Though I am of necessity to all things English born with my mother being a native of the British Isles, yet having just returned from an unexpected visit to England, I have to admit, I could not wait to get back to Charleston. Granted, this visit was not a pleasure trip. I was in a new, modern,”sculpture” town visiting my Auntie Edie Breyer in Princess Alexandra Hospital, where she lay after a stroke last Wednesday after 98 years of living on her own in another village. There in this new, unknown town I stayed for five days in a modern hotel, it being the nearest to the hospital, though a 45 minute indirect walk through busy traffic. I carried my old brown wicker English shopping basket to and fro containing my Sainsbury edibles, my books, extra cardigan, and wallet, looking more English than the English. After walking through a roped off rape crime scene the first day, an essential part of my route, it took me a few days to decide to be my effervescent self and greet people with “Good Morning”. The English in this town do not look you in the eye or offer greetings. There is a wariness and unease. I found, however, that as I greeted each person on my routine walk each day, their old habits fell into play. The ladies in particular would return with a cheery “Good Morning” and a smile as if remembering that all was well with the world after all; however, the men would glance furtively with their eyes, not turning their heads, as if to say, “Do I know you? I don’t think so.” Returning from the hospital to my hotel after dark each evening, I left off greeting.
The new middle to low income housing in England is an attempt to make living more human scale without highrises. But I am from Charleston, which as a Gullah “Weggytubble Lady” with her wheel barrow said many years ago,” Cha’ston keep all t’other places from seemin natchal.” There was nothing historically comely to rest the eyes upon architecturally. I am spoiled having in Charleston a daily feast visually on every street. My mind would retreat to the Charleston scene of the etched glass door at 5 East Battery, my friend, Francess Palmer’s home, which has been in her family for three generations. I pinch myself every time I see my reflection in the glass with the morning sunlight dancing on the harbor reflected behind me. As part of my morning routine on a tour, I go to this preserved home on the Battery with my guests. I have never taken it for granted. Being in another daily routine in an unromantic part of England, put me in someone else’s shoes for a week of my life, a self imposed fast of all things aesthetic. Now I have the actual daily experience similar to many to contrast with what I bring visitors to share every day with me in Charleston. I always hope that visitors will take mental flash shot images of Charleston to which to return when in the daily, dull routine of life, a place of serenity from which to draw, to retreat and refresh. I found myself following my own advice, dipping in to the images of Charleston, contrasting my daily life to those of this town in England, counting my lucky stars that I get to return to Charleston, where as Rhett Butler said, “There’s still grace and charm left in the world.”
My thanks to the few people who were kind and understanding though disappointed to miss my tour. I am glad I went, though it was a hard trip. My Auntie Edie’s mind is still there, though she cannot speak. I did finally decipher some of her scribble with her left hand. The first word she wrote with great effort was “pay”. She wanted to pay for me to have gone to the trouble and expense to come visit her. She nodded her head vigorously, thrilled that I got it! But of course, there was no pay necessary for the duty of love and family. Pointing out my diamond wedding ring convinced her not to worry. The next she scribbled was “Go to Loo”, quite an ordeal for a stroke victim of 98, but with help from the wonderful staff, we managed to get her there three times that day. The major literary work she had been trying to write, I finally got the last day. “Tell (Auntie) Pam to feed Tara (her beloved cat)!” as if she would not know to be doing that. Auntie Edie never married. She has lived for her cats as she said once I live for my children, knowing their likes and dislikes, as no one else can.
Reading by her side to her The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, her favorite of CS Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, singing hymns from the 1916 little black Bible with Church of Scotland hymnal in the back, cleaning her nails and giving her a manicure, and getting her using manipulatives from the physical and occupational therapists’ “gym” next door became the highlights of our days together. She would conduct music as I sang, using her head to keep time. With her good hand she would applaud onto the lifeless hand. Though in a stroke ward with open doors and windows where sound traveled, no one ever complained of my singing. The tunes and words brought back old associations for others I could see as one lady smiled and looked contented and another made inaudible sounds fervently praying along. There are four stroke patients to each room. One attractive lady never gained full awareness, sleeping always. They are ministering angels, the staff who work with these stroke victims daily, unflaggingly patient, showing their kind hearts that drew them to this profession and the Judeo-Christian heritage of hospitals in the United Kingdom. And yet, it takes a loved one sitting by their side to attend to all the difficult to communicate needs. The staff does not have the time to spend to figure out what each is trying to say. Being there to “translate” helped. It was a maternal instinct to drop everything and go, an indebtedness to Auntie Edie as the eldest member of our English family and her hospitality to me in my staying with her in my early years of travel and study in England.
Though I was desperate to see my husband, children and Charleston again, I wept when I left her, such is the debt of gratitude I owe my mother’s half sister. She was only 7 when her mother died. Twenty years after her birth and her father’s remarriage, my Auntie Pam and my mother were born. Out of these unexpected extra children has come help for the present for this century old spinster, who would have been otherwise alone in the world.
If you have loved ones in hospital or a nursing home, store up for yourselves treasures in heaven where neither moth nor rust corrupt, nor thieves can break in and steal, and make it a part of your daily routine to visit and stay by their side. “Though the way be cheerless, I will follow calm and fearless.” No matter where we live or what our daily life is like, we have so much to be thankful for if we have our health and faith. We can break up the monotony of those who are in prison in their own bodies by attending to them. God bless those who already do this act of charity or are caregivers at home. “Whatsoever you do to the least of these, you have done it unto Me.” I see The Holy City of Charleston preserved as a place of refreshment for visitors who are following the weary and heavy laden way in which they should go, keeping their homeland strong, doing the hard work needs to be done.
“Still the weary folk are pining for the hour that brings release
and the city’s crowded clangor cries aloud for sin to cease
and the homesteads and the woodlands
plead in silence for their peace” — Henry Scott Holland, 1902
I hope you can take some time set apart and see Charleston, South Carolina with me. I look forward to meeting new friends every day Despite this necessary unaesthetic side of England in a hospital, I am exploring taking a group on a tour to England and Scotland next summer . I did it three years ago and have some wonderful new ladies ready to sign up. I will be working out the expenses and itinerary. We will see private English and Scottish Country Houses and gardens far from the Madding Crowd. Let me know if you are interested. You have to have come on my tour first of Charleston.
–Laura Wichmann Hipp-843-577-5896