Experience has taught Julie Burtinshaw that there is no greater gift for a writer than the opportunity to spend concentrated time in a place far from the chaos that is a natural function of daily life. It is not a coincidence that her books have been started or finished during the times she has been lucky enough to be at a residency where she can focus a hundred percent on her work. Stepping outside of her everyday life means immersing herself into creativity. One of the biggest benefits of a residency is time spent alone walking and thinking in nature, but she also values meeting new people. In her life as a presenter and speaker, some of her best and most unique presentations were born of ideas she has discovered in unfamiliar places around the globe.
Julie’s great-grandmother was Welsh. It will be an honour to work on her next book in the country she called home, a country that has played a large part in the folklore of her family history.
The Fabric of Time
My Auntie Joan was born in London in 1928. She never married. This, I gathered as a child was her main characteristic. In the disapproving tones of my adults, my dad’s younger sister was “a spinster,” an archaic, and to my young ears, sinister word loaded with negative connotations. In my family, we always pitied her.
Years later, I realized that everything I’d learned about her was a fable. Auntie Joan was well travelled and educated. She’d had a successful career in the civil service before retiring to a small cottage far from the cacophony of London. As I grew to know her, I broke the Myth of Auntie Joan, banning the word ‘spinster from my vocabulary forever.
Like the thousands of rare birds that annually flock to the rich banks of the Deben River, I returned again and again to the Suffolk Coast to see Auntie Joan. But this time, there is no joy in my visit. There will be neither stately homes nor elegant gardens, nor Saxon burial mounds to pique my love of history. On this trip my sole purpose is to find a nursing home for my beloved auntie. I fight the inclination to decline and book my flight.
Alzheimer’s is invisible in photos, but in real life it cannot hide. Auntie Joan has changed. I study her now in living colour. She has my dad’s eyes and his sense of fun. I see my son in her high cheekbones and my daughter in her brilliant smile. Maybe that’s why I find her to be beautiful, even if I can’t find her. I remember the things she no longer can; her sophisticated tastes, her love of books. She used to dress with such elegance. She used to be an avid reader. She used to be so much more: adventurous, a skilled gardener, an expert at crosswords, a whiz at puzzles, a pianist, a singer, someone’s girlfriend, a dog-lover, a world traveller, a devoted theatre goer; my enigmatic Brit from across the ocean who never once forgot my birthday. Now she struggles to remember who I am.
Small blessing: Her cloudy eyes still crease up when she sees me. I wonder if believing in something might lessen my burden. Woodbridge is a small town in Suffolk teeming with grand and ancient churches. I search for comfort from the Protestant God, the Catholic God, the Baptist God, but get only a sense of sadness each time the church bells ring the passing of time, each time the tides wash away the bird tracks in the sand.
Small blessing: Most days I am too busy to notice time fly. Auntie Joan is on the waiting list for several care homes. Her best friend acts as driver and tour guide. We visit home after home. I clutch a long list of questions: What is the average age of the residents? What is the gender spilt? What about staff turnover? Snacks? (Auntie Joan has a sweet tooth). Are there fieldtrips? Bedtime rules? Can she bring her own furniture…?
We visit many homes, finally deciding on one. We put a deposit on a lovely, spacious room; French doors open onto a private patio. There is a bird feeder and birdsong lifts the midwinter gloom. Beyond, an English Garden promises blooms, the buzz of insects and a fragrant spring just beyond our reach. The current resident, an elfin lady in purple slippers greets us with an ethereal dance. There is a hair salon and a massage parlour. There is a classically trained chef and fresh flowers in every room. It is perfect. A move-in-date two weeks hence is agreed upon. On the drive home, I try to talk to my Auntie Joan about her move, but she has already lost the immediate past and has no concept of the future.
That night I cry myself to sleep. Not because the home isn’t ideal, but because the fresh-cut flowers fail to disguise the smell of death and because I know that the availability of Auntie Joan’s room depends upon the looming death of the elfin lady with the purple slippers and musical memories.
