As all the drawers are emptied, I take home each day small files and folders of papers. My mother kept everything. There are cards in wobbly childish writing saying: I love you Granny. There are notes from old friends, from her dear husband, even one from the Spanish Ambassador. (I can’t read the writing, so have no idea what that is about.) I can’t save them all. Sometimes I have to throw away things with words of love written on them. This feels like sacrilege. Do we find love so often that we turn it off the box?
In one of the piles, I find a flimsy telegram. It is typed in the faded capital letters of a lost time. It is very simple. It says: ‘You transformed a sad week into one S and I adored because of friendship kindness and love.’
I remember well the man who wrote that. He is one of the cohort of the great old gentlemen, the ones who remember the war. He was very sweet to me when I was a raw teen, doing the thing that the finest gentlemen do, which is treating me not as if I were a callow youth, but as if I were in fact the Spanish ambassador. (The father of the Beloved Cousin used to do the same thing. I think of it every week. It is one of the great gifts in life, and it leaves an enduring legacy.)
This particular gentleman had polio when he was young, so he was slightly lame. He and my mother used to go to the same dances, in those far-off days when people went to dances. My mother was very shy, and used to find them torture. The grand gentleman was not yet grand, but diffident and with a gammy leg. The more dashing girls found other partners. But Mum always danced with him. She did not care about the leg.
Thirty years after those excruciating social gatherings, he wrote her a telegram about friendship and kindness and love. Thirty years after that, I found the slip of paper, almost transparent with age, which she had preserved in a little leather case where she kept her most precious correspondence.
It’s not a bad epitaph. If someone ever wrote that of me, I should think that I had had a good life.
Not everyone chooses friendship and kindness and love. As the hectic news rolls daily off the presses, it is clear that these simple virtues are not at the top of everyone’s list. They seem so simple and so obvious, almost as if they fall from the sky like gentle rain. But they are not obvious to every human, and they do not simply fall. They, like all the important things in life, must be chosen. They are active virtues, more robust and stalwart than they sound. They are what Shakespeare meant when he wrote: so shines a good deed in a naughty world. They make a difference. They can transform something sad into something adored. I have written proof.