Every day for the last few weeks I have gone to check on Dorothy, anxious to make sure she’s made it through winter unscathed. And I’m relieved to report that she is fine – as vigorous as ever, in fact. Her slender limbs look strong and healthy, and in between her deceptively sharp thorns are dozens of tiny leaf-buds: confirmation of life returning. One by one they are unfurling into the characteristic, five-leafed sprigs. Initially more pink than green and tightly crimped into perfect shiny pleats, they tremble in the brisk spring breeze but soon turn deep green as they open their little oval faces to the sun’s pale rays.
In case you hadn’t guessed, Dorothy is a rose bush. She is the latest incarnation of the elderly grande dame that once grew where the main terrace now wraps around the eastern end of the house. When Mr Blue-Shirt first started work on the foundations we carefully relocated her to her new home in the dappled shade of the large willow tree in the front garden: we found ourselves unable simply to rip out this battle-scarred survivor of whom we had grown so fond – largely because she so vividly embodies the irrepressible spirit of my wonderful aunt, after whom we named her. Despite the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ she has endured down the years, her tenacity, resilience, defiance and sheer zest for life consistently shine through as brightly as her namesake’s highly-perfumed, vivid pink blossoms.
The real Dorothy (affectionately known to all the family as Dodo) is my late mother’s younger sister: a cheerful, fair-haired, apple-cheeked child with a ready smile set below gentle grey eyes whose humorous twinkle has always been enhanced and never hidden by her trademark glasses. As a young girl she was evacuated from the family’s home in London’s East End to avoid the Blitz and later trained as a nurse and midwife – an early reflection of the compassion, warmth and common sense that characterised a career path which subsequently included teaching, foster care, hospitality and finally care of the elderly. It was also a nomadic career path that, having started in London, then took her to several places around the Home Counties and eventually to several more first in North and then South Devon – sometimes by choice, but sometimes by force of circumstance. Repeatedly overcoming one challenge before moving on to embrace the next, Dodo has moved house more than anyone I know (and that includes all our friends from Mr Blue-Shirt’s army years): getting on for twenty, she reckons, but tends to lose count these days as there have been so many.
As a result, I saw very little of her as a child, which gave her a slightly mystical quality: an apparently free spirit, always seeming ready to plough her own furrow and live life facing forwards. In adulthood, however, I got to know her much better, to understand some of the difficulties she had faced, and also grew to delight in the perfect blend of wisdom and daftness, of determination and sensitivity that helped guide her – and others – through life. For as sister, aunt, great-aunt and even great-great-aunt, she has been a mentor, confidante, champion and friend now to four generations.
Having lost her second husband when she was in her late sixties, some in the family naively thought that Dodo might finally slow down a little and enjoy her retirement; with a life time of caring for others behind her, she had surely earned it, after all. But no. Just at the point when most of her contemporaries were preparing to put their feet up, Dodo flew off to Australia and New Zealand with a girl-friend for a few weeks, and on her return moved house again, this time buying herself a ‘project’ that she single-handedly did up from top to bottom. With undiminished energy she set about wallpapering, painting and even tiling, and when my father cast (misplaced) doubt upon her DIY skills, her typically feisty response was the immortal “You don’t need a willy to hold a paintbrush!”
And with an undiminished desire to grab life with both hands, she also joined a Singles Club and threw herself into South Devon’s dating scene. In no time she found herself a ‘boyfriend’, a similarly fun-loving and convivial septuagenarian divorcee with whom she soon built an active social life consisting (among many other things) of jazz clubs, book groups, fancy-dress parties, travel and eating out: goat curry at the local Nepali restaurant is their favourite, by the way. After a few months’ dating, they moved in together, but continued to pursue their own individual interests in between all their shared activities. For him it was bridge, golf and snooker; for her it was University of the Third Age and voluntary work at the local museum – as well as running two choirs and writing and starring in several W.I. pantomimes.
Then in the autumn of their second or third year living together, when asked by her partner what she would like for Christmas she replied with absolute conviction “A wedding ring!” And so on New Year’s Eve that year they married: she a radiant, elegant and stylish bride; he a beaming, proud and debonair groom – who as man and wife walked down the aisle to The Beatles’ “When I’m Sixty-Four”, the fact that they were both a good decade out by then neither here nor there.
They have slowed down a bit since then, I suppose, but really very little. In fact, it is lockdown that has acted as far more of a brake on their activities of late than health or mobility or any other limitations of old age: with all their fun curtailed and confined to their cosy flat with just TV, email, Skype and Zoom, their main problems have been cabin fever and boredom.
Consequently, Dodo and her husband – ‘Dot ‘n’ Den’ in family parlance – have long been our role models for when we reach our later years: while there is life still to be lived, then live it to the full. So hardly surprisingly, Dodo was hugely disappointed and frustrated that it was with just a big family Zoom call that she could celebrate her 90th birthday the other week. True to form, however, she is already planning a proper party for later in the year…