, she was well into retirement by the time I was born. She is 94-years-old, a widow for 10 years. While she can’t manage to lift her feet past her front doorstep of 65 years, her mind has not slowed down in the slightest.
I think of her and her anecdotes often, even now as I am sitting in a cold room. How lovely it would be to be able to film her glorious accounts, to preserve and share them. Her stories are tragic and beautiful, and that combination fills me with enthusiasm and hope.
One cold morning in 1933 she was cycling to school when she noticed that her little dog had once again followed her to school. Having been scolded the day before by the headmaster for the same reason, she was earnestly “shooing” the dog away when a young man who saw her plight offered to walk her dog home.
“What would my mother have thought, had a strange man shown up at my doorstep with my dog?” she wondered. “That would have been frowned upon.”
She ultimately turned down the offer, but three years later that strange young man would court her and they would eventually marry. Her courtship with Charles was very sweet. They would write letters to each other and often sit and read on a small wooden boat in a nearby river, trees romantically draped over them.
“There was never any of that necking nonsense that goes on these days,” she said.
“We actually sat together and read together. I remember those times fondly.”
How lovely it sounds to me. It is miles different than my whirlwind courtship with my other half.
Fast-forwarding to 1941 and living a married life in Oxford, Josephine describes it as “a difficult time.” Her son was born that year, in the midst of World War II, at a time when everything was rationed.
Coupons were allotted to purchase items such as cloth diapers. With only enough coupons for one diaper, she just had to cope and make do. She made diapers out of whatever she could spare. You couldn’t find things like that in shops because “shops were completely bare. There was no food. Everything was rationed.”
She coped and got on with life, though she says that during the war her “tummy was always rumbling.”
Just back from the hospital with her newborn, the army knocked on her front door in search of metals to melt down for machinery and arms. They took all but one of her pots and pans. They even stripped the metal gate around her home. They took everyone’s gate. All gone.
“If for whatever reason you were out and you saw a queue, you would stand in it, not even knowing what it was for.” She stood nearly 3 hours on one occasion with her son and in the end was given a small bag containing two rocks of coal. It was a completely different world.
She remembers the cold winters. With no central heating, coal or wood for burning, she sent dear Charles out to cut down the sole tree in their back garden. Having done that, they were devastated when the wood wouldn’t burn because it was too wet. The house itself was too damp and cold for it to dry.
“That was that,” she said. “We waited for winter to end.”
On her back garden wall hangs a stunning wooden branch, from that same tree she had tried to burn, a sort of memorial to having lived through all of that scarcity.
It is absolutely gorgeous. I am not sure if it is the wood itself or the story behind it that makes it so beautiful.
On my last visit with her she told me that being a mom is “hard work.” I sheepishly agreed realizing how easy I have it. My problems, like having to clean my own house this week because my cleaner didn’t show up, are small and I really can’t and shouldn’t complain.
Gabriela is a child of the 80s, former lawyer and now a professional mom to two girls (3 and 2). She cooks, plays, sings, makes art, educates, acts silly, disciplines and tries to enjoy all the highs and lows of being a mom. She is teaching herself guitar and is always on a new diet and exercise routine. Originally from California, she left sunny San Diego because she fell in love with a traveling Irishman.