I made an old-fashioned kind of phone call today, landline to landline, from England to Germany; it lasted for about three quarters of an hour and will therefore probably be quite expensive. My eldest cousin, and the one remaining member of my family with whom I am in touch regularly - and even that only once or twice a year, - was 79 years old today, and I rang to wish Helga many happy returns of the day.
Nearly all of the call was about getting old and becoming feeble, being less and less able to work around house and garden, and needing outside help. She told me about her ailments and I told her about mine. She told me about her friends getting old and how her once flourishing and active social circle was shrinking and how they now only met for birthdays. She'd even cancelled her own birthday celebration because she just didn't feel up to it. "We can't even meet for dinner", she said, "because cooking for a group is a problem, and even if we could, most of us can't eat large meals in the evening now." Holidays? Too much effort. Children? Too busy leading their own lives. Friends? In the same boat, getting too old to bother. Outings to restaurants or entertainments? Too expensive, too much effort, too tiring. Might as well stay home, where we're comfortable. To an outsider the whole conversation was one long moan, one long tale of woe about the drawbacks of age. We agreed that everybody wants to get old and nobody wants to be old.
You might say 'what a waste of time and money' this call must have been. How depressing. Far from it, I loved every expensive minute of it. We soon swapped High German for Low German, the language of the local area, instantly transporting me back to childhood and visits to aunts and uncles; to the quiet landscape of the Lower Rhine plains, the marshes, meadows, streams and woods; the wide skies with their racing clouds, punctuated by skeins of wild geese, and the white mists rising and turning willows marching along ditches and brooks into ghostly apparitions. In between talk of arthritic knees, sore backs and fluttering hearts I was reminded of the green days when I sat by her, swooning with admiration and envy, as she dressed up to go out with her latest beau, and afterwards pestered her to tell me what it had been like at the dance.
Being without family is like being without roots. There was a time when not having family meant very little to me. There was a whole big world to explore, there were people to meet and friends to make. Brothers and sisters? Perhaps it would have been pleasant to have them, but as I didn't, I didn't feel that it mattered much. Most of the time I am quite happy with Beloved in my cosy little English backwater, but today, when cousin Helga's voice brought the past back to me, I would have liked to know that there is somebody close who could share my memories.
I'd still say, though, that it was no more than idle curiosity which made me look on the net for flats and houses for sale in my home town. My, they are a lot cheaper than comparative dwellings in the UK.