It’s not easy caring for someone lost in dementia, but when that person is someone you love it’s relentless. The daytimes are long and tedious. Looking after Auntie Joan is a bit like babysitting my two-year-old grandson, but he is cute and cuddly and small. I can pick him up if I have to. Auntie Joan is a grown woman with the mind of a toddler. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to moments of defeat. Painfully, I learn the value of patience. As the days tick by, I amuse myself reading the headlines in the English Dailies, craving distraction; a glimpse of Princess Kate or Baby George. I am hungry for the banal. The make-believe world of The Daily Mail is easier to accept than the one I’m living in.
Auntie Joan exhibits many of the symptoms of advanced Alzheimer’s. Some of them make me crazy. She likes drawn curtains and dark rooms. Everything must be in its place, but nothing has a place anymore. TV, volume blasting is a new addiction. When I’m at my wits’ end, I turn it off and read her the headlines. If I speak loudly, I can hold her attention for a while. “The Knackered Mothers‘ Wine Club,” I shout, or “Forget Adultery, the Worst Threat to Marriage is Clutter,” or “How Throwing Away Your Saucepans Can Delay Menopause.” “What about this one,” I yell. “Do Squirrels Hold the Key to Preventing Alzheimer’s?” Auntie Joan smiles. “Well done, Robin,” she says. The headlines, like her are nonsensical.
Some of Auntie Joan’s behaviours are more endearing. She’s always appreciated fine wines and enjoyed a before-dinner sherry, but never to excess. Now, left unsupervised, she’ll cheerfully empty a bottle. My attempts at curbing her thirst are ineffective. Although she loses track of most things, her ability to sniff out anything grape-based is remarkable. She’s wily too, pilfering the liquor cabinet only in my absence. I don’t have to be gone long either. If it weren’t for the used wine glasses I find squirreled away in cupboards, behind curtains, under chairs and in closets, her secret would have been safe. Initially, I try to be vigilant, but in the end I monitor her intake with care. I have no issue with her tippling. It relaxes her and besides hasn’t she earned the right enjoy a drink in her twilight years?
Yes according to the Retirement Homes we visited. Vancouverites, living in natural bliss in the Land of Rules and Regulations will appreciate a refreshing break from Government Directives when visiting Britain. There are dogs in pubs, and alcohol in grocery stores. Drivers park where convenient, even on sidewalks. Transit users are expected to ‘Mind the Gap’ and there is a dearth of security fences separating footpaths from unstable cliffs. It’s a bit Darwin, I suppose, but it suits me.
And, at 11am and 4pm, British Retirement Homes offer occupants a shot of liquid comfort in the form of “The Sherry Cart.” Along with a choice or red or white wine with dinner, elderly Brits can enjoy a glass of fortified wine before their meals. My Auntie Joan’s new home has a fully stocked bar for ‘Residents Only.’ After lifting my jaw off the floor, the nurse explains to me that “sherry before meals helps to create an appetite and wine with dinner relaxes residents before bed. It’s common sense,” she adds. “ It’s that or sleep aids in the form of drugs.”
My Auntie Joan may not remember recent or current events but she can recount incidents from her youth with the precision of a B-17. With my hand clasped in hers, we journey backward through time to the deaths of her youngest siblings from Typhoid fever. We wipe away tears as we witness my Uncle’s 21-year-old body plunge from the skies above Singapore in WWII. I mourn the dreadful loss of all the English boys; captured with Kodachrome grins; buried forever in French soil.
Through my Auntie Joan’s eyes, I understand why my father immigrated to Canada and how music saved him from the demons of public school and a family devastated by war and sickness. I learn of a ‘family seat,’ a baronetcy and an MBE. English history becomes my aunt’s story and her story becomes mine.
Our story leads us through stately homes and English Gardens. Together we cycle through 1950s East London on the shoulders of midwives. I experience too often the gut-wrenching agony of opening a letter that begins with the words, “Deeply Regret to Inform You.”
But mostly I experience love – the kind that Alzheimer’s can’t erase. I know that when I next return to ‘England’s green and pleasant land’ my auntie’s blue eyes will crease up when she sees me. Why? It’s simple. Our memories are written in blood. Events might fade, but love will endure.